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An oral history of Toronto’s all-bench lineup that turned the tide against the Brooklyn Nets

The winning streak stands at a franchise-record 14 games. Once again, the Toronto Raptors felled an opponent with contributions from across a deep roster. Over the end of the first quarter and start of the second, Toronto turned a deficit into a lead that changed the flavour of the game. This time, instead of film breakdown or numerical analysis, Raptors Republic is here with some explanation, some words, from those bench heroes themselves.

With 1:01 remaining in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets, Oshae Brissett took the court to replace Pascal Siakam. He joined Pat McCaw, Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Chris Boucher, which group had previously played in one NBA game, being outscored by 14 points in four minutes. When Brissett took the court on February 8, the score was 30-28 in favour of the Nets. 

Nick Nurse: I think it got to the point of about a minute left in the first and I hadn’t taken out Pascal and somebody else, it was Terence I think and I just wanted to get ‘em out… You know how it is, you get ‘em going [and I’ll let them keep going] and I thought they were playing with great defensive energy

Fred VanVleet: Yeah, those guys can play, I feel like we’ve had this conversation five to 10 times this year… Every time they step up and play well, people are surprised right, because they’re at the end of the bench.

The final minute of the first quarter actually went poorly for the group. They scored well, as Boucher found some free throws, and Thomas hit a jumper to end the quarter. But the Nets’ hot streak from deep continued, and they outscored Toronto six-five to end the quarter. Nurse stuck with the group to start the second, regardless. The energy of the group was a clear improvement. The group’s defense, especially, was exquisite. They didn’t allow a point from the Nets for the first four and a half minutes of the second quarter. 

Nick Nurse: They turned a lacklustre start to the game into an energetic game and they were great… They had it going defensively and that was creating some offence for them.

Matt Thomas: My defence is something that I’ve taken pride in and I’ve spent a lot of time working on in the five, six weeks that I was out with my finger injury. That was a big area of focus and I think it’s showing in these games back. I just feel like I’m moving a lot better out there.

Oshae Brissett: Going into the game, we know that’s our main priority, locking in on defense. That’s what keeps us on the court. That’s what’s gonna gain [us] more trust from the coaching staff and our starters. Once we get in there, we know that’s what we’ve got to do first, and we were able to execute.

The Nets called timeout with 8:15 left in the second quarter, not having scored yet in the quarter. They reinserted their starters. The Raptors, however, left their all-bench unit on the floor. The bench outscored Brooklyn’s starters 10-5 until Nurse made a substitution, but it was a surprise that they even remained on the court after Brooklyn’s timeout.

Oshae Brissett: Actually, yeah. I thought the guys were going to come back in [after that timeout].

On the immediate play following the timeout, Brissett handled in the pick-and-roll, snaked it, and threw a pass to McCaw in the corner for a triple. Later, Hollis-Jefferson found Thomas for two triples. The flood gates opened on the offensive end.

Oshae Brissett: Even with 905, I don’t really [throw passes like that], I’m looking to score off of that. Here, I’ve got to be more of a play-maker, team player. See things, learn more. That was one of those instances.  

Pat McCaw: It’s nice to see [Oshae] get out of his element, get in the pick-and-roll a little bit, and make the right play.

Pat McCaw: I don’t think teams are keying in on [Matt Thomas] at all, not yet. Once he gets consistent playing time, and plays ran for him, and sets ran for him, I think teams will start to catch on that he’s a shooter. I don’t think teams are aware of how great of a shooter he is yet. Just finding him and making sure he gets shots up is a big thing for him because they’re gonna go in.

Nick Nurse: Maybe helps a little bit once in a while when you don’t hit the scouting report ‘cause you haven’t played for a while, too.

Pat McCaw: Matt, he’s always ready to shoot. He’s a shooter… 99 percent of the time, they’re gonna go in.

Oshae Brissett: The way he shoots, the way he sets his feet up quickly, it’s something that everyone should be watching.

When the group left the floor midway through the second quarter, the score was 50-41 in favour of the Raptors, a 22-11 swing over the course of seven minutes. It was the largest turning point of what ended up a one-point win. The starters were overjoyed for the bench players, and it is just another example of what makes this team so enjoyable.

Oshae Brissett: We want to be starters. We want to be key guys on the team. Whatever they throw at us, we try to embrace it and throw it right back at ’em.

Pat McCaw: Everybody cheers everybody on. We’ve got such a great relationship, player to player, outside of basketball, that makes it easy when you get out there, with guys like Oshae, Chris, Rondae, because off the court we’re always talking and joking and having fun and stuff, and it makes it that much easier to go out and play with those guys.

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