TORONTO – On the very first Toronto Raptors offensive possession Saturday night, guard Fred VanVleet received an inbounds pass from the baseline, quickly crossed the time line, quickly surveyed the court and found rookie Terence Davis, who was using a Serge Ibaka screen to free himself up after curling around from underneath the Brooklyn Nets basket to the right wing.
This freed Davis up enough to rise up and get his three-point look off, but still draw a foul on the defending Caris LeVert, who ended up a step too slow chasing Davis and could only reach in on him and helplessly watch as the Toronto shooting guard brushed off the contact and drilled the triple with ease.
A four-point play and the game wasn’t even 30 seconds old.
That was how just the second start of Davis’ NBA career began.
Replacing the injured Kyle Lowry in the starting lineup Saturday, Davis immediately picked up where he’d left off Friday, when he exploded for 11 points in the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers, helping spark the Raptors at a time when Lowry was forced to exit due to whiplash.
On Saturday, Davis began the game with a four-point play, then drilled another three about three minutes later and finished the opening frame with nine points and four rebounds (two coming from the offensive glass).
It was a stellar start to a game that saw Davis finish with 20 points, eight rebounds and 5-for-8 shooting from three-point range as the Raptors ran their winning streak to 14 games with a 119-118 win over Brooklyn.
And this was just the latest in what has been a strong run of late for Davis, personally.
Including Saturday’s affair, the 22-year-old is averaging 19.8 points on 60 per cent shooting from the field and 60.7 per cent from outside over his last four games, which, not-so-coincidentally, has coincided with the Raptors, once again, dealing with injury.
Taken as a whole, Davis has experienced a solid, but also typical rookie season in the sense that it has had its share of ups and downs. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see a trend that those “ups” have normally come during stretches when the Raptors have been injured the most.
He had his breakout during the Raptors’ big Western Conference trip in early November when Lowry and Serge Ibaka set the tone of the season, so to speak, going down in the same game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Then, when Norman Powell and Marc Gasol got bit by the injury bug in late December and bleeding into the new year, Davis again managed to raise his level of play.
And now, in these last four games, once again without Powell and Gasol, Davis is elevating his game and looks better than ever.
“Nothing’s changed, man. It’s just work and being ready for the opportunities,” Davis said of the four-game hot streak he’s been on. “When we had the first wave of injuries — this was back [on] our first West coast trip — opportunity came. And then I didn’t know if it would come back around, but I just wanted to be ready and I’d continue to put the work in.”
As has been said many times this season before, the silver lining to the injuries the Raptors have sustained has been the increased opportunity for a player like Davis who likely wasn’t going to get as much chance to show what he can do had the team been able to stay healthy. However, it’s not like extenuating circumstance is the only reason why Davis has been given more chances to prove himself — he’s both earned the opportunities given to him and has the advantage of seemingly having it in his DNA to rise to the occasion when required.
“I’ve always been the guy that plays and when there’s a big moment I’m not afraid of it,” said Davis. “Just by where I come from and the kind of situations I’ve been in, and the preparation. You just have to prepare yourself for those moments. So, it’s just how I think and how I go about it and the confidence is built.”
But while Davis is probably the most visible example, that confidence and fearlessness to step in and make an impact on a game he spoke of can be seen up and down the entire Raptors roster.
This was best exemplified by the five-man, all-bench lineup of Patrick McCaw, Matt Thomas, Oshae Brissett, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher that Raptors coach Nick Nurse rolled with late in the first quarter and much of the second quarter Saturday.
This was a lineup that had only played four fleeting minutes with each other once before in a game this season. But it came out and helped turn the tide for Toronto to build a sizeable lead heading into halftime.
“That group was awesome in the first half, right? They were incredible,” Nurse said. “They turned a lacklustre start to the game into an energetic game and they were great.”
Chief among the players leading this Raptors reserve rout was Matt Thomas, who scored 11 of his 15 points in the second quarter, going 3-for-3 from deep and 4-of-5 from the field in that span, including an acrobatic alley-oop layup that got the Scotiabank Arena crowd buzzing.
“You can’t leave [Thomas], and he’s actually a good cutter,” said VanVleet, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to help Toronto hold for the one-point victory Saturday after blowing an 18-point lead. “He’s a good scorer, man, obviously people love him for his three but he’s a really good scorer. He’s got a knack of getting his shot off.”
In that second quarter, the Nets tried to stymie Toronto with a zone. But because Thomas’ shooting ability (as well as the threat of his shooting ability), they were largely unsuccessful in doing so.
As a result, Thomas played the best game of his brief NBA career, but the credit shouldn’t just go to a failed defensive scheme by the Nets.
No, like Davis has been all season long, Thomas was ready when his number was called.
Two undrafted rookies who played key roles in extending a record-breaking win streak for a defending champion.
Not exactly a new storyline to point out, but still amazing to think about, nonetheless.
It also speaks to a larger trend we’ve seen in regard to this Raptors team all season long. On Saturday it was Davis and Thomas getting it done. And on Monday and beyond who knows who else will step up and meet the task?
“I think it’s just a testament to how hard everyone works on the team,” Thomas said. “Everyone stays ready. We have a very deep and talented team and everyone’s more than capable of coming in and making plays. Also, it just shows the chemistry we have on this team. We’re all so good at playing off each other and everyone plays unselfishly and plays the right way.”