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A Chaud-Down in Tampa

With the majority of starters out, fellow Montrealers, Chris Boucher and Luguentz Dort, battled for City rights early, but it was the collective effort of the other Raptors that overpowered the Thunder.

14 mins read
Photo via Raptors Twitter

The question of “who’s going to step-up?” is always front-of-mind in basketball. Leadership both in corps d’espirit and on the court is so important – likely, more than other sports. Without it, offences stagnate, defences cheat. The whole thing can get really messy.

So, when a team decides to rest…sorry, uhh…when a team’s starting roster is injured, the question players, coaches, and fans, alike, ask is: who’s stepping up?

Sometimes it’s one individual, sometimes it’s the collective, sometimes it’s both.

Retrospectively, I’d argue it was both. But Chris Boucher certainly felt it was going to be him, which comes as no surprise.

Chris peacocks about the court every game like the guy who goes to the same club every weekend and suddenly talks like he owns the place. He is one of those dudes who legitimately thinks he should have the ball in his hands as much, if not more, than anyone else.

Vrai ou faux that’s what he thinks.

Is he capable was, perhaps still is, up for debate. Just not last night.

He’s been, generally, labeled as the successor to Serge Ibaka, who, for all his wonderful strengths has only ever been a complementary scorer. Ibaka’s ups and downs mostly dependent on how many shots he hits. Chris has found similar success working off his teammates and functioning as a spot-up shooter or crashing the boards, searching out the spots he can fill and excel at them.

Which is (A) why Boucher’s near-arrogance is endearing: he isn’t too good for anything; he still busts his ass to get whatever scraps are available; and (B) it’s what you want when you have three or four other guys you’d prefer taking the shots.

The question is what happens when they all disappear. Serge was not the kind of player to step-up, he’s not brash in the way Boucher is. I’d never EVER want to cut in line in front of Serge at a Costco or sneak into a parking spot he’s about to pull into with his minivan (he strikes me as a minivan guy for some reason), but he doesn’t possess the killer instinct or desire of a scorer in the way Boucher has shown flashes of in the past.

This was Boucher’s chance to step-up, and to be the top dog in a fairly, large pond (as Michael Scott gloats). There was no Kyle or Pascal or FVV to share reps or to defer to. This was Monsieur Boucher’s opportunity and he snagged it.

Which is a good thing because, without him, the Raptors would have been in deep doo-doo early.

Chris scored seventeen points in the first quarter, on 75% shooting, in a fury of different ways: spot-ups, put-backs, rip-and-gos, step-backs (Poku twisted and tumbled like he was walking a St. Laurent sidewalk in the middle of January), and pull-ups.

The rest of the team: a frigid 3/19 with eleven points.

Trouble was, on the other side of the court, another Alpha Montrealer – The Dortress, Luguentz Dort – was also ready to get his.

OKC is another team with many players res…injured, leaving Dort as Le Grand Crêpe. A call he has answered.

Over the last two games he’s averaged 34 points on 49% shooting. He wasn’t about to let a fellow citizen outdo him. And, man, if this is the kind of game we’re going to get from Dort for years to come, that Shea Gilgeous-Alexander-Dort backcourt is going to be gnarly nasty for OKC and, fingers-crossed, for Canada. They complement each other parfaitement.

Dort was 7/7 from the field – 5/5 from three – scoring 21 points in the quarter. It was the same old Raptors defensive deficiency: open threes. The Thunder were able to attack and kick and swing the ball with relative ease finding the open man – mostly Dort – for a trois behind the arc.

It was to be expected. That Raptor lineup had barely played together, ever, let alone as a starting unit. They lacked the synchronicity and ease in which a connected, well-oiled, scrambling defence operates. It was no fault of their own, this was all going to be a learning experience.

Then.

BRRRUURRRRRR my living room started shaking! The richter scale at least an 8.0. Surely, an earthquake in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador is a rarity. But then, I realized, it was just the reverberations felt across the globe as Dort and fellow-tectonic plate, Freddy Gillespie, ran into each other. Scientists need to measure the force of impact those two created.

After their blazing starts, both Dort and Boucher cooled. Others stepped up.

For the Raptors, it was the remaining starters who took a collective lead.

Gary Trent Jr., after an urrrrrggggleeeee 1/7 in the first quarter, came out with those rear-view blinders he so confidently wears and shot 3/5 as though the last seven clankers never happened.

Malachi Flynn and Khem Birch got behind the stove and started cookin’ in the pick and roll. In the entirety of the game, they were not the most efficient in those actions, but it forced OKC’s defence to worry about them and pay more attention than they’d like.

