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Barnes could be the key to a second-half Raptors resurgence

Scottie Barnes Precious Achiuwa Toronto Raptors Scottie Barnes Precious Achiuwa - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – There are a whole bunch of reasons to explain why the Raptors have won three straight games for the first time this season, same as there were a whole bunch of reasons to explain why they had lost 14 of 19 contests before that.

A few obvious ones come to mind quickly.

For one, the bench is playing and producing more. Toronto’s reserves have combined for 84 points in 206 minutes over these past three games after scoring 29 points in 138 minutes over the previous three. As a direct result, the club’s overworked starters have gotten more rest and looked fresher late in games. None of them have eclipsed 40 minutes during this stretch. 

From there, the ball is moving (29.3 assists over the past three games, up from 22.7 the rest of the season) and shots are falling (41 per cent from three-point range, up from 32 per cent). Of course, quality of competition caveats apply as well – two of the three wins came at the expense of the last-place Hornets with the other coming against the struggling Trail Blazers.

But one of the biggest factors in the team’s improved play has been the improved play of its young cornerstone. After a turbulent first half to his sophomore campaign, Scottie Barnes is starting to level off and show signs of ascension.

It’s good timing. What’s notable about his Rookie of the Year season is how much better he got as it went on. It’s not hard to make the connection between Barnes’ post all-star breakout and Toronto’s second-half turnaround. He’s that important. Now, for the Raptors to build on their recent string of wins and dig themselves out of another early-season hole, they’ll need their rising star to level up again.

“He’s just settling in,” Pascal Siakam said after Thursday’s 124-114 win over Charlotte. “I see the confidence. He’s not forcing anything, he’s just playing basketball the way that he knows how to and it’s showing. I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the numbers and what people are expecting from [us]. You’ve just got to go out there and play, and I think he’s starting to understand that.”

“He’s been really sharp and really impressive,” said Fred VanVleet. “He’s playing at a high level… We’re going to need that from him.”

One problem, at least initially, was that Barnes came into camp trying to do a bit too much. After spending his first full NBA off-season expanding his game, particularly on offence, he was eager to show what he had added. That led to some questionable shot selection and decision making with the ball early in the year.

Recently, though, the Raptors have simplified his role. In an effort to jumpstart a struggling offence and create better scoring opportunities in the half court, Nick Nurse has been running more pick and rolls, with Barnes – the starting centre now that Gary Trent Jr. is back with the first unit – serving as a frequent screener and roller.

In effect, it’s allowed him to cut back on some of the things he’s still working to develop and that they hope will be bigger parts of his game in the future in order to hone in on the things he’s really good at now. He’s only taken four three-pointers over the last four games after shooting 29 per cent on an average of 3.3 attempts through his first 35 contests. It’s also meant fewer mid-range jumpers – which he’s hitting at a 28 per cent clip this season – and post-ups. Instead, most of his touches have come on the move, going downhill toward the rim. With his unique combination of speed, size and athleticism, as well as his excellent vision and instincts as a passer, that’s where he’s at his best.

“He’s an offence creator and we need him to be that,” Nurse said. “That doesn’t always mean shooting, that means creating shots for others and creating good movement for others. He’s certainly been in a little up and down rhythm trying to figure out how to play on each night, but making quick decisions is the biggest thing [for him].”

While Barnes’ stated preference is to run the point, where he can use his size to see over the defence and make plays that most guards cannot, he’s bought into the idea of playing centre. He’s got an inherent advantage there too, using his quickness to overwhelm opposing big men.

Toronto may have unlocked something with Barnes at the five. Earlier in the month, Myles Turner and the Pacers defended him in deep drop coverage. At times, nobody was within 10 feet of him when he was on the perimeter. Brook Lopez and the Bucks used a similar game plan against him a couple days later and other teams have followed suit since. He was passive at first; it took him some time to figure out how he wanted to attack it. Now, he’s making the opposition pay for giving him that space. The Raptors are running actions for him in the middle of the floor, and he’s showing the ability to read the defence and make plays.

With the mind of a point guard inside the body of a big man, this role enables Barnes to utilize both. He can catch the ball on the move, roll hard to the rim and finish with force, or stop on a dime and fire a cross-court pass to an open shooter in the corner. He did it all on Thursday night, in one of his best all-around games of the season.

“If I saw an open basket I was going to the basket, if I saw [a passing lane] I was kicking out,” said Barnes, who finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and nine assists in 34 minutes. “It was part of the offence, just moving the ball, trying to get a good rhythm starting early.”

Although the Hornets’ 27th-ranked defence was at least partially responsible for the Raptors’ offensive awakening over these last two games, they shot 30-for-72 from long distance and recorded 62 assists. Barnes had 16 of them without committing a single turnover. He didn’t hit a three, missing his lone attempt, but he did set up nine of them with the pass.

“Just making the emphasis on the team to share a little bit more and get it moving a little bit more, let the ball work for you, trust the pass, and he’s been a big part of that,” said VanVleet, who assisted on seven of Barnes’ eight buckets Thursday, including six in the pick and roll. “So, definitely got to give him a ton of credit for the way the offence has been rolling.”

Internally, Barnes’ teammates and coaches knew it was only a matter of time. They don’t subscribe to the notion that he’s taken a step back this season, even if that’s what the numbers show. One of his biggest challenges in Year 2 has been finding consistency, and not just on a game-to-game basis but half-to-half and in some cases even quarter-to-quarter. But that’s the mark of any young player in this league, even one as gifted as the former fourth-overall pick.

Both player and team understand that development isn’t always linear and growing pains are to be expected. Everybody’s patience with the process has been tested at one point or another, that’s what happens when you start the season 16-23 but, as Barnes points out, there’s still time for him and for the team to turn things around. If they’re going to do it at all, they’ll almost certainly have to do it together.

“We’ve just got to keep going,” said Barnes, who hopes to help his team extend its winning streak to four games with the Atlanta Hawks in town on Saturday. “Don’t settle for less. Take it one game at a time right now. Stay hungry. That’s what the team mindset is right now, stay hungry.”