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Barnes, Raptors show defensive potential early

TORONTO – While it’s still early in the season, Scottie Barnes has displayed the potential that led to Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic’s proclamation before the year began.

Barnes had 17 points on only 6-for-16 shooting, but his impact was felt in other ways in Toronto’s 97-94 season-opening win against Minnesota.Wednesday. He had five of Toronto’s 11 blocked shots and two of its nine steals, along with eight rebounds.

His disruptiveness only furthered the idea behind Rajakovic’s claim before the season started that Barnes will one day be the defensive player of the year.

“Yeah, we talked about it multiple times, just him saying the ability of me being able to win defensive player of the year with me being versatile, guarding one (point guard) through five (centre),” the third-year forward told reporters at Thursday’s practice.

“I’ve been saying I was a great defender. I just feel like I don’t really get that recognition as I should.”

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Centre Jakob Poeltl said being defended by a player like Barnes can be annoying because of his ability to recover after losing position and make plays.

“He’s the type of guy, he’s a little bit of a wild card sometimes,” Poeltl said. “He can jump out and just make a play out of nowhere. I mean he’s very aggressive on defence. He’s got good hands, good length, obviously. Very, very physical, as well.”

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Rajakovic made true on his word of using his team’s versatility. He started Barnes at shooting guard, while O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam occupied the forward spots. Poeltl started at centre with Dennis Schroder at the point.

The rotation paid dividends in holding the Timberwolves to just 34 per cent shooting and 26 per cent from three-point range. All-stars Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns went 8-of-27 and 8-of-25 from the field to score 26 and 19 points, respectively.

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“I think we can be really, really good defensively,” Rajakovic said. “It’s the tenacity that our guys are bringing, versatility, multiple players being really, really good defensive players just helps us and then it’s Scottie who can guard one through five.

“He can be in coverage, you can switch him, he can guard one-on-one, ending up the game with five blocks, it’s a luxury to have on the team.”

Just how good?

“I think we’re going to go even higher than a top-10-type defence,” Poeltl said. “I think we can be really elite. We can be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.”

“I think this year NBA should save themselves worry and give our starters five rewards for being best defensive players,” Rajakovic added with a laugh in reference to his starters.

Despite the performance, the improvement needed to be made isn’t lost on the Raptors. The group wasn’t content with its defensive performance, nor its offensive showing.

Rajakovic said the group had the “jitters” and that a team film session Thursday morning proved to be a good learning moment for the players.

Toronto scored 34 points in transition, but its halfcourt struggles continued in a new system. However, its shooting struggles from last year didn’t show, with the team going 40 per cent from three.

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“Just feeling the flow, guys understanding where their shots are going to come from, how to play on offensive end,” he said. “You’re trying to play different style of basketball with different spacing, with different principles. So it’s going to take some time for all of our guys to start feeling comfortable in that. And for me also to figure out how to best use our personnel.”

“I think we just met expectations. I thought that defensively we did a really good job, I thought in transition we did a really, really good job and I thought we could do a better job in halfcourt,” Rajakovic added.

Despite the continued learning needed going forward, Barnes isn’t low on the team being able to find its identity offensively.

“We’re still just growing,” Barnes said. “I feel like that’s where we’re going at mostly, we can find our identity on defence.

“I feel like our offence, we’re still trying to find that, fix some things, tweak some things. We’ve just got to be better. Keep taking those open shots and we’re going to be confident in taking those shots.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2023.

&copy 2023 The Canadian Press

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