Backed by Barnes’ breakout, Raptors find success by sticking to identity

Toronto Raptors' Scottie Barnes (4) reacts with teammate Fred VanVleet after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

BOSTON — On the bus ride back to the hotel from their morning shootaround, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had a quick chat with Gary Trent Jr., his 22-year-old shooting guard.

“We just had a little conversation, he asked me, “Do you wanna start?” I said ‘whatever you need me to do, coach, I wanna do,’” said Trent Jr. “You want me to guard, whoever you need me to guard, I’ll guard anybody. So, went out there, coach had a certain game plan, we executed, we left with a W.”

Yes they did. An emphatic one, as the Raptors erased the ugly memories of their home opener when they set offensive basketball back a couple of decades at least and instead thumped the Boston Celtics in their home opener in TD Garden, leaving with a 115-83 win that saw the Celtics (0-2) booed off their home floor.

Trent was in the middle of it with 20 points on 7-of-13 shooting to go along with a game-high four steals. He was surpassed only by 20-year-old rookie Scottie Barnes who had a career effort in his second career game, showing up around the rim all night and getting on the bus after the game with 25 points and 13 rebounds in his pocket. And 22-year-old Precious Achiuwa did his part as well, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds for his third career double-double.

There was some confusion when Trent Jr. did start in place of veteran Goran Dragic. Nurse said before the game he was going to go with his same starters from the opener but then followed through and had Trent Jr. on the floor for the opening tip.

“Just a last-minute thing,” said Nurse.

However it happened, it was a good call. And about that game plan? That worked out well too.

Boiled down, it came to down to this: Keep doing the good stuff they did against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday — attacking and swarming defensively, creating turnovers, and crashing the offensive glass — and forget that they shot just 31 per cent from the floor.

That’s the plan for the season as a whole — create enough chaos and score just enough to paper over any weakness that a more conventional approach might expose.

And hey, if a promising, 20-year-old rookie wants to have a huge night in the second game of his career?

That would be welcome.

“I thought he was excellent,” said Nurse of Barnes after the game. “What I liked the most was he was at the front of the rim a lot tonight. Put-backs and cuts and drives and that’s what we like to see, be able to use some of that size and length.

“He had a really good game tonight, that’s for sure.”

It was fitting that it was his lay-up in transition off a Celtics miss that put Toronto up 21 with 4:27 to play that finally sent Celtics fans streaming for the exits. They were wearing masks — most of them — but you could only assume they had sour looks on their faces. The way the Raptors play can make your team look bad.

But it was a team effort by Toronto — emphasis on effort. It’s hard work to snare 21 offensive rebounds and force 25 turnovers, box score totals that made up for another night of sub-optimal shooting. The Raptors shot just 42 per cent, a figure that got a boost from some garbage-time minutes, but it hardly matters when you take 18 more shots than your opponents and hold them to 39 per cent shooting for the game.

“We played really hard tonight and a lot of the things that we’re trying to incorporate, we did most of them tonight,” said Nurse. “We got out in transition, we got on the offensive glass, we tipped the ball around pretty good. It was a really impressive defensive effort by our whole team.”

Still, if the Raptors (1-1) are going to get to where they want to go they need to be a little tidier doing something other than scoring off misses — their opponent’s and their own.

They need the likes of OG Anunoby to play closer to his potential and — at least while Pascal Siakam is sidelined while recovering from shoulder surgery — carry more of an offensive load for a team desperately in need of some punch.

Anunoby struggled again. After a 3-of-17 effort on Wednesday he finished with 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting and was 0-of-5 from deep against Boston. He contributed defensively as the Raptors limited Celtics star Jason Tatum to 18 points for the game but just two in the second half as Toronto held Boston to just 36 points on 31.8 per cent shooting after the intermission. But Toronto will need more from him on the other end.

The Raptors’ offensive issues were compounded because Fred VanVleet also had a hard time getting his game off. After a 5-of-20 outing against the Washington Wizards on Wednesday, VanVleet was just 3-of-10 against Boston, though he led both teams with nine assists.

“We talked pre-game that (Anunoby) would put his head down a little more and try to get in (to the paint) and he did that so I think as far as us knowing and expecting what we wanted him to do, he did it,” said Nurse. “We probably got to clean up some spacing issues for him when he’s driving, I would imagine we’re getting in his way a little bit.”

“I think Freddy, the same,” Nurse added. “When they’re switching and Freddy hits the paint, we got some cleaning up to do with what our options are on some of that stuff, for sure, so we can help those guys out.”

But if Barnes is going to play like this, maybe the Raptors’ margin for error gets a little bigger. He hit his first NBA three in the game’s opening minutes and was generally everywhere he needed to be all game long.

The difference between his first game, when he looked a little more tentative?

“Me just playing hard throughout the game,” said Barnes. “it really takes things off my mind and helps me play more free. I felt we moved the ball a little bit more today. There were better opportunities in this game. Sometimes it just led to it being in my hands and being able to score the ball.”

The Raptors’ offensive struggles continued early. They were shooting just 9-of-31 after the first quarter and were shooting 12-of-43 early in the second but, somehow, they stayed in the game. They were tied after 12 minutes and even managed to take the lead despite making just over a quarter of their shots when Barnes took the ball the length of the floor and pulled up for a 15-foot jumper to put Toronto up 27-25. The Raptors wouldn’t trail again.

By the time the Raptors coaxed another turnover from Celtics guard Marcus Smart and Anunoby went the length of the floor for a bucket, Toronto was up by eight. A moment later Barnes picked up a loose ball in the paint after a VanVleet miss and slammed it home and the Raptors were up 10 with four minutes to play in the half, 41-31.

The Raptors’ formula was simple: they took way more shots than Boston. They led 51-47 at half because they had taken 19 more shots than their opponents thanks to a 15-3 edge on the offensive glass and winning the turnover battle 12-3. With those kinds of numbers, shooting 35 per cent doesn’t matter as much.

The season’s young and so are the Raptors. It’s foolish to judge too much after just two games, but the Raptors are committed to how they want to play.

It’s not always going to be pretty. For long stretches of games it might be ugly. But in the second game of 82 it looked a lot better than in the first.

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