It can’t be overstated how crucial it was for the Raptors to win on Tuesday night against Brooklyn, their first game back home in front of a full house since mid-December.
After picking up the first half of the back-to-back in comfortable fashion Monday night, Toronto entered Tuesday with a chance to stake a real claim to, at worst, the seventh seed in the rugged East. A win, and the Raptors would put four games between them and Brooklyn, with just 19 games left on the Nets schedule. Plus, the game meant the difference between the Nets holding the head-to-head tiebreaker with a 3-1 edge in the season series, or a 2-2 split putting the next tiebreaker criteria (divisional record) very much up for grabs, with both teams sitting at 7-5 against Atlantic Division opponents. Lose, and the gap woud shrink to two games (more like one with the tiebreaker in Brooklyn’s pocket), with Kevin Durant and Ben Simmons’ returns on the horizons. In short, a three-game swing in the standings and quite possibly a home play-in date was on the line.
Toronto prevailed, 109-108, but damnit if they didn’t make it way harder on themselves than it needed to be. Specifically, a baffling decision by Nick Nurse late in the third nearly swung the game too far out of his team’s reach. Nurse was already walking the tightrope with the game close in the final few minutes of the third, and a unit of Malachi Flynn, Gary Trent Jr., Thad Young, Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher on the court to seemingly close the frame. But after a Nets timeout with the score 77-75, Nurse subbed out Trent — his best shooter, on a night when a long-range zone buster was the team’s biggest need — and swapped in the light-shooting Dalano Banton. The Nets went on a 14-4 run to close out the frame, taking an eight-point lead into the fourth. To complicate matters, Pascal Siakam notched his fifth personal foul with 10:51 to play in the fourth.
Mercifully, Nurse redeemed himself with a lineup choice that saved the game — and maybe the seventh seed — for his team. With 9:23 to go and the score locked at the same 89-81 gap the quarter began with, Nurse swapped Flynn in for Achiuwa to complete a five-man unit alongside Trent, Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Young. Through a mix of swarming defense and timely zone-busting, the group outscored Brooklyn 19-7 up until Siakam fouled out with 2:40 to go. From there, it was more or less the Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. show that carried Toronto to the finish line, with an enormous Barnes block in crunch time serving as one of the deciding blows.
Barnes finished the game with 18 points, 10 boards and four assists on a clean 8-of-13 from the field, scoring on a mix of transition opportunities, sneaky duck-ins as the Raptors dissected the interior of the Nets’ zone, and, well, casually flicking up late clock baillout jumpers with the suaveness of prime Swayze.
He also collected the game-sealing rebound, concluding an all-encompassing fourth quarter that has his finger prints all over it. Apparently though, that wasn’t enough for the Raptors dogged rookie.
“He was getting mad at me any time he was calling a play he wasn’t involved in,” Nurse noted after the game. Barnes is not a normal 20-year-old, man.
Along with Barnes and Trent, who helped put the game away with timely free-throws and some big time work from floater range, Malachi Flynn had a major hand in the youth movement that won Toronto the game. Over 43 spectacular minutes, Flynn poured in 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting to go along with six rebounds and eight assists; his work getting downhill and spraying to shooters and cutters was the kind of pick-and-roll acumen Flynn was vaunted for coming out of college. It’s been a delightful surprise to see him make good on the opportunity Fred VanVleet’s injured knee has granted him — something Nurse noted before and after the game he just did not do when similar shots presented themselves earlier in the year. What’s more, Flynn’s steady play over the two wins against Brooklyn have perhaps given the Raptors the green light to play it safe with VanVleet instead of rushing him back out of necessity. Hell, when VanVleet does get back, the two-point guard lineup appreciators of the past just might be in store for a return to an old Raptors staple.
“He’s staying ready so he doesn’t have to get ready,” said Trent after the game, remarking upon the similar journeys he and Flynn have had on their respective roads to carving out regular minutes.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the return of fans to Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday. Quibble with whether it’s even a good decision or not, public health-wise, but the impact of a full house was undeniable. And as you might have expected from the most endearindly petty fanbase in basketball, the Toronto crowd threw its full might behind booing the living hell out of Goran Dragic in his return to the city in which he played a total of four games (one of his five appearances for Toronto came on the road).
You wouldn’t be wrong to call the basis on which they booed Dragic a little flimsy. Yeah, he said some probably mistranslated stuff about not wanting to be in Toronto in the off-season, and was spotted at Heat games while still under the Raptors’ employ, but ultimately he didn’t really do anything wrong during his Raps tenure. He showed up, apparently connected well with the young guys, and had to the leave the team for a personal matter. When he returned, the Raps had moved on from having him in their plans, and they parted ways mostly amicably.
All that said, the booing kind of kicked ass. All sports hate is inherently irrational when you boil it down. Raptors fans were pent up for months. Let ‘em boo, man.
Nurse had some fun recounting Dragic’s first entrance into the game, which came as Gary Trent Jr. stepped to the line for some free-throws.
“They were booing so much I was hoping they were gonna stop before Gary got the ball ... they were lively, that’s for sure. They really have fun doing that don’t they...” he quipped.
“I dunno why Goran was getting booed, I mean I wasn’t complaining... but I wasn’t expecting that,” chuckled Siakam at the post-game podium.
As you might expect, the reviews across the board were glowing for the return of the fans. And while this game probably shouldn’t have been so close considering the quality of the roster the old ass Nets trotted out there, it’s actually pretty cool that the game ended up a crunch-time nailbiter with a tense and angsty crowd as opposed to a sleepy blowout.
Maybe it’s a desire for drama that spurred Nurse to mess around with that nearly season-swinging lineup call in the third.
Nick punted 10 points at the end of the 3rd to generate fun times.— Daniel Hackett (@dhackett1565) March 2, 2022
Toronto continues its three-game home stand on Thursday as Dwane Casey’s Pistons come to town, making it all the more crucial that the Raptors picked up one of their biggest wins of the season on Tuesday, cause they’re losing that shit for sure.