Scottie Barnes took on the King. If it weren’t for Chaos, he would’ve won.

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Last night was my first opportunity to see LeBron James in person. I’ve been consistently going to Raptors games as a media member since the 2018-19 playoffs (and Raptors 905 games for a few years before that). I would have seen James in 2019-20, but Toronto’s home game against the King came in the Bubble. Then, of course, Tampa Bay. He’s been so great for so long that it’s almost taken for granted, but I’ve never had the chance to see it. I’m lucky that his playing prime — one of the greatest and longest in the history of the sport — coincided with my prime as a basketball viewer and fan. So I entered Scotiabank on Friday night expectant and giddy; seeing LeBron James, live and in person, is one of the luckiest moments a basketball fan can find.

And yet, as soon as the ball tipped, this game became about Scottie Barnes. He scored the first 10 points for the Raptors, and he wasn’t done there.

He and James exchanged some words and pushes and extremely forcefully thrown basketballs in their last encounter earlier this week. James left the stadium without speaking to media then, so he missed his opportunity to offer the expected and honestly obligatory “that kid is special” that Barnes has received from so many of the league’s best. He gave it and then some last night, saying after the game that he’s been watching Barnes since he was in the seventh grade and knew then that “this kid is going to be special.” James likes Barnes so much that he had to be the first to call him special — almost a decade ago.

If Toronto’s beatdown of the Lakers in Los Angeles was the appetizer, then their overtime rumble in the jungle of Scotiabank was decidedly the main course. With under three minutes remaining, James banked in a spinning, buzzer-beating, fading, swallowed-by-Precious Achiuwa triple to give the Lakers the lead. Barnes calmly answered with three points of his own of the and-1 variety. Barnes dimed up Gary Trent jr. for a triple, and James answered with a triple of his own. It was James at his most dangerous, tossing in shots that forced his opponents to either gape or cry. After the game, Fred VanVleet said he was watching — like a fan, he insinuated — just like the rest of us. The Raptors have seen it before. Many times, and on bigger stages, too. Yet they had a monster of their own to unleash in the arena, capable of performing similar Bullshit Wizardry.

Barnes is unique. He’s gigantic, of course, and freakishly skilled and athletic and has the killer instinct. Sure sure whatever. We knew all that. But he’s so much more, and we’re learning all the facets to his greatness slowly, over the course of a long season, probably still will be years from now. At one point he was standing under the rim as the ball ricocheted mere feet, maybe inches, away from him and cannoned out of bounds. Barnes snatched it with one hand. Caught it cleanly with only milliseconds to even process the ball’s change of direction. I’ve never seen anything like it. His reaction speed is outrageous. It allowed him to collect 31 points, 17 rebounds, six assists, and a steal. He went toe to toe with James and didn’t flinch.

I’d say, really, I was a big Kobe fan [growing up]. They were really rivals, and stuff like that,” said Barnes when I asked him after the game if he was a LeBron fan growing up. Translation: Fuck you, I’m not gonna compliment a dude who just beat us. LeBron won, so he could invent a time-traveling story wherein he was the first to call Barnes special, but Barnes lost, so he was a Kobe fan, not a Bron fan. That’s Rookie of the Year awareness right there.

“But of course LeBron’s done so much for this game,” he continued. “Of course a Hall of Famer. Someone that’s just so influential on this game that just paves the way for so many people. Being big, athletic, like myself, being able to dribble the ball, doing multiple different things on the floor. Of course he was influential for a lot of young kids like me.”

A quiet yet fitting moment for the sake of our metaphor came early in the fourth quarter as Fred VanVleet missed a triple. A number of players swiped at the offensive rebound before it settled in James’ hands. Barnes promptly snatched it away and threw the instantaneous two-hand pass to Chris Boucher down low for the layup. Barnes’ nose for the ball, reaction speed, and visionary quick thinking were all on display as he snatched the mantle — er, ball from the King.

No, no, there was a better interaction between the two: Barnes on a breakaway, looking back at James, helpless in pursuit. He dunked the ball effortlessly, lofting his endless arm in pursuit of celestial admittance, or, you know, the rim. He followed that play with a side-step pull-up 2-pointer, a hanging drive and finish, and a no-look, one-handed, cross-court pass for a triple. All four plays came in the first 150 seconds of the second half.

Unfortunately, none of those cleared the bar for the definitive moment of the game. That came on a play from Russell Westbrook, who after only moments earlier had missed a game-tying attempt by several feet, stole the ball and raced down the court to hit a game-tying triple with only moments remaining. It was pure, unfiltered, uncut, unblemished, pristine, authentic, Breaking Bad, blue meth Chaos. And chaos cannot be harnessed or controlled, no matter how much the Raptors wish and try to — it hails from the most unattainable Warren; sometimes it works for you and sometimes against. Not Barnes’ fault that it took out the Raptors’ knees with a buzzsaw.

Perhaps next time Barnes can snatch the crown from the King. It has been something of a right of passage for those with a claim to the league’s best: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant — both have dueled James as Barnes did and come away victorious; however, neither managed 30 points against James until their third seasons. (Both lost their first 30-point games against James.) On a night with both VanVleet and Siakam off in their own ways, Barnes carried the load, and he did it in a way few across the league could. Let alone as a rookie. When it came down to it, though, with the Raptors down two points, and the clock ticking away, seconds left in overtime, Barnes had his opportunity. He was in the post with the Lakers swarming, and he turned the ball over. It was one moment of weakness punctuating a total game of domination. Against a fully weaponized James, that’s enough to doom you. That and Chaos picking a side.


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