Back in January, in simpler times, I went to the theatre and watched the movie Knives Out. I had no expectations whatsoever, hadn’t heard much of it at all, and by the end of it, was thoroughly entertained and impressed.
Sometimes no expectations are the best expectations.
Perhaps that’s what made Monday night’s win over the Milwaukee Bucks so enjoyable. The air was let out of the balloon with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka all ruled out, and some fans even questioned whether tuning into the game would be worth their time. Who could blame them? This should have been a heavyweight clash between the two best teams in the Eastern Conference this season. Instead, both teams opted for gamesmanship and rest.
Those being handed a larger opportunity than usual, though, entered centre stage and entertained the masses, Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas the main protagonists. It was a mesmerizing shooting display from the Iceman and Boucher provided his own set of highlights. By the end of it all, the Raptors came out comfortable 114-106 winners with the unexpected bench heroes combining for 47 points on 32 shots.
It was certainly a tough decision picking between the two for this breakdown, but considering Boucher has had more of these games and there may be room for one or two more of them yet, I opted for Thomas. I’m also trying to avoid angry texts from official Matt Thomas propaganda president Alex Wong.
Let’s dig in.
SHOOTING OFF SCREENS
Matt Thomas joined the Raptors with quite the reputation as a knock-down shooter. From the free-throw competition in sixth grade where he made 99 out of 100 attempts to the 99 percent he shot on unguarded catch-and-shoots playing for Valencia in Spain, providing 3-point shooting was always going to be how he buttered his bread.
Thomas finished the night 5-for-9 from 2-point range and 4-for-8 from beyond the arc for 22 points in 37 minutes and collected a plus-13 on the box score. In the highlights below, Thomas shows off just how little time and space he needs to get off a shot, and like most great shooters, is able to rise on a dime with perfect balance despite trying to misdirect his defender while moving quickly.
What’s really enjoyable about Thomas is his willingness to take what the defence gives him. You see a reluctance to operate from the mid-range with some 3-point specialists, but in Thomas’ case, he is a professional shooter. He knows that part of making a defence’s life difficult is making them suffer even in the areas they are willing to concede.
“I feel like I make the right basketball read and play most of the time,” Thomas said after the game. “I actually, at times in my past and even this season, it hurts me because I am such a good shooter and at times I pass up shots to maybe make the extra pass. A guy like myself can’t afford to do that, I need to really hunt my shots and be aggressive, but it’s kind of second nature. I want to play the right way, I love to get my teammates involved, that’s what basketball is all about and I think that’s the most fun part of it for me. I feel like as a team you play your best when everybody is out there playing the right way.”
Credit must be given to Marc Gasol, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher screening for him throughout out the night and creating the sliver of room he needed.
In terms of unselfishness, a play Thomas may be directly referencing is the one below, where he receives a good look from Stanley Johnson off penetration but swings to the corner to Hollis-Jefferson. It’s going to have to be an extremely heavy contest on Thomas for Hollis-Jefferson to actually be considered to have the better look from 3-point range.
Versatility as a shooter is important, and at the NBA level, Thomas has been putting in the work to add more options to his arsenal to increase his value to Nick Nurse. The coaching staff gave him video to study of players primarily known for their shooting who have built long careers for themselves so he could learn some tricks of the trade, and it looks like we’re seeing some of that now come to fruition on the court.
“Some of those moves he’s making tonight, you know where there’s the dribble separating to the right and vaulting up, that’s very JJ Redick like,” Nurse said. “We talked about watching film with him and working on that stuff. He looks like a better player to me since the re-start and the skills have improved, the confidence playing the game and attacking the paint, not necessarily having to do anything other than make the right play. Sometimes it’s a pull up, sometimes it’s a kick out.”
And sometimes when you’re feeling it, you just let it fly no matter the pressure.
DEFENCE REMAINS THE BIGGEST HURDLE
As tempting as it is to have Thomas’ shooting on the court, he still presents a major liability on the defensive side of the ball, especially considering the extremely high standards the Raptors set.
We often speak of chemistry as how it relates to offence and the crispness of passes or players being unselfish and making each other better, but the defensive chemistry the Raptors have exhibited all season has been palpable. And when it’s off, it stands out. In the first two plays below, you can see that OG Anunoby is anticipating that Thomas will switch and the team will adjust and recover accordingly, but Thomas tries to stick with his man and that provides Milwaukee with the opportunity to take advantage. They fail the first time because Marvin Williams literally runs into Khris Middleton while the second results in a layup.
GETTING BLOWN BY
Screens aren’t the only way Thomas gets himself into trouble on the defensive end, as there were several occasions Monday night where he provided straight line drives to the basket as his man just blew right past him.
These are the issues that will still leave him more of a plug-and-play option in the playoffs if the Raptors are in dire need of some offence. He provided a lift against the Memphis Grizzlies with a couple of shots that seemed to get the entire team going, and that should be his role going forward. As great as he looked on the offensive side of the ball, even Nurse was wary of making too much of the standout performers on this night.
“I don’t want to get too carried away because we really haven’t used the bench too much, right?” Nurse said. “Had a couple of guys play really well tonight in a game that was absolutely meaningless and a team that wasn’t playing very hard against us. I don’t want to get too carried away.
“The rotation stays at seven, eight; it’s great they played well and we can use these guys as sparks here and there and you know my theory. If I throw you in a game and you start playing well, you’re three minute stint could turn into an 18 minute stint. We just want to keep these guys confident so maybe they’re able to do that a couple of times in a playoff series.”
MIDDLETON STOPPER, THOUGH?
All that being said, there were some signs of encouragement on defence as Thomas was able to hold his own against Middleton a few times and had one good sequence chasing around Eric Bledsoe.
BONUS: VALUE OF GRAVITY
We know the highlight of the night came from Boucher, but it’s actually incredible to think that it was made possible on both ends by Thomas. First, as you saw at the end of the video above, he gets the stop in a post-up situation on Middleton.
What’s more subtle to notice is how he frees up the driving lane for Boucher as the Raptors head out in transition. Watch how Middleton is so wary of what Thomas has already done shooting the ball on the night and focuses on him as he runs back. He even raises his left hand as he sees Hollis-Jefferson throw a pass assuming the ball is heading in Thomas’ direction. By the time Middleton realizes what’s happening, the middle is wide open for Boucher to attack and the result is the complete evisceration of his teammate Ersan Ilyasova.
As the Raptors head down the stretch here, there should be more opportunities for the bench crew of Boucher, Thomas, Hollis-Jefferson to make their mark. To a lower extent, perhaps even Paul Watson and Stanley Johnson. Nurse alluded to it earlier, but more minutes and more production in these final few seeding games won’t necessarily open the door to more playing time in the playoffs as there are just more talented players ahead of them.
The prism through which their particular skill-sets could be deemed useful can expand, though, and so when those opportunities to provide a spark do present itself, it’ll be up to the likes of Thomas to show that even their weakest aspects can be mitigated.