In VanVleet and Barnes’ absence, Raptors step up with collective effort

Toronto Raptors guard Gary Trent Jr. (33) protects the ball from Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier (3) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/CP)

In theory the most important moment relating to the Raptors’ game against the visiting Charlotte Hornets came about two hours before the ball went up.

“Fred’s out,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse.

Toronto has had an endless drip of injuries and interruptions to the top of their rotation so far this season, but Fred VanVleet has been the constant. Prior to sitting out against Charlotte with a sore right knee, the Raptors point guard had played in 39 of their 42 games and led the NBA in minutes per game with 38.2, a number that has been edging up with VanVleet coming off a stretch of eight games of 39 minutes or more — the longest streak in five seasons.

The Raptors are 14.5 points per 100 possessions better with VanVleet on the floor this year and have gone 4-18 in the 22 games he’s missed going back to last season.

So, things didn’t look good against a high-flying Hornets team that the Raptors will likely be chasing for playoff seeding all season long.

Add rookie starter Scottie Barnes as late scratch due to a swollen right wrist and Khem Birch (who missed his fifth game with a broken nose) on the sidelines, the Raptors were thin.

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But all those concerns pre-game?

Turns out they were for nothing. Elite NBA players usually show themselves over time – it’s an incredibly difficult league to be consistent in game-to-game, week-to-week or season-to-season.

But on any given Tuesday? The league is full of players looking for a break and a chance to flash their abilities, even on the Raptors where Nurse has cut his rotation so sharply that they rank last in bench scoring.

But ‘have minutes, will ball out’ was the theme against Charlotte, as the Raptors got major contributions from the top of the lineup all the way down to some unexpected corners in what turned out to be a surprisingly comfortably 125-113 win.

“I think [it was] definitely opportunity,” said Pascal Siakam whose minutes load has been nearly as heavy as VanVleet’s and has been thriving as he makes his own push to be named an All-Star next month.

“I feel like I’ve been getting better. I’ve been preaching just trying to be an overall player and I feel like I can do that most nights, just being the best player out there and making my teammates better. That’s the role I’m trying to take on and with Fred and Scottie out it makes it, not easier but you have to do it. The guys played super well and stepped up. We talked about the last game and coming in with better energy and focus. The guys responded and I’m super proud of them for that.”

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Siakam was brilliant, leading the way with 24 points, and a career-high-tying 12 assists. He was one rebound shy of his second career triple-double with nine and was 9-of-16 from the floor and a perfect 5-of-5 at the line.

But there were plenty of contributions from unlikely places, perhaps none more than the crisp 11 points and three assists that second-year guard Malachi Flynn – an afterthought for most of the season – gave Nurse in his 25 minutes. He only saw the floor that much because fellow rookie Dalano Banton picked up some early foul trouble, but Banton kept his head in it, providing 10 points and three assists in his 17 minutes, while Chris Boucher – pressed into starters’ duties – chipped in a seamless 12 points and seven rebounds in 30 minutes.

Both played for Raptors 905 in a G-League game on Monday night.

“I thought they both looked like the trip to Mississauga helped them both from a confidence standpoint,” said Nurse after the game. “They really looked like they had been playing like normally in the rotation. I thought they both fought hard, handled the ball well, made plays, made shots to spark us, too.”

The Raptors improved to 23-22 on the season while the Hornets, led by LaMelo Ball with 25 points and seven assists, dropped to 26-22.

But it was the Raptors workhorses who stepped up as much as anyone. Siakam has been nothing short of brilliant since the beginning of December and proved against the Hornets that he’s as much a part of VanVleet and the Raptors’ success as the reverse. He took command offensively from the opening moments and never let up. Flipping easily between point guard duties and power forward duties, the 2020 All-Star finished with a career-high 12 assists and just missed his second career triple-double while adding 24 points and nine rebounds in 39 minutes.

