Cavaliers' Mobley tops Raptors' Barnes in early Rookie of the Year battle

OG Anunoby scored a team high 23 points as the Toronto Raptors fell 102-101 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

TORONTO -- No matter how you put it, there’s something special about this rookie class.

Now, we can’t say this is a class akin to legendary ones like 1984, 1996 and 2003, but the early returns have been good so far.

There have been hot starts from the likes of the Indiana Pacers’ Chris Duarte, Josh Giddey in Oklahoma City, and it looks like the Orlando Magic could have a couple of good ones in Franz Wagner and Jalen Suggs -- to name just a few in what appears to be a deep, talented 2021 draft class.

However, even among what appears to be a standout bumper crop of rooks, there will always be those that shine brightest and, so far into this season, the two names that have popped up the most among early Rookie of the Year conversations have been Scottie Barnes of the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland CavaliersEvan Mobley.

And most interestingly about these two fabulous-looking first-year players is that they’re not only doing it on the offensive end of the floor -- where they’ve both been strong, entering Friday’s action as the leading (Barnes) and fifth-leading (Mobley) rookie scorers in the NBA -- but have also managed to meaningfully impact the game on the defensive end, as well.

“I think they’re special,” said Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff of Barnes and Mobley Friday. “You watch a lot of the AAU stuff and a lot of that comes from who wants to score the ball. That’s how you get your notoriety, your Twitter followers up and all that stuff that’s become more and more important is offence -- and it always has been. Like you always get your name in the paper for scoring the ball. But now you have [two] guys who take pride in being two-way players. And it’s a mix of ‘want to’ and the ability to.

"Both of those guys are uniquely framed, they’re mobile and agile and it gives them an opportunity to be impactful defensively.”

Added Raptors coach Nick Nurse: “These two guys, both, the tools and talent they’ve been given, they’ve realized it. They’ve used it as a strength and played with those strengths. A lot of defence starts with the want-to and desire to want to do it. I think they both understand that that’s how they can make impactful and winning plays. So they both do it.”

Perhaps because of this inclination seen from both rookies the initially thought-of ceiling of the respective teams have likely raised. The Raptors came into Friday at a healthy 6-3 and the Cavaliers at 5-4.

In a contest pegged as a matchup between the Nos. 3 and 4 picks of the 2021 draft, Mobley and Barnes, Friday’s game mostly lived up to the billing as Mobley’s Cavaliers walked away with a 102-101 win over Barnes’ Raptors, snapping their five-game winning streak.

Barnes, who returned to the Raptors lineup after missing two games with a thumb injury, finished the contest with 14 points and nine rebounds, while Mobley ended up with 18 points.

“Both really good players. I think really good players with bright futures and you see the size and skill combination they both have,” said Nurse. “They're going to be around for a long time I would imagine, both of them, and just continue to get better. That will probably be an interesting matchup to watch as the years roll by.”

More importantly than the two rookies’ offence, however, was how each player helped impact the game defensively with both checking each other at times and taking turns locking each other up on possessions. Barnes, in particular, impressed on that end of the floor, highlighted by a monstrous block out of bounds in the second quarter on a Ricky Rubio lay-up attempt.

That fly-swatter-like play was indicative of the kind of activity the Raptors illustrated on Friday night, making big plays on defence to help fuel their offence.

In total, Toronto forced Cleveland into 18 turnovers and converted those into 23 points while holding the Cavaliers to just 46.3 per cent shooting from the field and a 10-of-30 mark from deep.

This domineering defence seen from the Raptors saw them in control for most of the game. They led by as much as 15, but in the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers mounted a comeback and pulled within as much as a single point with a little under six minutes in the period to play. Fred VanVleet immediately responded with a long two-pointer that was initially thought to be a triple until official review changed it to put Toronto up 94-91.

Right after that play, Jarrett Allen hit a fluky three to tie the game up at 94-94 with 4:22 left. And then after some back-and-forth play that saw both VanVleet and Anunoby hit some clutch shots for Toronto, the Raptors clinged to a 101-100 lead with 24.8 seconds left.

The Cavaliers had final possession of the game and had three cracks at it. At first it looked like the Raptors’ Gary Trent Jr. had come up with a steal against Cleveland’s Darius Garland, but the ball went out of bounds, giving Cleveland another shot.

It wouldn’t be much more successful in attempt No. 2, however, as Colin Sexton drove into the paint and ended up getting tied up for a jump ball. Then, finally on the third attempt, after Cleveland won the jump ball, Darius Garland got fouled by Anunoby and calmly hit both free throws to put Cleveland up 102-101 with 4.8 seconds left to play and, ultimately, win the game.

On the last possession of the game, the Raptors had OG Anunoby driving to the basket and then fading away along the baseline. He missed the shot, but then Barnes came flying in and looked like he might tip it in, but he also missed before time expired.

For all the good the Raptors’ defence did most of the game, there were moments when they gambled on that end and got burned as a result -- something Nurse said he’ll just have to live with.

“If you look at a game in totality, you’re gonna have breakdowns on defence and if you have one where you’re over-aggressive and sometimes you pay for it, you’re probably going to be okay with that,” said Nurse.

“It’s just when you’re breaking down schemes and you’re not doing anything right, and that happens sometimes, when you just have a bad defensive possession or a series of them. We didn’t have too many bad ones, I think most of those mistakes came out of aggressiveness and that’s okay.”

Ultimately, Friday night didn’t prove to be the electric duel between Barnes and Mobley it maybe could’ve been, but both players were solid and brought it on both ends of the floor. In the end, Mobley helped his team improve to 6-4 on the young season and strengthened his case in the early Rookie of the Year battle between him and Barnes.

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