Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 114-102 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
One — Minimum: The Raptors only had eight players available to play, and it was quickly trimmed to seven after Yuta Watanabe re-aggravated his ankle injury. They did what they could with the situation, even though it looked to be heading for a sizeable blowout after falling down 20 points in the second quarter. In that sense it was good to see them show fight and pride, but it's so far past moral victories in this lost season. We know the Raptors are better than this, they just didn't show it enough this year.
Two — Wow: To describe Stanley Johnson's performance as anything other than incredible would be short-changing him. Johnson is typically one of the Raptors' least involved players offensively, but on a night where everyone else was out, Johnson took it upon himself to be the go-to option. Johnson knocked down a few threes early on and was aggressive with his drives. By the fourth quarter, his teammates were looking for Johnson to create on every broken play, and Johnson was able to deliver with stepback threes, bullyball in the post and, after nailing down his last shot of the night which forced the Bulls into a timeout, Johnson even stuck his tongue out like Michael Jordan as he headed to the bench with 35 points.
Three — Utility: It's too much to expect Johnson to become a huge scorer after six years in the NBA, but he is more than serviceable in other areas. Johnson's best trait is his defense, where he as positionally versatile as OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam. The Raptors used Johnson on the best stars in the league —LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram — and Johnson mostly held his own. That alone should be enough of a skill to warrant another chance, whether it's in Toronto or elsewhere. Johnson is still 24, and at least from afar, he is deeply humble, intensely serious about improving his craft, and showed genuine improvement with the Raptors this season.
Four — Darting: It's unclear why Jalen Harris didn't see the floor in the fourth quarter, especially since he was the Raptors' second-best scorer behind Johnson. Harris showed once again that he has a certain shiftiness to his game where he can get downhill and score at the basket with his combination of quickness and length. Harris started off hot, scoring 11 points in the first quarter with a few threes and some drives, and his best play was on a jump stop in the lane, where he froze his defender before hopping to the middle of the paint which created the separation for a jumper. His skillset appears to be fairly refined for someone of his experience.
Five — Duties: Harris made his final media appearance of the season, so I took the chance to ask him about rookie duties. Although he wasn't in the Miley Cyrus cypher with Malachi Flynn and Freddie Gillespie, Harris said he was sent off on an assortment of odd missions. To summarize, he was essentially a delivery driver as guys demanded everything from coffee, to sneakers, to epsom salts. One can only hope that the vets tipped handsomely especially as some of the richest people on earth, but somehow that seems unlikely. In any case, Harris seemed to relish the opportunity and didn't give away the more crazier tales, which is a strict no-no especially for a rookie.
Six — Stretched: Flynn, the other rookie guard, has already been playfully put on blast for his viral karaoke moment. As for the games themselves, Flynn has been mostly up and down in the last few of the year. Having less pieces and surrounding talent will always hamper a point guard, yet there are still mistakes from Flynn that aren't helping his guys, either. Flynn shot 5-for-19, including 2-of-10 from deep, and while many of those were the only shots available in the offense, there were a few regrettable attempts. For example, Flynn took a pull-up three on a 2-on-4 fast break, this after he was well short on a 30-foot three. Having said that, it's good to see Flynn's effort on the defensive end. Flynn has the same knack as Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet in their ability to create and to win loose balls.
Seven — Growth: It was only three weeks ago when Nurse gave Khem Birch the directive to bring the ball up more often, and already there is progress. Birch chased down a rebound and took it coast-to-coast, charging ahead of a quick guard in Coby White, to then finish with a running dunk on the other end. Birch also did a solid job of checking his former Magic teammate Nikola Vucevic, who shot 7-for-19 from the field. Assuming they can agree on a number, Birch seems like a lock to start for the Raptors next season. He's not a long-term answer, but Birch is reminiscent of fan favorite Amir Johnson as a glue-guy in the front court who compliments the skillsets of the other more notable starters.
Eight — Return: The surprise announcement before the game was that Aron Baynes was to be made available for the first time in weeks. Baynes was mostly fine in his minutes, even though there were some reminders of the whiffed passes and ground-bound defensive stands which made him lose his spot in the first place. Baynes got two short jumpers to fall on the baseline, and set some hard screens to get his wings open.
Nine — Learning: Nurse called a timeout with 30 seconds left in a 14-point game, which is known as a "Jim Boylen" in Chicago. In any case, it was teaching moment for the youngsters, as Nurse had a free timeout and wanted to see his team execute. The play went to Freddie Gillespie on the elbow, and instead of dishing it off as usual, Gillespie tucked the ball under his arm and took it strong to the rim. He didn't finish his first attempt, but got the putback to drop for his only basket on the night. The Bulls pulled a similar move against the Raptors in a blowout in Scotiabank Arena last season, and oh how the tables have turned.
Ten — Finally: The loss tonight clinched the seventh-best lottery odds for the Raptors, which hopefully means the tank can end. There are only two games left on the season, and even if the Raptors were to do the unthinkable and win them both, there wouldn't be a cost to their offseason plans. So please, can some of the starters return? Some of them are nursing actual injuries, but there's three days left. Just come through with one last hurrah.
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