The Philadelphia 76ers went through the season series against the Raptors without incurring the wrath of a dominant Scottie Barnes game, and they’ve narrowly avoided a series of them. We’re all well aware of what happened (I think), but if you don’t know: Barnes rotated over to dig down on Joel Embiid, and in the attempt, Embiid stepped on Barnes’ ankle. Barnes immediately hit the floor, walked off without putting any weight on his ankle, and the early returns said he had sustained a sprained ankle. Terrible luck. His timetable for return is unknown as of now. However, he was magnificent and I want to talk about that.
Barnes’ performance last night carries significant weight even if it was cut short. Some months removed from his very first NBA game, Barnes showed no signs of fear in the playoff pressure cooker and because of that, and scheme, he became a major point of interest for how the Raptors offense succeeded. Barnes’ personality and game make him, flatly, the future of Toronto’s team – bullying smalls off the bounce, challenging the biggest of bigs at the rim, and making tremendous reads.
15 points on 6 shots, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, Barnes continues to pair big numbers and efficiency the same way he did in the regular season. With the 76ers loading up a lot on Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet’s knee still hampering his burst, the ball funneled to Barnes in single coverage early and often. Two plays set the tone for how he was going to deal with the 76ers laissez-faire attitude towards his possessions. An empty-side post-up on Danny Green where he battered and bruised his way to the bucket before missing, pursuing his own miss, and finding VanVleet for 3 – the first score of the game. And an isolation with Tyrese Maxey on an island, an awareness of where Embiid was, and a challenge to the big man to jump with him. Barnes rag-dolled Maxey under the rim, and drop-stepped into a thunderous dunk. Rather than be intimidated at the thought of jumping with Embiid, he let Embiid decide if he wanted to take the risk. Barnes’ keen awareness of the overwhelming prospect of contending with his physicality is his weapon to wield.
The 76ers broadcast during the backdown: “Look how big and powerful Barnes is”. These are the plays that will multiply and repeat as Barnes continues to carve out his legacy as a Raptor. Furious pursuit of the bucket, punctuated with force.
When asked about Barnes, VanVleet expressed his disappointment with the injury: “It’s just tough man. The kid is playing his heart out. He, actually, was playing really well. He was keeping us steady there for awhile with his playmaking. They’re gonna try to take me away, and load up on Pascal. Scottie was the third guy there for a long time. So, you feel for him, man. It’s his first playoff experience, he’s playing well, he goes down with an injury. That’s the part of the game that, you know, sucks. We’ll see what the images say, and what the doctors say. Get him some rest, and get him back out there.”
Siakam expressed similar sentiments: “It’s tough, man. He works extremely hard and he’s been playing awesome this season. I know he was super excited about the playoffs and wanted to be there and play. Obviously, we hope to have him next game. But yeah, it’s definitely tough to see him go down, and I know that it’s hard on him because he wanted to be out there with us.”
Both comments are bang on. VanVleet highlighting how important Barnes’ playmaking was, Siakam highlighting how integral Barnes is to what the team does as a whole and how consistent his presence has been all season. His status looms over the rest of the series.
Let’s dig more into the playmaking that VanVleet brought up, though. In my big, expansive piece about Barnes from the midseason, I dug in on how special his reads on the floor were. That he was uber-capable of making a lot of high reward passes. Barnes’ halfcourt playmaking wasn’t very consistent in the regular season, but his best read in this game came in that context.
Barnes is a real estate agent, and he was selling Shake Milton property in the corner with his eyes. A great cut by Boucher, to be sure, but this is Barnes’ doing. Thybulle and Milton both defend passes that never came. Different players have different strengths. If Siakam were in this position he may very well have gotten all the way to the paint, maybe he scores maybe he doesn’t, maybe the ball funnels to Boucher to shoot a corner three, but Siakam rarely manipulates like this as a passer with body language. Barnes’ improvisational passing bent is singular on the Raptors and can add dynamism to rote halfcourt actions that other passers can’t.
Barnes wasn’t en route to winning this game by his lonesome. He isn’t that all-consuming yet. But, he very clearly made the 76ers pay for a portion of their gameplan, and that’s the bedrock of any success story in the NBA. When you succeed, how do you do it? Do you need to handle the ball like a star to put up big numbers or, like Scottie, can you provide value no matter your position on the court? If the defense wants to overlook you, can you then handle the ball like a star? Barnes is fluent in the many languages of stardom and role player-dom (yikes, that’s clunky). Last night was just a glimpse into the future, because part of the present was robbed from him, and us. But man, what a glimpse.
His status in the series is up in the air, without a doubt. However, I really thought we all needed to take a beat and appreciate what he was doing before it all went south.
Have a blessed day.