In Raptors' pre-season debut, Matt Thomas makes his case for a bigger role

Malachi Flynn got off to a solid start in his first NBA preseason game as the Toronto Raptors beat the Charlotte Hornets 111-100.

The Toronto Raptors opened their brief three-game exhibition season with a 111-100 win over the Charlotte Hornets in front of no fans — which might have been only the second strangest aspect of the game.

Toronto gave up a 19-0 run in the first quarter and ended up leading 58-51 at half before going up by 19 midway through the third — a 38-point turnaround in the space of about 24 minutes. Does Gordon Hayward know what he’s gotten himself into?

Anyway, five takeaways from the Raptors' 2020-21 debut:

1. The noise surrounding Lowry is nothing to worry about

It’s not wise to get caught up in any drama tied to what Kyle Lowry does in pre-season. It’s tempting, though. There was a minor stir across Raptors nation when the team announced that Lowry had been granted a "personal leave" and would not be travelling to Charlotte for Toronto’s exhibition games against the Hornets on Saturday and Monday. Lowry has yet to speak to the media and when Raptors rookie Jalen Harris was asked about Lowry’s influence through training camp, he said “we haven’t really seen him much.” So is this Kyle being Kyle or something more?

This is nothing to worry about. “It's basically load management and just, just not really see any need to him on the trip. That's it,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who was left to explain Lowry’s absence without coming out and saying his best player doesn’t really care about the pre-season.

The reality is that entering his 15th season, Lowry understands both what it takes to get ready for a season and how far he can push the envelope with regard to doing whatever he feels like doing, outside of being physically and mentally prepared to do his job. If Lowry doesn’t feel like speaking with the media — something he’s declined throughout training camp — he’s not doing media. If he doesn’t want to go to Charlotte because he’s got a weekend full of tee times in Tampa? What do you think he’s going to do? In the medium-term, it won’t matter.

“Listen, he's in fantastic shape, maybe as good as I've seen him, especially at a start maybe like this,” said Nurse. “He really looks great condition-wise. No worry with him.”

History would suggest this will all be fine. At the start of the 2019-20 season, Lowry was doing a slow-motion holdout during training camp. He was showing up to workout alone but he had no plans to participate in any team activities until he got another year and $31 million added to his contract. He got his deal and in the end played just three of seven pre-season games and none until his extension was inked. It didn’t seem to matter as Lowry played 45 minutes in the Raptors' overtime win in the season opener and then put up 29 points and seven assists in 40 minutes against the Boston Celtics in the second game on his way to another all-star season.

Lowry will figure this out and might even knock a stroke or two off his handicap in the process.

2. A condensed pre-season makes every moment matter to players fighting for a rotation spot

The NBA pre-season typically tends to drag, with seven or eight games spread over a month. About halfway through, it feels like the real games will never come. Not this year.

Like everything else in the rapid-fire 2020-21 season — where the draft, free agency and the opening of training camps were compressed into about 10 days — the pre-season is coming on fast and will be gone just as quickly. Toronto will have just three exhibition games — two on this trip to Charlotte, then hosting the Miami Heat in Tampa on Dec. 18 — before their season opener on Dec. 23. It doesn’t leave much time for the coaching staff to see those outside the rotation trying to get in, so it creates its own kind of pressure. What’s a rookie to do?

“Just capitalizing on each [opportunity] … it's limited games this year, limited pre-season games, so I just think each moment I'm out there, each second on the clock, I just try to maximize and take in everything that happens,” said Raptors second-round pick Jalen Harris.

But there are only 240 minutes to go around and Nurse has a lot of players vying for consideration after the predictable top seven or eight rotation pieces. He started five reserves for the second half against the Hornets – Alex Len, Terence Davis, Yuta Watanabe, Matt Thomas and Malachi Flynn. Harris ended up playing just eight minutes in the fourth quarter and didn’t make much of an impact, which was to be expected for a youngster getting a few minutes in garbage time. Making the most of his time from the crowd just trying to squeeze their way into the rotation was Paul Watson, who had five points and three blocks in his 14 minutes.

3. Flynn shines in small sample-size debut

From the smallest of small sample-size department, the early returns on Raptors first-round pick Malachi Flynn look like he belongs on an NBA floor, like, right away.

The 29th overall pick was most impressive on defence in the early stretches of his 20 minutes. One play in particular stood out, as he squared up Hornets point guard Terry Rozier and stayed with him laterally as the veteran Charlotte guard tried to cross him over and attack the paint from the baseline side. Flynn kept low, kept his feet moving and didn’t reach and Rozier very quickly ran out of real estate and had to take a fading, off-balance jumper that didn’t have a chance.

Flynn started the second half and showed even more. He picked up his second steal and ran the break perfectly – holding the ball an extra beat in order to let Thomas sprint to the baseline corner for a wide-open three. Flynn looks like he’s going to be a threat from deep, too, as he knocked down three of his first four triples. And the notion that Flynn is somehow not athletic should be put to rest as well. He might only be six-foot (barely) and 185 pounds (barely) but he’s very quick and fluid and seems to get even quicker with the ball in traffic.

Perhaps even more impressive than his positive plays were the lack of any negative ones. It’s one game – an exhibition game at that – but Flynn looks like he belongs.

“I throw him in the same group as a good basketball player, you know he does a lot,” said Nurse after the game. “He penetrates, he pressures the ball, he understands where to be. He's competitive, and then you know he's got the shooting component to his game as we saw tonight as well. So again, he's a good basketball player, and that's key. It's good you know you can throw as many good guys out there as you can that understand what you’re doing, and usually that goes a long way.”

4. Despite awful run, Raptors' starters showcase several positives

Apart from a horrible start, the Raptors' starters looked present and accounted for — that's maybe the best way to put it.

Giving up a 19-0 run is never a good thing but any notion that Fred VanVleet’s four-year, $85-million contract will weigh him down in any way should be dismissed. He looked a step ahead, getting his hand on almost any ball he wanted to on his way to five steals in just 17 minutes. Newcomer Aron Baynes was as advertised, setting wall-like screens, stepping into a few awkward-looking threes and even drawing a charge. Norman Powell was trying to do a bit too much and let the game speed him up — it’s tempting to say some things never change, but clearly Powell shook that label last season, so I’m more than willing to overlook his early rustiness. Pascal Siakam knocked down three triples in six attempts, which — given his struggles at the end of last season and during the playoffs — was nice to see.

5. Thomas making his case for a bigger role in second season

The Raptors' best player may have been Matt Thomas.

He arrived as free agent from Europe as a sharpshooter last season and certainly lived up to his advanced billing, as he connected on 47.5 per cent from deep, which would have led the NBA had he had enough attempts (he only got up 99 threes on the season while appearing in 41 games). But he’s looking for a bigger role and more minutes in a crowded wing rotation that features Powell, Davis, Flynn, Harris and DeAndre' Bembry.

Thomas made himself heard as he looked equally comfortable running the offence as he did spotting up from deep. He was effective putting the ball on the floor and creating for others and the threat he presents as a shooter makes him a magnet that draws in defences and creates room for his teammates.

“He's a shooter, obviously, but he's also a good player,” said Nurse. “He cuts and he moves. He does the right thing on defence. He'll get overmatched once in a while size-wise or strength-wise or whatever. But I think for as much as he does at the other end, and his good decision-making at both ends, I’m wanting to lock him into a role this year where he's a big factor."

Thomas finished with 16 points, five assists and two steals while shooting 4-of-7 from deep and was +22 for the night. There’s not much else he can do but keep doing it. If he does it’s hard to imagine Nurse not finding steady minutes for him. There’s just too much to like.

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