All season long the Toronto Raptors point guard situation has been a problem.
Sure Fred VanVleet has been a problem for opponents but after that? The issues were all Toronto’s. If the Raptors All-Star went to the bench or – as has been the case in three recent blowout losses – hasn’t been at his best, the Raptors weren’t either.
It’s been a jarring contrast after nearly a decade of uninterrupted point guard plenty where Kyle Lowry held down the fort and the Raptors were able to get quality backup minutes from Jose Calderon, Greivis Vasquez, Cory Joseph, Delon Wright and finally the emergence VanVleet to create one of the NBA’s best backcourt tandems.
And against the Brooklyn Nets on Monday night it looked like the Raptors' lack of depth at the position was going to rear its head again.
VanVleet was a late scratch with a sore knee that has kept him out of three games going back to February 10th and seemed to hinder his play in the games he was available for.
Just to rub it in, there was Goran Dragic suiting up for the Nets – the veteran point guard who never wanted to be in Toronto and asked to be away from the team from mid-November on. The Slovenian veteran was finally traded at the deadline, bought out by the San Antonio Spurs and signed by the Nets where he was reunited with his old Phoenix Suns teammate, Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash.
When the Raptors were playing VanVleet more than 40 minutes a game, night after night, because of a lack of a viable alternative and Dragic was posting workout videos from Miami while still on the Raptors books, it all seemed wrong.
The precise circumstances of him leaving the team will probably remain only to be speculated about. The Raptors won’t share what went down other than Dragic had a personal issue – he’s married with a son and his family returned to Slovenia after he was traded to Toronto – that needed attending to, and without a guaranteed role with the Raptors, he left to deal with it. Dragic’s version is that Toronto didn’t have room for him as they went on a youth kick and so why stick around? It’s worth noting that it was Dragic who came to the Raptors asking to step away from the team.
It’s all in the past now – well, until Dragic undoubtedly gets booed when he and the Nets roll into Scotiabank Arena Tuesday night and some thirsty Raptors fans getting their first live action since before Christmas due to the lifting of Covid restrictions voice their frustrations.
Regardless, maybe the Raptors gained some clarity as Toronto – losers of four of their past five and having had their doors blown off in the last three of those losses – showed up at Barclays Center with a renewed sense of purpose, resolve and benefitting from some quality point guard play form Malachi Flynn
The second-year guard has been either on the fringes of the rotation or completely out of it for most of the season but was the surprising starter when VanVleet was forced to sit.
The match-up against the short-handed Nets backcourt suited him as he could switch comfortably between Nets starting guards Patty Mills and Seth Curry and – when Dragic took the floor – could more than handle him too.
It all worked perfectly as the Raptors just hammered the Nets 133-97, making up for the three blowout losses they’ve suffered in their last four games.
There were plenty of contributors – Scottie Barnes was the spark, Precious Achiuwa continues to look like a completely different player than the one that went to Cleveland for All-Star weekend and newcomer Thad Young shot the ball well and is looking more comfortable as a Raptor all the time.
But Flynn might have been the most surprising. He finished with 18 points on 11 shots while chipping in five assists and leaving the game after 34 minutes as a game-high plus-42.
“He played great,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, adding that Flynn’s play during ‘garbage time’ of some recent Raptors blowout losses caught his eye. “… Malachi kept his head up, kept his head in it and when he’s had any opportunities, whether it’s first half, second half, garbage, whatever, he’s played with what I consider some IQ, some toughness, some organization and that’s what led us to that decision [to start Flynn] tonight.”
The win improved Toronto to 33-27 and pushed their edge on eighth-place Brooklyn to two games.
The two teams meet again Tuesday night and the Nets will once again be without Kevin Durant (knee); Ben Simmons (back); Kyrie Irving (who can’t enter Canada because he’s not vaccinated) and Joe Harris (ankle).
The Raptors shot 51.5 per cent from the floor and 18-of-38 from three with a season-high 68 points off the bench.
Barnes was awesome. He led both teams with 28 points and 16 rebounds while adding five steals and four assists. He scored on his first 11 field-goal attempts and finished 12-of-14 from the floor. Meanwhile, Achiuwa had 20 points and eight rebounds – following up his season-best 21 points from Saturday night in fine fashion.
The Raptors entered the game following a day off and with a clear challenge laid at their feet from head coach Nick Nurse after losing games by 32 and 27 post-All-Star break, both losses against teams they are battling with in the standings. With a home-and-home back-to-back against the eighth-place Nets, the seventh-place Raptors had to step up.
“I think everybody is aware of the standings and the importance of these games for sure,” said Nurse. “We’re also aware that we haven’t played very well. That’s got to get fixed too, probably. Those things are not [ranked] in that order. I think it’s more important that we worry about ourselves and not worry about how it affects the 82 games over the whole year.
“[But] we’ve got to hone in and start playing and get off vacation and get focused and play.”
The first to get the message was Barnes who stole the ball off the tip and got fouled on the ensuing solo fast break. He quickly added a three and then sprinted the floor, sealed his man on an early post-up and scored and got fouled again.
“We were just really locked in, really focused,” said Barnes whose aggression prompted Nurse to have the Raptors press and trap for much of the first quarter. “We really wanted to bounce back after losing those first two games. Just really had to bring it tonight, that was the main emphasis."
The tone was set. Barnes didn’t miss a shot for the rest of the quarter and – eventually – the entire half as he joined Derrick Rose as the only rookies to make all 10 field goals in a half in recent NBA history, Rose doing it in 2009 with the Bulls.
But taking the cue was Flynn, who played with a pace and energy that Nurse demands from his back-up point guards and which Flynn hasn’t’ always provided. There was no problem against Brooklyn.
It probably wasn’t a coincidence given that Dragic’s heavy feet on defence were one of the reasons he failed to gain Nurse’s trust in his short stint with Toronto.
Flynn hit a triple and another jumper late in the first to help Toronto to an impressive 42-27 first-quarter lead. Flynn kept rolling from there as he kept pushing the pace, scoring a pair of lay-ups in transition to push the Raptors lead to 21.
There was help elsewhere. Chris Boucher banged in a pair of threes off the bench, Achiuwa continued his impressive play of late as he knocked in a pair of threes as did Thad Young. Combined the Raptors bench – a sore point for most of the season – combined for 28 first-half points and six triples on seven attempts.
Between Barnes's perfection, the bench awakening and Flynn running the show, the Raptors' 71-48 first-half lead was well-earned.
And to their credit, they didn’t rest on it. Even as the Nets went to a 2-3 zone for long stretches of the third quarter, Toronto was able to keep its rhythm. Achiuwa and Flynn combined for 15 of Toronto’s 29 third-quarter points and more importantly helped the Raptors hold Brooklyn to just 6-of-18 shooting and cough up five turnovers.
It was the kind of game Flynn has been waiting to have as he had season highs in minutes, points and tied his season-high for assists in a much-needed Raptors win.
“It feels good for sure,” said Flynn. “But the thing about this league, you've got to do it again. We play tomorrow. But it feels good for sure."
And Dragic? Maybe the Raptors weren’t missing much after all. The 35-year-old with the touch of grey in his hair finished with six points (on 1-of-5 shooting), five assists and a Nets worst minus-24 for the game.