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Raptors’ lack of continuity after major roster turnover exposed by Cavaliers


TORONTO – You can’t hand-pick your opponents or your moments, unfortunately. And winning basketball games while still wearing ‘my name is’ name tags?

Not easy.

As an example, there were plenty of good feelings surrounding the Toronto Raptors‘ debut of Kelly Olynyk, the Toronto-born, B.C.-raised, Canadian national team star who used to fall asleep listening to Raptors games on the radio and spend afternoons trying to mimic Vince Carter moves in his driveway.

And curiosity too about the potential of Ochai Agbaji, the athletic 23-year-old who was part of the trade Thursday that brought both players to the Raptors from the Utah Jazz.

But making their debut against the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers on the second night of a back-to-back was less than ideal, all things considered. Especially with a team that has basically been reconstructed in the past six weeks.

It started off reasonably. Olynyk made his first appearance with the team he grew up watching midway through the first quarter. The ovation was spontaneous and sincere. Olynyk, who seems to have had a smile on his face from the minute he arrived in Toronto on Friday afternoon, acknowledged the crowd as he took the floor, raising his right arm and index finger in a salute.

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“It just gives you chills,” said Olynyk. “A special, special moment, getting the love and support of this whole country.”

A few moments later, Agbaji joined him as part of a mostly bench lineup anchored first by starting point guard Immanuel Quickley and then by Scottie Barnes, in theory, the Raptors’ backup point guard.

The way too early reviews?

Playing lineups that have never been together for as much as a practice is problematic in the NBA, especially against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been the league’s best team going for six weeks, coming in with a 16-1 record since Jan. 3.

Throw in that the Raptors played Friday night against visiting Houston while the Cavaliers were at their Toronto hotel watching, and a win was probably a big ask. A little more competitive showing would have been nice, but that didn’t happen either as the Cavaliers handled the Raptors easily in a 119-95 victory that was never close and stopped Toronto’s modest winning streak at two.

Barnes led the Raptors with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his fourth career triple-double, but there was scant support beyond that. RJ Barrett, who had scored 20 or more points in six straight appearances, slumped to 14 points. Gradey Dick was a bright spot off the bench as he hit three triples on his way to 14. Olynyk finished with 11 points, six rebounds and three assists in his 22 minutes, while Agbaji had eight points but was 0-of-5 from three, which is his swing skill, as the Raptors fell to 19-34 on the season with two starts at home left before the all-star break.

The Cavaliers had eight players in double figures, all of them between 11 and 18 points, and counted 36 assists while holding Toronto to 40.2-per-cent shooting from the floor, giving a pretty good demonstration of why they are 35-16 and alone in second place in the Eastern Conference.

Of course, four of the Raptors’ top eight-minute getters on Saturday made their debuts with the team since Jan. 1 and the fifth is Dick, a rookie.

The lack of continuity showed as the Raptors were down 67-47 at half and never got within double figures in the second half.

“Obviously, it’s really tough,” said Olynyk. “You don’t know really what’s going on on both ends of the floor. I think that was probably pretty evident in the first half.”

The Raptors were trailing by three when Olynyk took the floor with 5:39 left in the first quarter and were trailing by four when Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic subbed out three starters with 3:19 left in the first, going with a lineup featuring Agbaji, Dick and recent arrival Bruce Brown helped by Quickley, who has been a Raptor for six weeks. A moment later he subbed Barnes in for Quickley.

They mostly survived for a few minutes, buoyed by a pair of quick threes by Dick as the Raptors trailed 30-24 at the end of the first quarter.

But things got dicey after that. The Cavaliers opened the second quarter on a 21-4 run – getting a head start against the Raptors’ newly configured bench — and the game was pretty much over at that point.

Still, there were some nice plays that almost happened, where the ideas were nice if the execution was lacking. Olynyk showed some of his trademark imagination as he tried to sneak a pocket pass to a rolling Barnes that got deflected. Olynyk did manage to squeeze a one-handed bounce pass through a tight window as Dick cut baseline, but it was too hot for the rookie to handle in close quarters.

Agbaji scored on a baseline out-of-bounds play and then used his strong frame to drive against a defender closing out on him in the corner, absorbed some contact at the rim and scored while drawing the foul.

The thinking behind adding Olynyk as a centre who can play comfortably from behind the three-point line and make almost any kind of play from there – run pick-and-roll as a ball-handler or screener as well as executing dribble hand-offs, all while keeping defences honest with his shooting and passing ability – is pretty obvious.

The execution may take some time.

The Cavaliers were the NBA’s second-ranked defence last season and have been No. 1 since their streak started thanks in large part to their ability to play two mobile seven-footers – Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen — together defensively. But a stretch five like Olynyk has the potential to cause problems even for them.

“It just spaces you out so much,” said Cavaliers head coach JB Bickerstaff. “Your big guys that are typically matched up on those guys are in uncomfortable positions because they are so used to being in the paint or near the basket and your rotations change a little bit, defensively, how you stop drives and protect the paint and those types of things.

“And this game is about spacing so the way the rules are set up to put guys in isolation situations and the offense has the advantage because you’re not allowed to touch guys and be physical so it helps eliminate a shot blocker or rim protector for guys who can attack the basket.”

Tailor-made for a talent like Barnes, let’s say. But it takes precision, timing and familiarity, things that should improve with time, but not overnight.

There were some flashes in the second half: A drive and kick by Barrett out to his national team teammate Olynyk in the corner with the latter one-touching it to Dick for a triple in the third quarter; Olynyk setting and slipping a screen for Barnes before relocating to the corner where Barnes hit him for an open three that didn’t go down; and then an Olynyk three in the fourth quarter set up by drive-and-kick by Agbaji and a crisp swing pass by Dick.

It didn’t add up to much, but there were glimpses of the options the Raptors might have to play with a lineup where all five players on the floor can drive, pass, and shoot from beyond the three-point line.

“There’s a lot of potential with that,” said Olynyk. “Scottie can do a lot of things so he’s really easy to play off, play with. Then when you have those shooters and slashers and you have Quickley out there, you know, we could definitely catch a rhythm with that group.”

With the roster turnover, Barnes has almost assumed veteran status even though he’s only midway through his third year. He’s the Raptors’ third longest-serving player behind Chris Boucher and Gary Trent Jr.

He took it upon himself to be vocal and help out his new teammates as much as he could.

“We just all got to have a voice on the team,” said Barnes. “They’ve been very talkative as well, but we all just have to have that voice if we really want to win. Talk on that defensive end, play hard and protect the paint. That’s what we have to do to win.”

It didn’t happen in the first true game of the post-trade deadline edition Raptors, but the rest of their season will be about finding out what might work, what could work and what does work.

Saturday night was about saying hello.

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