“I’m getting more and more comfortable,” said Siakam of his role as the Raptors’ second point guard. “I think the more I do it the better I get, like anything that I do. I feel like if I put my mind to it, work hard at it, watch film and get the reps then I believe I can get better at it, and that’s what I’m doing. Just continuing to get better, trying to make reads and just understanding where everybody is out on the floor. Just knowing that I’m going to get the attention regardless, so I think making the plays comes naturally because they’re open most of the time.”

Gary Trent Jr. – who was miserable against Portland on Sunday – was letting it fly like only six guys had shown up for his men’ league game and helped the Raptors get off to a strong start with 13 first quarter points on his way to a season-high 32 points, while OG Anunoby added 24 points and seven rebounds.

The Raptors started the fourth quarter with a 19-point lead, but things had looked dicey in the third as the Hornets started the quarter on a 14-2 run that cut the Raptors’ lead to three. But Toronto didn’t panic, even without the calming presence of VanVleet.

It was rookie Banton who stopped the bleeding as he snaked a pick-and-roll and hit a 15-foot jumper, flashing that G-League confidence. Chris Boucher – who has also found his game of late coming off the bench but started in place of Barnes on Tuesday – nailed a three and the Raptors later used an 11-2 run to keep Charlotte at arm’s length

Anunoby walked into a triple from the top of the circle early in the fourth quarter and Boucher – who is hitting 58 per cent from three over his past five games after a miserable start to the season – hit another and the Raptors were up 22 with 11 minutes to play.

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For the night the Raptors shot 47 per cent from three and 52.4 per cent from, numbers they haven’t hit since Nov. 24.

It was an important game. The Raptors are now eighth in the East, 1.5 games behind the seventh-place Hornets.

The good news is that the Hornets arrived in Toronto as one of the weaker defensive teams in the NBA.

The Raptors needed a pick-me-up. They had been among the league’s worst offensively in the past seven games, managing just 105.9 points per 100 possessions, which was 26th in the league over that stretch – and that was with Barnes and VanVleet in the lineup. Shooting has been a big problem as the Raptors have connected on just 30.9 per cent of their threes over the recent stretch in which they were 2-5.

Take away VanVleet’s 39.9 percent shooting on nearly 10 attempts a game and the rest of the Raptors shoot just 32.1 per cent compared with 34.1 per cent, the difference between 21st and 29th.

But basketball doesn’t always make sense. The Raptors’ offence flowed like water.

Everyone who hit the floor hit shots. In the second quarter alone, little-used and almost forgotten Flynn and Achiuwa whose offence comes and – mostly – goes, knocked down threes. Banton knocked down a pair of wide-open corner threes in the first quarter like he was facing the Westchester Knicks at the Paramount Foods Centre.

The Raptors burst to a 39-27 first-quarter lead on 61.9 per cent shooting. On Sunday with a full lineup against the Portland Trail Blazers, they only managed 34 points in the entire first half.

From there the Raptors’ already thin lineup got thinner, but remarkably, their play kept improving. Banton picked up three quick fouls and had to sit just when it looked like his G-League rhythm was going to carry over – he had six points and three assists in five first-quarter minutes. And that was after rookie Justin Champagnie got ejected along with the Hornets’ PJ Washington for a series of shoves and bumps that played out over a few possessions.

But that made way for Flynn, the first-round pick from 2021 who has been effectively buried for much of the season and has even struggled in some G-League assignments.

He played nearly 14 straight minutes to end the half and looked more and more comfortable as the stretch wore on. He got on the board quickly with a baseline drive but when the outwardly stoic Flynn roared and fist-pumped after a triple a couple of possessions later, it was clear a weight was lifting off his shoulders.

He finished the half with nine points, his second-highest total of the season, just one reason he Raptors led 76-61 to start the third quarter, their point total the highest for a half so far this season.

It wasn’t what anyone was expecting before the night started, but it was welcome and needed.

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