The Raptors were in the midst of sweeping Los Angeles and casting out all their demons in one fell swoop.
They had the blueprint, created against the Los Angeles Lakers. Play defense like monsters, run, create some chaos energy, run, pick on the weak, and run some more. They were up 78-73 heading into the fourth quarter, and it seemed possible. The Raptors had three fantastic quarters against the Los Angeles Clippers, but they fell short. They were tired entering the game, and after they lost OG Anunoby early, they were missing four of their top eight players. Fatigue took its toll more than anything else towards the end, and their tiredness allowed the Clippers’ offensive rebounding to close the door. But Toronto scrapped and clawed until the end. In that sense, missing stars and breakout candidates alike, the Raptors were defined most by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson against the Clippers. That was a good thing against the Clippers, and it’s an even better portend for the remainder of Toronto’s season.
The game lost an early narrative thread as Kawhi Leonard felled his positional inheritor, Anunoby, with an unintentional gouge to the eye. It was Leonard’s largest contribution to the game. Little did anyone know that though the Raptors lost their best defender so far this season, his replacement off the bench would offer the same qualities of athleticism, commitment, and intensity. Hollis-Jefferson was called into the game, and he quickly impacted the game with his frenetic defense. On one play early, Marc Gasol joined Hollis-Jefferson to double-team the Clippers’ star, forcing him back towards half court before Leonard tossed a cross-court skip pass out of bounds. Hollis-Jefferson time and again took the fight to his opponents, acting as the aggressor even on the defensive end. Following in the footsteps of maniacal defenders like Patrick Beverly or Draymond Green, Hollis-Jefferson caught opponents unprepared and impacted the game without the ball.
Though it would have been easier for the Raptors to not rely on Hollis-Jefferson’s scoring, he frequently found himself called to action. He attempted 11 shots in the game, fourth-most on the depleted team. He found most of his touches from the dunker spot, cutting with decision into gaps in the defense, threading himself in between the seams and lofting up paint attempts before the defense knew what had happened. The issue was that Hollis-Jefferson lacks touch around the rim, and though he attempted mostly layups, he only shot 4-of-11. That he showed something on offense was a net positive, as that is not his calling card. He’s a good passer, too, and that is enough to make him playable on that end.
Where Hollis-Jefferson truly thrived was on the defensive end. He stripped players cleanly above the arc, getting Lou Williams and Leonard on different occasions, giving Toronto uncontested fast-break baskets as a result. On a night that saw an offensively challenged Toronto only score 88 points, those steals provided the best forms of offense available to the team. On one play, Hollis-Jefferson stripped Leonard and then hounded Landry Shamet into an offensive foul when the ball bounced to him. Even when he wasn’t forcing actual turnovers, he was brilliant. He hounded Kawhi Leonard to the ends of the earth, stymieing his drives, staying down on his fakes, and forcing Leonard to pass even when he was in single coverage. Hollis-Jefferson’s electric intensity was Toronto’s greatest weapon.
Leonard finished with 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting and 9 turnovers, a career high. He was effective in other ways, but Hollis-Jefferson did as effective job guarding Leonard as any human has since he returned from injury to win a championship in Toronto. It was a strange reunion between Leonard and his former team, especially because it was a total newcomer in Hollis-Jefferson who blew up the party and attacked Leonard all night. Hollis-Jefferson wasn’t on Toronto’s roster last year, and he’s hardly played this year, but he delivered when his time came.
Hollis-Jefferson finished the game with 9 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, 3 steals, 1 block, 3 turnovers, and 4 fouls. He was everywhere, for good or ill. Toronto shot 19-of-32 at the rim in the game, which isn’t great, but was certainly not enough when they also shot only 4-0f-23 from midrange. All signs pointed to fatigue. Pascal Siakam, an 89.6 percent free throw shooter before the night began, shot only 3-of-6 from the line. All his jump-shots were short. Fred VanVleet shot just 6-of-20 from the field.
The Raptors had countless reasons why they fell apart at the end. Mainly, Siakam and VanVleet combined to play 89 of a possible 96 minutes after playing 81 minutes the night before, and they couldn’t close a second game for Toronto. That’s not a real problem, especially not a predictive one for Toronto’s future when some of their bodies return to health.
There were countless positives. The Raptors showed fight, and the defense was incredible, and they never broke, not mentally. They established depth, and Chris Boucher had another breakout game. Norman Powell had incredible moments as a decisive attacker, and it looks like starting has firmly broken him out of his slump. But the biggest silver lining belongs to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
The game itself reflected Hollis-Jefferson, and that isn’t a coincidence. It was sloppy, frantic, low-scoring, and unpredictable. It’s rare for players who spend so little time with the ball to shape the game in their image, but that’s exactly what Hollis-Jefferson did as he stuffed Kawhi Leonard into a locker on the defensive end. It’s a luxury for teams to have players at the end of the bench who can imprint themselves on basketball games, and Toronto didn’t even seem to know what it had in Hollis-Jefferson. This was only the third game in which he’s played. But now the genie’s out of the bottle, and it’s clear what Hollis-Jefferson can offer. The Raptors may have lost the game, and it may have been an emotional one against Toronto’s former heartthrob Kawhi Leonard, but it was just one game. That’s a small price to pay. Hollis-Jefferson should be firmly established in the rotation going forward, and he can do incredible things. That knowledge and trust is invaluable.