CHICAGO — This Toronto Raptors team, following two franchise-altering trades, isn’t the grandest plan ever conceived. But it does constitute, you know, a plan.
The most important part of said plan involved having Immanuel Quickley, a scoring-minded guard learning to make plays for others, play alongside Scottie Barnes, a playmaking-minded forward learning to score in more ways. That is why Quickley was the key part of the OG Anunoby return. These Raptors also involved RJ Barrett running alongside what the front office hoped would be a fast-paced team, and Jakob Poeltl helping to cover things defensively and set screens, allowing for Quickley to get into the paint.
Naturally, Poeltl sprained his ankle in his fourth game following the arrival of his new teammates and has been out for more than three weeks. Quickley and Barrett have been injured, too. Coach Darko Rajaković has ideas, but what, really, can he do?
“It is frustrating, obviously, not having those guys to play and really just develop their chemistry,” Rajaković said Tuesday afternoon before the Raptors beat the Chicago Bulls 118-107, ending a stretch of nine losses in 10 games. “I don’t want to be reactive and wait for those guys to start playing. So (Monday), after the practice, I met with Jak and Quickley and we watched some film together — just of some actions that those guys can be in together and how they can play, not just in pick-and-rolls, but with Quickley, the way he needs to cut and move and how we need to set screens for him. It was a really good conversation that we started with those two guys there, as well. And we got proactive, so when they actually come back, we can start implementing those things right away.”
It is good that the coach is doing what he can when he can. Before Quickley and Poeltl missed the game against the Bulls, they were listed as doubtful and questionable, respectively. It would not be surprising if one comes back for Friday’s game in Houston, if not both. Barrett, who is dealing with knee swelling, is more of a question mark. That Rajaković has been able to coax two highly competitive games from his roster, even against mediocre teams like the Bulls, themselves missing a slew of key players, and the Atlanta Hawks has been a testament to the effort he is getting from his players. That’s a point in the new coach’s favour in a year when it will be hard to truly judge him.
In terms of the big stuff, it is clearly getting through. With 34 assists Tuesday, the Raptors have recorded at least 25 assists in 30 straight games, tying an NBA record. They are tied with the 1984-85 Los Angeles Lakers. Showtime North?
YESSIRRRRRR 😤 pic.twitter.com/6beEn2MIt9
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 31, 2024
Rajaković’s standard answer when asked about the trades and injuries shaking up his roster has been reminiscent of what old friend Nick Nurse used to say: He coached in the G League, where roster chaos was a constant. This is tame, then.
Being an NBA coach is different than being a G League coach, though. There is more pressure to progress, even when the pressure to actually win isn’t that high externally. “Needs” is strong, but what the Raptors would like to see out of the rest of this season is proof of concept for Barnes and Quickley as a pairing, for Rajaković’s movement-heavy offence with this group and for the power of a defensive anchor such as Poeltl around a smaller roster than the Raptors have used in an offence.
It is hard to do any of that when the Raptors are so small that simple schemes to deal with brutal defensive rebounding and paint protection have opened up since the trades and injuries.
“You can still put an emphasis on things that are universally important to you, like ball movement and screening, playing with pace. All those things can still be the same,” said Bulls coach Billy Donovan, whose staff Rajaković worked on in Oklahoma City for three years. “But I think in terms of the actions of what you’re running offensively, play-wise, you just want to be able to put guys in a situation where they’re playing to their strengths. So you do, I think, have to adjust to that.”
Some of what is happening as a product is useful. The Raptors can see what it looks like when Barnes is at centre, surrounded by largely competent 3-point shooters. They are putting more pressure on the ball to take away drives, and Rajaković can see how well his team can recover from the disadvantage that leads to if the opponent passes over the top of the defence. A play from Barnes on a trap was maybe the biggest play of the night, a credit to both the scheme and also the young star’s gifts. This is all worthwhile stuff.
“It’s a work in progress,” Rajaković said about the defensive strategy. “There are moments that we do it really well. And there are moments that definitely we need to go back to film and back to practice and then continue getting better at.”
In a sense, Rajaković is figuring out the peripheral stuff before tackling the core of the matter. Sometimes, the NBA determines timing for you.
• It was an up-and-down finish from Barnes, who will benefit immensely from being in these situations. He had two brilliant feeds to Thaddeus Young but also was slow to read double-teams that came his way, resulting in turnovers. If the Raptors were healthy, that aggressiveness might not come for him. Then again, if he becomes as good as the Raptors are hoping, it will eventually. He stuck with the game nicely.
“We need him to have the ball in his hands, and he had a couple of situations (where) he found a wide-open man for a layup,” Rajaković said. “A couple of times, they were able to get a deflection or a steal. That’s something that he’s very eager to get back to film and watch and to learn from those situations.”
• Before the game, I asked Rajaković if he thought Barnes’ 3-point attempts were down recently because of Poeltl’s absence. He didn’t agree with the assertion, saying that is the nature of an 82-game season.
“He’s looking for some other ways to score and to contribute to the team, so I think it’s going to be like that,” Rajaković said. “You’re gonna have stretches where he’s gonna have seven, eight, nine, and stretches where he takes four or five in a game. But definitely we want Scottie to shoot the ball.”
After shooting three against the Bulls, he is averaging 3.8 attempts since Poeltl’s injury. He was averaging 5.7 attempts per game before Poeltl’s injury.
• Dennis Schröder had some awful turnovers early, but his effort to keep Andre Drummond from an easy dunk was one of the better hustle plays I’ve seen this year.
• This was Bruce Brown’s best game as a Raptor. He was especially good in the third quarter, providing offence attacking the paint and guarding DeMar DeRozan. Brown had 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks.
• Jontay Porter left the game in the first half with back spasms, which didn’t help against the Bulls, who were occasionally using a two-centre lineup.
• Maybe it was just my angle from across the court, but I thought Ayo Dosunmu’s layup late in the first quarter was illustrative of how free opponents are feeling when attacking the rim without Poeltl. There were two or three Raptors between the Bulls guard and the rim, and he just did not care.
(Photo of Scottie Barnes driving against Chicago’s Ayo Dosunmu: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)