Photo By: Ryan from Unsplash

Well, after dropping back-to-back games at home against the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors began a brutal road trip by beating the team with the best record in the NBA on Friday, and beating the reigning MVP’s team in high altitude on Saturday without their All-Star point guard. Sports!

True, the Suns are significantly hampered without Chris Paul, but they’re still a terrific team who is eight games up in the loss column on second-place Memphis. The fourth quarter was a bit painful to watch with all those replay reviews — let the record show I’d prefer the odd missed/wrong call if it meant getting rid of coaches’ challenges and other replay reviews — but they weathered the storm nicely to close out a really great win.

It was a huge relief to see Gary Trent Jr. break out of his shooting slump, dropping 42 off eight made threes, though he reverted back to Slumpy Gary in Denver the next night (eight points, 2-13 shooting). Pascal Siakam continues to play the best basketball of his career, and with Fred VanVleet’s ailing right knee continuing to be a problem, Siakam’s play has really kept the offence steady; he combined for 58-13-17 over the back-to-back with three total turnovers.

I gushed over Scottie Barnes’ play a few weeks back, but he really is a special rookie. The things he’s so good at are things that 20-year-olds just do not have yet. Usually when a rookie is having a productive year, it’s because they can score the ball; it’s easy to put up 18-ish a night as a rookie on a bad team where shots are a-plenty, kinda like Jalen Green is doing right now for Houston. Almost never do you see a rookie who excels at winning basketball — reading the passing lanes, helping defence, ball movement, high basketball IQ — which is why it’s so wild that this rookie class has multiple guys who can do that. Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham, and Barnes play way beyond their years; this draft class really is looking like it’ll be talked about like 1996, 2003, and 2011 are so many years later.

I was pretty sure that Mobley had essentially already won Rookie of the Year at the All-Star break, and while I still ultimately think he will win it (these things are seemingly decided well in advance of game 82), Barnes has actually made the race way closer than I thought. Their numbers are virtually identical, and their teams’ records are also virtually identical (Cleveland is 38-29, Toronto is 37-30), so it really will come down to preference.

The main argument for Mobley is that the stuff he’s doing on the defensive end as a rookie big man hasn’t been seen since Tim Duncan. It’s hard enough to be a competent, let alone a plus defender, as a rookie guard or wing, but a big man? Even harder. You’re going up against the biggest and strongest guys in the league every single night as a (usually) skinny kid who hasn’t filled out yet (pour one out for Chet Holmgren next year).

The argument you could use for Barnes over Mobley is that Mobley is asked to do way less on offence for the Cavs, as Darius Garland runs the show. Barnes, meanwhile, acts as a point-forward for the Raptors who creates for others with his passing, both in the halfcourt and transition. This play last night is perfect for showing what Barnes is all about: reading the passing lanes like a free safety before launching a touchdown pass to Siakam for the score. It’ll be a fascinating race down the stretch, and despite Mobley being the favourite right now, Barnes is a lot closer to him than it’s made out to be.

Getting back to the big win over the Nuggets, that fourth quarter was so much fun to watch. Seeing the ball whiz around the court with that super weird Banton-Barnes-Young-Birch-Boucher lineup was a joy. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my all-time favourite Raptors team to watch was that 2019-20 team with that sans-Kawhi championship core. The ball just flew around the court constantly, everyone could create for themselves, the defence was in total unison, it was beautiful. 

As good as Kawhi was the year prior, the ball kinda stuck in his claws when he was on the court — and I mean rightfully so, you want the ball to stick in his hands as much as possible because he’s incredible — but that 2020 team was still the best all around team that the Raptors have ever had. The long-winded point being, that’s what that fourth quarter against Denver felt like.

The Raptors’ next three games are Lakers, Clippers, Lakers (we call this the 37-Club Sandwich) before another brutal back-to-back on the road in Philly and Chicago, so you’ve got to win two of three against the L.A. teams. With just 14 games left to go in the season, the Raptors will likely fall in that 6-8 seed range. If they survive this next stretch of games and get VanVleet and Anunoby back healthy, they look to be in good shape come playoff time.