Raptors’ Scottie Barnes doesn’t need to be a scorer, but he must attack



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OKLAHOMA CITY — Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes is a different type of star player. He is not going to isolate his man and look for his midrange jumpers often. He is not simply going to matchup hunt for the best opponent to attack. If you think that is what you are getting from him, adjust your expectations. That is not how the Raptors want to play.

With that said, Barnes is a very talented offensive player. His passing ability is excellent, and he has the size and strength to finish from the paint in many different ways. He is a weapon, full stop. He does not need to touch the ball every possession down the stretch of close games, but he should be involved, even if only as a decoy, most of the time.

In the Raptors’ 135-127 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in double overtime Sunday, Barnes stood in the corner frequently. He totaled three field goals in the fourth quarter and both overtime periods. He played 48 minutes, so it is fair to wonder whether he was simply gassed from a long night, which featured him playing a big role in slowing down Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. After last season and before this season, Barnes said improving his conditioning was one of his biggest goals. It is natural to extend Barnes the benefit of the doubt after such a hard night of work.

“It don’t tire me out,” Barnes said after the game. “I feel perfectly great. Legs feel great. I feel great.”

Now, this wouldn’t be the first time a player didn’t cop to the full truth in a postgame setting. However, trading Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby was, in no small part, meant to refocus the team around Barnes. That doesn’t mean he is going to take 25 field goals a game or bump up his usage percentage into the 30s. It does mean he needs to be prominently involved. That is the point here.

So when Barnes stops looking at the rim late in the game, it is a worry. It is only a problem if it continues, and assuming it will feels silly so early into his ascension to this status. Handing the ball off to Gary Trent Jr. at the end of overtime with the game tied without even taking a step toward the rim? That is a problematic decision. Remember: Barnes is largely a wonderful decision-maker. It’s one of the best things about him.

“They were switching Lu (Dort, Oklahoma City’s fire hydrant of a defender) on me,” Barnes said. “Shai had five fouls. Gave it to Gary, excellent scorer. I thought he could take us home.”

On what was potentially the last play of the game, the Thunder star’s foul trouble was irrelevant. Gilgeous-Alexander blocked the shot, and the Thunder ran away with the game in the second overtime. Barnes’ decision would be less bothersome if it wasn’t matched by what came before it. Barnes has come up big in several fourth quarters, so saying he is afraid of the moment would be patently ridiculous.

This was one of Barnes’ first big moments in a close game as the Raptors’ clear centrepiece. This would have been the Raptors’ best win of the year by far. It would be unfair to say he was not engaged, but he was certainly not prepared to contribute on one end of the floor.

“First of all, we were looking for (easier) matchups there, trying to go against players who were in foul (trouble),” coach Darko Rajaković said. “Also, when we went to him, he was trying to connect with teammates and find them for shots. It’s also for him to understand how he needs to affect the game (in) those moments. And sometimes that’s with off-ball cuts or good spacing. And sometimes we (need him) creating on the ball, as well.”

“(Immanuel Quickley) had it going,” Barnes added. “Just got the ball to Quick and it was working.”

Rajaković’s point is the salient one: Barnes is too dynamic to merely stand still in those moments. Quickley is in his early days as a top-line scoring option in the NBA, and he needs, at the very least, his outlets ready to make plays off kickouts. Barnes didn’t do that Sunday.

It’s a cliche among rebuilding teams, but it should be a good learning opportunity for Barnes. It is a simple enough lesson that if it isn’t digested quickly, that’s when it becomes a problem.

Notes

• With Barnes not in the picture, Quickley ran the show. He had some huge plays down the stretch, although he still needs to get better at managing his scoring and passing, as is to be expected with the newness of his role. He had a few bankers that were pristine, as well as a stepback jumper (with his front foot barely on the line).

• This was Rajaković’s first game as a head coach in Oklahoma City. The coach started his NBA career in the organization, first as G League coach and then as an assistant to both Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan.

“It feels surreal,” Rajaković said, “to be honest with you.”

• RJ Barrett returned to the Raptors lineup after a three-game absence caused by knee swelling. He was at his aggressive best, scoring 23 points. He had some big defensive miscues, though, and fell (was pushed?) out of bounds after Gilgeous-Alexander missed a game-tying attempt near the end of regulation. Rajaković said he was trying to call timeout, but obviously the referees did not see or hear him before the turnover.

• That was one of Jakob Poeltl’s best games of the season. He was in the right place on both ends for most of the night. That was lamentably undercut by a brutal rebounding second half from the Raptors, with some poor boxing-out fundamentals up and down the positional spectrum. The Thunder had nine offensive rebounds in the second half.

• One of the reasons the Raptors have to seriously consider trading Trent, should they get an acceptable offer, before Thursday’s deadline: His defensive IQ has not notably improved over the past few years. I’m not clear what he was doing on Josh Giddey’s drive early on, with Giddey guarded by two of his teammates, but the only player on his side of the floor was Cason Wallace. Trent got lost, Wallace hit a 3.

• It is fine to have a defensive game plan that knowingly surrenders some above-the-break 3-pointers. It is still a good idea to look like you might contest some of them. Another sign of a tired team.

• This was the closest rookie Gradey Dick will get to a homecoming game on the schedule, playing a 2-hour, 20-minute drive south of his hometown of Wichita, Kansas. He didn’t have a role in the second half but played nine of his best minutes in the first half. Dick’s two brothers made it to town, as well as his parents. Dick’s sister lives in New York.

• This was my first game in Oklahoma City, and they show effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free-throw rate on the screen hanging over the court. What nerds! (Just kidding; it’s neat.)

(Photo of Scottie Barnes guarding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Zach Beeker / NBAE via Getty Images)





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