Returns of RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley make Raptors somewhat normal

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TORONTO — Immediately after deciding to challenge a charging call on Anthony Davis in the second quarter, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Darvin Ham walked over to Toronto Raptors forward RJ Barrett and gave him a hug.

He wasn’t the only one with a loving gesture or word for Barrett, who was playing for the first time since the death of his younger brother, Nathan. Immanuel Quickley also returned to play for the first time since March 17, as he was mourning the death of his uncle Shawn Hamilton. Both looked like they hadn’t missed as much time as they did, helping to get the Raptors off to their first good start in a long, long while.

“It meant a lot,” Barrett said of returning to the lineup with Quickley after the Raptors’ 128-111 loss. “During the whole process, we were constantly checking on each other. I’ve known him for a long time. We’ve been together for the past four years. It was definitely hard to go through that, but having somebody like that to talk to sure helps.”

Most importantly, the two men got to feel normal again, performing their jobs and getting lost in the very difficult task of outduelling Davis and LeBron James. (Barrett grew up as a massive James fan, so this game was extra special for him.) Less important, but still nice: The two starters made the Raptors feel like a regular bad team instead of the truly awful one they looked like in March. The Raptors had a 122.4 offensive rating with Quickley on the floor. After a month in which they were among the worst teams in the league on both ends, that competence is welcome.

It was still the Raptors’ 14th loss in a row, which is the second-worst streak in franchise history. Only a 17-gamer early in the 1997-98 season was worse. After some truly wretched performances, though, the Raptors felt somewhat normal Tuesday night, as if they were building toward something, even if the game got away from them in the second quarter. In honour of that, we are going to treat this as a normal game, focusing on the basketball of it all. Feels nice.

• Both returning players were on minutes restrictions. Barrett made his time count. He played 27 minutes and finished with 28 points, six assists and six rebounds.

He did not look rusty. He was putting pressure on the paint relentlessly and would have had more assists if the Raptors were better from deep.

“You never know when players are coming from a break if there are fresh legs and excitement and adrenaline kicks in,” Raptors head coach Darko Rajaković said. “Rust might show up in the game two, three or four. You just never know how those things go.”

• Quickley was perhaps a little more hit-and-miss than Barrett, but 7-for-12 shooting and six assists is still good, particularly for a first game back. He was not hesitating to take 3s when they were there. Even if he was dramatically short on the last few, his willingness to step into his shots was key.

Both of the returning players’ presence took the ball out of Kelly Olynyk’s hands a bit. He had just four assists after totalling 38 in the previous four games.

• The upper bowl was basically full before the introduction of the starters, despite the game starting at 7 p.m. instead of the usual weekday evening 7:30 p.m. start. I guess they wanted to see LeBron James play. The Raptors switched their start times a few years back, with the idea that beginning a half hour later would allow fans to navigate the city’s horrible commuter traffic and still get to the game on time. This is proof that fans can get to Scotiabank Arena on time if they are eager to watch a game, so let’s move the time back to 7 p.m. (This is a passion project, as I’d like to get home from games a half hour earlier than I do. The Raptors often bump up their starting times when they have to travel after the game for a back-to-back.)

• Those fans made noise, too. There were oohs and ahhs for James throughout the night, from walking onto the floor to his pregame power routine to his spectacular drives in the second quarter. James spoke about his career nearing its end after his brilliant performance Sunday in Brooklyn, so this could have been James’ last game in Toronto. He is 39, the oldest player in the league, so that is hardly breaking news. His performances should be savoured.

“There’s always been mutual respect and love respect every time I come here and play here,” said James, who finished with 23 points in 29 minutes. “Throughout my career, they’ve shown me nothing to love, even throughout the battles in the postseason, or whatever the case may be. These fans are always appreciative of myself and I just try to always give it back to them when I step out on the floor.

• As noted by a few of my colleagues, Raptors rookie Gradey Dick was born after James made his NBA debut, which, according to my calculations, makes me older than dirt.

Dick did not play in the Raptors’ game in Los Angeles against the Lakers, making this his first game playing against James. It is easy to lose yourself. In the third quarter, Dick was on Rui Hachimura in the corner, while James was running the two-man game with Davis. Dick spent too much time watching the ball, and Hachimura darted behind him to get an easy bucket, one of James’ nine assists. Dick has come a long way as an on-ball defender since the start of the year, but the off-ball stuff takes more reps. Killer pump fake in transition, though.

• Watching Caitlin Clark on Monday night in the NCAA women’s tournament, I was most in awe of her passing. She seemed to get Iowa a good look in transition every third time down the floor, even off made baskets or free throws. I don’t know if it is because there is so much size and length in the NBA, but most of those passes she makes just aren’t available nightly in this league.

I say that because Barrett threw a killer kick-ahead bounce pass up the middle to Dick for a layup early. Barrett has taken a step forward with his playmaking since coming to Toronto, but that was an especially cool one.

• Mouhamadou Gueye is an old-school (if we can call it that) Raptors prospect, in that he is long and skinny and covers a ton of ground. Chris Boucher carved out a role for himself in his late 20s, so who says Gueye, who turns 26 in July, cannot do the same.

If he can do that, he will have to run the floor like a man possessed. Gueye had two awesome blocks in the first quarter — special plays, even within the context of the NBA. He later picked off a pass at the point of attack simply by spreading his arms. As Boucher learned, he is going to have to develop in reading the floor to get consistent minutes for Rajaković. It has mostly been a rough go of it for Gueye since he got his two-way contract, but his upside was on display in those moments.

• When Olynyk or Gueye wasn’t out there, it was once again Garrett Temple playing as the de facto centre. The Raptors have been pushed to this by the injury to Jakob Poeltl and the gambling investigation of Jontay Porter over the last week, and Temple has held his own. It is not like they were notably worse when he was out there, and he deserves credit for taking the assignment.

He was overmatched against Davis because of course he was. He had to give the big man a two-handed shove at one point. Live to defend another possession, I guess. Later, Temple got a weakside block of Davis. There might have been some contact.

• Gary Trent Jr. did not play, with Rajaković saying the guard is being rested. Trent banged knees with an opponent Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers, but the coach said the Raptors were just providing a maintenance day for Trent. If you’re cynical, you might guess that Trent will play Wednesday in Minnesota but Barrett and Quickley will not, as to not risk the Raptors winning.

• On that note, the Raptors can afford to win one game and still finish with the sixth-worst record in the league. Memphis winning in Detroit on Monday nudged them further ahead of the Raptors. The Raptors’ first-round pick is protected through No. 6. If it is seven or higher, they will give it to the San Antonio Spurs to complete last year’s Poeltl trade.

That makes Sunday’s home game against the Washington Wizards, by which point the Raptors could be on a 16-game losing streak, the game of the year. Mark your calendars. For all their losing, not much changed in the standings in March.

(Photo of RJ Barrett and D’Angelo Russell: Cole Burston / Getty Images)

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