Flynn used a phantom-Lowry-booty to seal off the recovering defender and neatly find his point of attack or pocket pass to a rolling Birch. And Birch, who’s also developing a nice floater, came off those screens like a derailed locomotive. There’s not much helpside can do, but hope he misses. Which he did.

Nonetheless, I felt comfortable watching both players. Neither had the greatest scoring game – Flynn hit some big threes late, as he always seems to do these days – but there was a sense of control and purposefulness that you seldom get from young guys or role players. Flynn’s tempo was FVV-esque. He sped up and slowed down as he read the defence. He had trouble finishing, but that will come. The shots are there which is most important.

Similarly, newly-released from Orlando-shooting-purgatory, Khem shot with the confidence and versatility you want from a centre in today’s league. His three – he’s 2/4 this season both made threes with Toronto – and mid-range are coming along. He also passed out of his rolls effectively and early enough to catch defences off guard. The more he works with the Raptors guards, the more effective Toronto’s pick-and-roll game will become.

Despite the starters’ success, Toronto’s bench, once again, flopped.

OKC’s bench scored 21 points. Toronto’s: 6. Raps went into the second half down seven.

Hallowed be thy Nick Nurse!

Whatever ailed Toronto in the first half – Dort, threes, and bench point differentials – resolved in the second half.

Other than GTJ – who, by the way, you’d have thought was from Quebec City or something the way he went at Dort; he twice smashed into Dort’s broad chest, unfazed, and pulled up over him and twice more ran off screens to shed Dort and get open for a three and a lay-up – it was the bench that made the difference.

The diametrically opposing tandem of Yuta Watanabe and Stanley Johnson is always an entertaining sight to behold.

With Yuta, you have an ultra-thoughtful player. In his typical role, he knows to get the ball out of his hands fast: by stepping into an immediate three, swinging the ball, or driving and kicking early. You can feel his confidence surging with every right decision he makes. But Nurse knows there’s more to his game and gave Yuta the opportunity to showcase it.

The challenge is getting Yuta the space to make those right decisions. His first step and handles aren’t enough to create that space. Instead, Nurse plugged him into Norman Powell-runs, coming off double pindowns and into dribble-hand-offs. From there, Yuta had momentum and full view of his next plan. He found Freddy G twice for finishes inside and had several hockey assists off his attacks, including a pass, early in the fourth, to Stanley who drove and handed it back off to Yuta for the slam and a three to Flynn.

[UPDATE – Yuta signed a standard NBA contract with the Raptors this morning!]

Then again. RUMMMBLLLLEEE.

An aftershock? Oh, no, right. It was just Gillespie and Dort with another seismic collision. My bad.

Stanley’s decision-making, on the other hand, is extremely erratic. On the aforementioned play, his patient attack was awarded with a simple dump-off to Yuta.

But that, of course, was preceded by two other completely-out-of-control drives – including a pick-6 that he spoiled with a turnover. Then, he used his size to bully-ball down low, lowering his shoulder and finishing overtop with an And-One. Next possession, he tried the same, but without the realization that the Refs would be watching for that lowering of the shoulder. Tweet, offensive foul.

All the same, the three of Gillespie – who had eight points in the quarter, cooly and thickly operating around the rim – Yuta, and Stanley outscored the OKC bench 15-5, giving the Raptors a one-point lead going into the fourth.

From there, the starters (Yuta replaced the very cold Paul Watson), took over. Flynn finally found his shot, as he always seems to do in the fourth, hitting two big threes and a cute floating banker in the lane. Birch was a major part of Flynn’s success. Bigs can get flummoxed when receiving the ball off a pass in the lane, but Birch calmly pivoted in search of the open pass and found Flynn both times for his threes.

We never saw a re-explosion from Dort either. Between GTJ’s tough D and some scrappy zone from the Raps, Dort only scored four points in the fourth on one field goal attempt.

ROARRRRRR. I reassured my dog, it’s ok, it’s just Khem screening Dort.

Instead, it was Boucher who won the Chaud-down. With two and a half minutes left, Boucher scored the last eight Raptors points on 75% shooting with two coffin-nailing threes and a slam.

I know, I know. We’re not supposed to get excited with a win over a Summer League team. But what we saw were glimpses of real development. Boucher’s primary scoring. Khem’s offensive growth and perimeter defence. Flynn’s confidence. Yuta’s playmaking. Freddy’s defensive flexibility and inside finish. Stanley’s chaos. Bembry’s veteran coolness.

Tonight, that group of players played as a cohesive, capable unit. They demonstrated that they individually deserve to be on an NBA court and that, together, they can be a legitimate threat from the bench for the Toronto Raptors.

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