Sports

Barnes, youthful Raptors prepared for first playoff journey of post-Lowry era


Toronto Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes started the last day before the next phase of his NBA life as he has most days in what’s added up to a spectacular first year of professional basketball: wandering around the Raptors practice facility and doling out his energizing, full-body version of a fist-bump.

No reason to let the pressure of his first playoff series change any routines.

“I got a big hug from him this morning,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse as his team finished up a week of preparation for their opening-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, which tips off Saturday.

“So, if that is any indication, he’s still got it going into Game 1.” 

And now we’ll get to see what not only Barnes, but the rest of the youthful Raptors have as they begin their first post-season journey of the post-Kyle Lowry era.

It’s about that time.

As the great philosopher Kawhi Leonard once said of the NBA’s long, drawn-out and only occasionally meaningful regular season: “There’s 82 games, and for me these are just practices. Playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.​”

Just getting this far has been the goal all along – not that the first round is the final destination. 

It’s just that whenever the subject came up during the closing weeks of the regular season, Nick Nurse expressed no preferences for play-in tournament vs. making the playoffs outright or for finishing sixth, fifth or fourth.

All he wanted was for his young team to get as many post-season games under its belt as possible so it can drink from the fire hose of wisdom that preparing and competing at the highest levels provides.

The Raptors are a hybrid model, in that way. In the same eight-man rotation you have young veterans in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby who have championship rings and playoff scars, joined by youngsters in Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa making their playoff debuts — though Achiuwa saw token minutes as a rookie with Miami — while Gary Trent Jr. will be a starter in the post-season for the first time.

At the very least, it should be memorable for the younger set.

Thad Young is another member of the Raptors rotation with post-season experience. The 15-year veteran was still a teenager when he got his feet wet as a rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2007-08.

“I remember the game starting, and I think I scored like the first eight points of the game, and I didn’t score a point after that,” he said this week. “But I started off so fast, and I was so tired, because I started off so fast.

“And it was just, it was just crazy. Like it was like an environment like none other and you just can’t let it get to you, you have to always remain focused, and always remain locked in and just play your game, play to who you are every single time.”

That will be the challenge for the likes of Barnes, Achiuwa, Trent Jr. who the Raptors will need contributions from if they are to advance.

Nervous? Not yet. “I’m big chillin’,” was how Achiuwa encapsulated his mood this week.

Said Barnes: “I’m excited, I’m just ready to play. Haven’t played in a week, just ready to go out there and play.”

Transitioning from the regular season to the real season is a rite of passage that not all players are lucky enough to make in the early years of their career, but at least their teammates can provide some guidance.

“Stick to the game plan; trust the details,” says VanVleet, who barely saw the floor in the playoffs as a rookie but earned a Finals MVP vote just two years later. “Trust your instincts. Go out there and have fun. That’s about it. You can’t really explain what’s about to happen on Saturday. Every player goes through it. I’ve been through it. I’ve seen the best go through it. I’m just keeping these guys fresh, loose, confident. We’ll go out there and lace em up and see what happens.”

There will be highs and lows, often quarter to quarter, let alone game to game.

“Oh, just it’s like a roller coaster of ups and downs,” said Anunoby, who will be making his 22nd career playoffs start on Saturday and hoping to end a year hampered with injuries on a high note. “Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low and just take it game by game.

“I mean, I think my first series we won the first two and then we lost the next two and then we won the next two again,” Anunoby said, recalling the Raptors’ first-round win over the Washington Wizards when he was a rookie in 2017-18. “So don’t panic. Just, game by game.”

Barnes has been paying attention.

“Just being out there on the floor, you can see those guys look calm and composed, but they already know we’re about to get into a dog fight,” he says. “You can see that they’re mentally prepared, how they come in the gym, work out, you just see that. And I would say it gives me confidence to see that they know what they’re doing, that they’re ready to play.”

But for the Raptors to make it to at least the second round for the fifth time in six seasons, their youngster can’t just observe. They have to learn by doing and learn quickly. Barnes led the team in minutes this season and ranked second on the team in rebounds, third in assists and fifth in scoring. Achiuwa’s all-around development and especially his emergence as a reliable three-point shooter helped trigger the Raptors 14-4 close to the regular season. Trent Jr., 23, is the club’s third-leading scorer and second-leading three-point threat after VanVleet.

But they’ve already made their presence felt. Barnes especially, with a big smile, playful sense of humour and penchant for ice-breaking hugs has made himself part of the team’s fabric. No one is immune.

“Everybody on the team gives me back hugs,” says Barnes. “I was scared to give Fred a hug, but he gave me a hug right back … I don’t know, something about Fred hugs is just heartwarming …”

It’s a different vibe from the most recent Raptors playoffs teams that were veteran-heavy and where youngsters were mostly counted on for the odd cameo, rather than to take centre stage. But everyone seems to be getting used to it. 

“The teams I’ve been on [before] have been, like, old guys,” says Anunoby, who in his fifth season at age 24. “Not old guys, but you know what I mean, guys have been old. There’s a lot more energy now, a lot of younger guys now. So yeah, they’re all fun and energetic. All of them are like that.”

The Raptors hope it carries over to the floor.

They don’t need anything extra from the youngest players in their core, just for them to be themselves.

In Barnes’ case, it leaves a wide range of options.

“I would imagine he’s going to have some chances,” said Nurse. “They will probably help off a lot and that kind of stuff he has to take advantage of it. But again, I think that concentrating just on playing his role.

“What is his role? Well, his role is really versatile. It’s a lot of stuff,” Nurse added. “He likes to play and plays a lot of areas well. Playing hard just will kind of cover it. It’s not like we are asking him to shoot them out of the gym or post them up out of the gym or race it to the basket, just take what’s there.”

In the meantime, hugs all round. 



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