The Raptors won their 15th straight game on Monday, breaking the record for longest streak by a Canadian team across any sport. Pascal Siakam scored 34 points. Kyle Lowry – 27, and OG Anunoby had a career high 25; all crucial for the victory. But the topic that dominated Raptors podcastery on Monday was projecting the Raptors’ playoff rotation, and last night’s win over the new-look Timberwolves may have further muddied the conversation.
Outside of the Bucks, who have gone 10-deep in the post season, most teams cut their go-to players down to eight by mid-April. For the Raptors, the first seven – Lowry, Siakam, Vanvleet, Gasol, Ibaka, Powell, and Anunoby – seem set. The eighth spot has been shaping up to be the surging Terence Davis, unless Nick Nurse sticks with his apparent infatuation with Patrick McCaw. After that, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas might get spot minutes in specialized situations like key-player foul trouble, but most agree they’re not going to be relied upon for any more than that.
Perhaps Monday’s performance from Hollis-Jefferson coupled with Davis’s and McCaw’s relative absence (they combined for eight points in 40 minutes) isn’t enough for a promotion to the eight-man list, but it might give head coach Nick Nurse a BIT of pause. Hollis-Jefferson found out less than three hours before tip that he was starting in place of the ill Serge Ibaka, and he responded with a season high 21 points and some unadulterated tenacity guarding the All-World Karl-Anthony Towns. Doubly impressive was that he logged 33 minutes, a total he hadn’t neared since the 29 he played in Miami on January 2nd.
After the game Hollis-Jefferson said he’s happy in his role of utility man on the Raptors, whether it’s guarding the opposing team’s five, or setting screens to free up shooters. But has the game always been this joyful for him?
“I’m gonna be honest and (say) no,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “When I first transitioned to becoming a small big, I was kind of hesitant to accept that role. I was like, ‘No, I want to come off the screen and shoot, too.’ I had to make that adjustment. I feel it was a growth, maturity factor that you’ve just got to learn from. After I got over that hump, I feel like it was smooth sailing.”
The game looked joyful for Hollis-Jefferson on Monday. Whether it was diving on the floor for loose balls, playing ball-handler in a few pick and rolls, dancing around defenders for layups in transition, or absorbing the extra five inches and 30 pounds he gave up to Towns, RHJ was having fun.
““(You feel the contact) everywhere,” Hollis-Jefferson said with a smile when asked about matching up with Towns, who after a strong start, finished with 23 points to go with five turnovers. “It’s definitely different. The battle, the battle in itself. Holding your own ground – it’s definitely about being mentally tough. Having that resiliency coming where I come from, I was born with it. I inherited it. For those that don’t know, I’m from Chester, PA, thank you. I love a challenge at the end of the day.”
“Rondae always has it. He comes with energy every single game,” Pascal Siakam said, demurring that the starting nod gave Hollis-Jefferson some extra juice. “You can always count on him for that. Obviously starting you get more opportunities and you’re on the floor a lot, which obviously helps. But, man, he did great tonight, just guarding Towns and making it hard for him and also pushing the ball in transition and making it easier for us. Great job by Rondae.”
Nurse stuck Hollis-Jefferson on Towns for his strength and ability to “get underneath” him, which helps push Towns further from the basket before the catch.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of other options,” Nurse said. “We did talk about starting OG and Pascal at the four-five and maybe starting Terence. But in the end we decided to go at ‘em with Rondae.”
If Hollis-Jefferson is going to crack the eight-man playoff rotation he has to displace its current occupant. One quiet game from Davis won’t (and shouldn’t) push his presumed playoff status into question, but how many undrafted rookies have ever been counted on by a Finals or Conference Finals contender? (A cursory Google search shows Udonis Haslem as the best historical player in this category. In 2003-04, he averaged 3.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.3 minutes over 13 playoff games, but he wasn’t in a scoring / skill role like Davis.) Davis’s recent string of efficient double figure scoring and mostly solid defence has been key to shoring up a perpetually depleted roster, but it’s only been a month since Nurse said he played Davis five too many minutes in a game when he only logged eight (Jan 7 vs the Blazers). When everyone’s healthy, how does Davis maximize his role as the true eighth man? Is Davis’s dynamic but not-yet consistent scoring going to be more valuable than Hollis-Jefferson’s ability to defend one-through-five and create extra shots on the offensive glass? On the other hand, does Hollis-Jefferson’s complete lack of shooting make the decision to put Davis (or McCaw) ahead of him a no brainer? Probably, but how much does Nurse value “knowing what he’s gonna get” in Hollis-Jefferson versus the much higher ceiling of Davis? The final 28 games of the season will at least play some part in that decision.