With only 30 minutes or so before the Toronto Raptors tipped off against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night, the team was informed that superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo would not be suiting up.
But Raptors coach Nick Nurse said that didn’t affect them too much.
“I guess I was pretty neutral on it, to be honest,” Nurse said after their 97-93 win. “For us it’s like, we gotta go play whoever’s out there. There’s a whole array of defensive stuff you have to go through. We gotta talk about who we think they’re gonna start and how all our coverages change and all that kinda stuff. You don’t really have time to be insulted or be joyous, you gotta get to work and try to start figuring it out.”
As the Raptors discussed what adjustments they should make to their strategy, one voice broke in to make a declaration about the defensive scheme.
“Scottie (Barnes) kind of stepped up and said, ‘I’m gonna guard (Khris Middleton), I’m gonna guard him hard. So let’s start with that,’” Nurse said. “So we did and I thought he did a good job on him. Made him work.”
And so Barnes did, spending a significant number of minutes on the two-time All-Star. He was up in Middleton’s grill whenever he could be, playing him physically and forcing him into a considerable amount of tough shots. Despite Middleton scoring 22 points, he finished with a poor 49.5 true shooting percentage and never really looked comfortable.
This isn’t the first time Barnes has taken on a difficult assignment. He’s locked horns with the likes of Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, and although there’s certainly a learning curve for Barnes to become a truly elite defender (something he was purported to be coming out of college) in the NBA, he’s showing flashes of what he can become on a nightly basis.
“He’s (voiced the desire to take on assignments) some this year. It’s good to see again,” Nurse said. “He’s done that some when we’ve gone into games. It’s really a talent of his, that’s the mindset we need him to stay in because I think there probably is a guy for him to guard at the guard or forward that is gonna be a high points producer and a high usage guy every night and that’s the way for him to go into the game. It’s something he can do to help us and himself every night.”
Plus sometimes, in games like the one against the Bucks, Barnes manages to put together a nearly spotless performance. He finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals, and a block.
“Very few schematic mistakes tonight,” Nurse said of the entire defense. “There was a couple of pretty big ones, but way down in numbers on that and a number of guys defending pretty hard.”
On top of all that, Barnes didn’t let his offense fall off a cliff, either. He stayed locked in on that end of the floor, draining some difficult looks of his own in the post, making a concerted effort to take advantage of the space defenses give him at the arc (3-of-6 from deep), and even knocking down a one-footed fallaway ala Dirk Nowitzki.
The confidence Barnes continues to display as a rookie and the sheer level of talent he has to capitalize on that confidence on both sides of the ball is immeasurable. He’s already developing into one of the league’s most formidable young forces.