Rookie head coaches Darko Rajaković, Adrian Griffin on separate paths with Raptors, Bucks

USATSI 21793582

TORONTO — He didn’t make it to the final interviews, but Adrian Griffin was a legitimate candidate for the Toronto Raptors’s head coaching job. He spent five years as an assistant under Nick Nurse, and his work ethic and defensive wherewithal made him intriguing.

Ultimately, the Raptors decided to move away entirely from the Nurse regime, opting for the total stylistic and cultural overhaul Darko Rajaković would bring. As it happens, Griffin got a very different job with very different expectations: leading the Milwaukee Bucks with the newly paired Giannis Antetkounmpo-Damian Lillard tandem. Instead of being in Toronto and trying to help Masai Ujiri figure out if there is anything of this core left to salvage, he is coaching a championship contender trying to learn each other and a new offensive system on the fly. Antetokounmpo signing an extension before the season lowers the stakes a little bit, but only so much. When you have a star player in his prime, any wasted year is potential grounds for losing your job — in this case, a job Griffin toiled in the assistant ranks for a decade and a half, hoping it would come his way.

The NBA schedule-maker might not have known it at the time, but they pulled a good gag on the new Bucks coach.

“It’s been crazy. You’ve gotta maintain your focus,” Griffin said before his Bucks lost 130-111 to the Raptors. “Our job is to be as prepared as possible when the ball goes up. But if you take the season opener, Philly against Nurse, and then AJ (Griffin, his son who plays for the Hawks) in Atlanta, Miami, now tonight…”

Griffin didn’t really finish the sentence, and he didn’t have to. Coaching against his former boss, his son and then in the place he spent five years is quite a lot to pack into seven nights. Rajaković has had his own reunions — he coached under Bulls coach Billy Donovan and beside Griffin in Oklahoma City. There are many more poignant nights to come for him, though, including his returns to Oklahoma City, where he had his longest NBA stint, and Memphis, where he rose to lead assistant. It was a much more satisfying night for Rajaković than Griffin, with the Raptors coach finally seeing the type of frenetic, co-ordinated offence he has been hoping for, with the Raptors managing 35 assists on 51 field goals.

“It really feels like when you make shots, (you are generating them) the right way, and when you’re missing shots, it’s the wrong way,” Rajaković said. “It’s so easy to have that bias. … But 35 assists tonight is definitely something that we are looking for and that we want. I thought that the guys really responded tonight.”

Both first-time head coaches are wearing their relative stresses differently. For Griffin, it started in preseason, when he was willfully opaque when addressing the health of Khris Middleton’s return from knee surgery. Whether he did or didn’t go through practices in October might not seem like a big deal, but every piece of a potential championship journey is hyper-intensified. It’s easy to wonder how Bucks fans felt about the odd moments when neither Antetokounmpo nor Lillard were on the floor on Wednesday, or how the aggressive defence meshes with the talent on the floor.

Rajaković is not under quite as much pressure, although you try spending 27 years coaching to finally get a crack and see if the results matter or not to you. The Raptors want to win, but they are not a championship contender. Rajaković’s main job, other than getting his players to buy into a new system, is to lay the roster bare for Ujiri to evaluate. It is not that the Raptors lost three of their first games, but how they lost them: with the Raptors floating in and out of the preferred offensive style, and failing to close out defensive possessions, of which they’ve had many excellent ones, with rebounds. He’s showing a bit of anguish, too.

After Monday’s rough loss to Portland: “Individual problems cannot be bigger than the team. … I told the guys, ‘We’ve got to be a team. We gotta think about what I need to do for my team to win.’”

About the Raptors struggling to get Gary Trent Jr. going after practice on Tuesday: “I don’t have the ball in my hands, so I cannot pass the ball to Gary. It’s our team that needs to recognize what kind of shooter he is.”

On the rebounding issues: “There were a couple of situations when (the Trail Blazers) were shooting from the 3-point line and (the Raptors) had four guys turning around and looking at the rim. The only time you’re going to get a ball that way is if they make a shot.”

Rajaković has stayed on message more often than not, and generally exudes positivity. He’s not immune to getting caught up in the moment, though.

The season will wear on a coach. It is rare that you see this, but Griffin burned three of his seven timeouts in the first quarter — the first two to try to wake up his team, the third to challenge a call. Later in the first half, Rajaković appeared to signal to the referees that he wanted to use a timeout to review a three-shot foul on OG Anunoby. An assistant came racing up to Rajaković, presumably to say he wouldn’t win the challenge, and Rajaković changed his mind. The referees didn’t charge him with a timeout.

Griffin was nonplussed, filling referee Josh Tiven’s ear while Lillard shot his free throws. The stresses? They add up, quicker than you might think.


• Rajaković called a great play to start the second half, running Anunoby off a screen, getting him matched up on Lillard, with an easy shot over the point guard in the lane. In general, I thought Rajaković did a lot of smart things in this one, including trying to marry Anunoby’s minutes to Antetokounmpo’s, at least until foul trouble intervened. He also mainly kept Gradey Dick off the floor when Antetokounmpo was on, the note lower down notwithstanding.

• Not for nothing: Pascal Siakam was brilliant, especially in the second half. He and Scottie Barnes combined for 47 points, 18 rebounds and 12 assists. That’ll do.

• Otto Porter Jr. made his regular season debut, ostensibly stepping into Jalen McDaniels’ spot in the rotation. With Precious Achiuwa still out with a groin injury, Porter even played some de facto centre, although the Bucks were basically playing a five-out lineup for much of the night. Porter was solid in his 15 minutes, making a pair of 3s and helping with ball movement.

• Given how scrutinized his play has been, and justifiably so, those two steals at the beginning of the fourth quarter had to feel great for Malachi Flynn. He did not give up on two plays he could have, one in transition and one when being pinned under the rim, and his effort led to two Raptors layups in transition. The Raptors were plus-4 in his 15 minutes in the competitive portion of the game. His coach appreciated the effort.

• The Raptors’ first seven possessions: turnover, 3-pointer, turnover, turnover, turnover, 3-pointer, 3-pointer. Normal! They had 18 turnovers.

• Jakob Poeltl and Dennis Schröder took turns hooking each other up with nice passes. Poeltl threw a pass diagonally from the paint to the 3-point arc off a roll, the type of pass the Raptors have to make a lot more often if they’re going to thrive in Rajaković’s offence. Schröder missed, but it was good progress. Schröder then found Poeltl with a deft bounce pass in traffic a few moments later, the type of passes he’s had to throw in tight spaces given … the state of things.

• Once again, there was no finish to serve as a reward, but Poeltl and rookie Dick got together to dissect a Milwaukee zone very quickly. Dick showed some very savvy cutting. Two smart players reading and reacting.

• In real time, I thought Dick got jobbed on a foul call on Antetokounmpo. Nope, hit him on the forearm — just not nearly strong enough to do anything about Giannis-as-freight train. Shortly after, he successfully took a charge on Antetokounmpo, which was confirmed in a review after a challenge from Griffin. He didn’t take it square on the numbers, but it was still a brave attempt. Ah, the folly of youth.

“If he’d have been going full speed,” Dick said, “I’d have been dead.”

(Photo of Darko Rajaković, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes: John E. Sokolowski / USA Today)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top