It took Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse less than two minutes to pull Scottie Barnes from the game Friday night.
The Washington Wizards had jumped up early, nailing their first four shots and Toronto's defense looked totally out of sorts. It was enough, Nurse thought. He'd seen Barnes struggle to get back to his Rookie of the Year ways since his COVID-19 diagnosis in late December. Be it a right knee injury or the so-called 'rookie wall,' something wasn't right with Barnes.
Barnes sat there on the bench for the better part of five minutes all while the Wizards continued to pound the paint en route to an early double-digit lead. It was ugly. But when the 20-year-old checked back in, everything began to change.
For the first time in a month, Barnes looked elite again. He began picking on Corey Kispert in the paint. When the Wizards adjusted, Toronto put him in pick-and-rolls with Fred VanVleet, letting the crafty veteran set up the rookie near the rim. If he couldn't get all the way to the bucket, he hit Washington with his mid-range jumper or mini-hook shot.
"Obviously when he's got a high, high ceiling; very talented young player, and anytime he's got a going like that, you just try to get him the ball in his spots," VaanVleet said of Barnes. "He had a good matchup against and he was jump hooking them to death tonight."
Barnes' night culminated in a career-high 27 points, allowing Toronto to eke out a 109-105 victory over the Wizards and close out the road trip 2-3.
"When he stretches out, he’s big out there and I think he can use that length advantage to his advantage," Nurse said. "Tonight he got it in places, or took it to places where he could do that and he just stayed with it. Was really aggressive, good ball game for him."
It was the perfect response from Barnes whose lackluster defense on Luka Doncic in the final seconds on Wednesday night cost Toronto a golden opportunity to sneak out of Dallas with a victory. Nurse was reluctant to call him out post-game, but his unhappiness with the rookie was clear.
"It’s great to see him kind of bounce right back from that and we’ll always give him that chance to do so," Nurse said of Barnes' early hook Friday.
Despite an 18-point second-half lead, the Raptors couldn't put the Wizards away. Bradley Beal came alive as Toronto's offense went silent. But when the Raptors needed a bucket to break a final minute tie, VanVleet delivered, nailing a pull-up three to clinch the game.
VanVleet on Minutes Adding Up
“I’ve tried to stay away from this subject because it’s become such a big deal in the past however many days, but again, like I will remind everybody, I will speak for myself: I’m a grown man," said VanVleet who 21 points in 39 minutes. "I have two kids at home. I listen to them. I listen to my lady. Other than that, I come to work every day. If I didn’t want to be out there, I wouldn’t be. I’m not playing any minutes I don’t want to play. Coach Nurse isn’t forcing anyone to play that doesn’t want to play. We signed up for this. We’ve got high-character guys, competitive guys, that like to be out there. We’ve all accepted that. Whatever comes with that, it is what it is. I wouldn’t put all of that on (Nurse). Some of it is on us as players as well: We enjoy the challenge of being out there and what comes with that.”
Trent Makes his Return
Gary Trent Jr. was a little up and down in his return from an ankle injury that's kept him out for the last six games. His offense hasn't been quite the same since contracting COVID, but his defense down the stretch was crucial for Toronto.
"Man, he was just competing. He was just competing at a high level. His motor was going. He was flying around. He was excited to be back. He looked fresh," VanVleet said. "Obviously he can make big shots at any given time. He was locked in defensively. You just need that guy."
Trent finished the night with 13 points on 4-for-12 shooting.
Yuta vs. Rui
The much-anticipated Yuta Watanabe vs. Rui Hachimura matchup finally came to fruition Friday night after the league's only two Japanese players couldn't seem to be healthy at the same time in any of their last six matchups. Toronto opened up the rotation in the first half, letting Watanabe take the court against his fellow countryman.
"I still think he made a big step to getting back to that tonight. That'll build some confidence," Nurse said of Watanabe who played nearly six minutes. "Hopefully we'll just keep moving forward. We'll get him getting back there. We're getting back there. He's playing too well not to get back to that form."
Up Next: Portland Trail Blazers
The Raptors will return home for a date with Norman Powell and the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night at 6 p.m. ET.
"It’s bittersweet because you want these guys to come back and get the reception that everybody is looking for," VanVleet said of Powell who has missed the past few games due to personal reasons. "If he does miss the game, I wouldn’t be mad at him, especially given the fact we need these guys to come back to a warm welcome in a packed house. Whenever that may be, I think that’s the proper welcome back for any of our guys.”