Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 110-114 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
One — Fun: There are no more expectations for the Raptors with two games left in the year, and it is somewhat freeing to watch the game from that perspective. The Raptors came in with only seven healthy bodies against a fully loaded Mavericks team working desperately to avoid the play-in tournament, but you couldn't really tell which was which based on the intensity of their efforts. The Raptors got after the Mavericks, especially in the second half, and while their comeback fell just short, it was an entertaining game with plenty to be excited for in their rookie guards.
Two — Homecoming: Jalen Harris was the star of the show, scoring a career-high 31 points in his hometown of Dallas. The Harris family took up a luxury box, with a dozen people in attendance, and there hasn't been a congregation of that many people in Raptors No. 2 jerseys since 2019. Harris seemed a tad nervous at first, firing up an airball in the first quarter, but he locked into a rhythm from there. Harris showed his explosiveness off the bounce, the athleticism to hang in the air before finishing at the rim, the range on the jumper, hit consecutive jumpers attacking to his right with a baseline pull-up and a deep three to follow, and his overall aggressiveness was like that of a veteran.
Three — Developed: Harris is a rookie, and there are areas of his game that still need to be refined, but there aren't many holes to be spotted in his overall skillset. His handle gets him to the spots he wants to go, he gets low and quick, there's enough length and athleticism there to get to his shot, and there's some trickery in his game. Harris crossed up Luka Doncic on more than one occasion, getting the former Rookie of the Year to jump around like rookie Chris Boucher, then crossing him over and getting to his strong hand for the layup. This is one of the benefits of picking experienced players in the draft. Harris is very well-rounded offensively for a 59th pick.
Four — Confident: The biggest part of Harris's game is that he's confident. He just doesn't get rattled the way most rookies do. Harris takes his time and gets to his spots. There is very little rushing in how he scores, and that's something that is noticeable in Malachi Flynn, for example. To come out firing an airball, to be emphatically blocked, and then to finish with 31 points on 21 shots is reflective of a mindset. Harris was beaming in the post-game, still bouncing off the high of living out a dream of dropping 30 in the NBA with his family in attendance, but he was also honest in his assessment. He wasn't always the most confident kid growing up, but has really learned to trust in himself. And if he's going to be a consistent scorer at the pro level, his level of confidence can never waiver.
Five — Aggressive: Flynn was right there along with Harris, recording 26 points of his own on 11-of-21 shooting with five assists and zero turnovers. Flynn was far less reliant on the jumper tonight, and he made a point to drive relentlessly against the Mavericks' defense. Flynn's biggest weapon is his quickness. He can get a step on just about everyone outside of like-sized guards, and the challenge will be for him to find the balance between attacking and showing restraint. He was excellent in his role, and as with Harris, Flynn took every opportunity to attack Doncic who grew more and more surly as the Raptors' rookies kept speeding past him for layups.
Six — Refine: Nick Nurse also said after the game that he wants to see more development on Flynn's shooting, which does seem strangely sporadic, as he will cash pull-up jumpers while missing wide-open kickouts. But more than anything else, the biggest learning curve for Flynn will be identifying the right play. He knows his way around a pick-and-roll, but he can stand to improve off-ball, he can sometimes settle, he might get stuck, but it's all part of the learning process. The broader impression of Flynn's rookie year is that he's serious about his craft, he was ready to deliver when minutes opened up, and he's a smart player who plays both sides of the ball. That's a lot to work with.
Seven — Expansion: Khem Birch attempted two threes in his first three seasons, and tonight he attempted six in 36 minutes. To be honest, many of the misses were badly off, and it seemed like he was uncomfortable shooting from distance whenever he couldn't fully set his feet. And yet Nurse encouraged him to keep firing. Nurse even said he turned down some looks that were there. Part of this is that the Raptors had three centers out of their seven available players, which pressed Birch into a power forward role, but it's also part of the development in the season. Players are so quickly labelled and they sometimes get stuck in that label, which is why Nurse's approach is refreshing. He wants to give guys chances to grow, to expand, and to show confidence in their efforts. And look, why couldn't Birch become a threat from the corners next season? And if the range is there from the corners, why not try a few from the top?
Eight — Professional: It's been admirable to watch Aron Baynes deliver when called upon late in the year. Baynes was great in his role off the bench, particularly on offense as his wide screens helped give Flynn and Harris space to drive downhill, and Baynes was also tipped for his labor with a few dump-off passes for dunks. The limitations are glaring at times — Baynes can't jump to contest and that's an absolute killer in the modern game — but what's the point of harping on them now? He is a hard worker and is doing his best, and his best wasn't good enough so the Raptors brought in more guys. But he didn't sulk about it, and when called upon, Baynes was there making unselfish plays for the team. There's some honor in that.
Nine — Teaching: Once again, the Raptors called Freddie Gillespie's number on a late-game situation. With the Raptors down four and in need of a quick basket, they set an inbound play for Flynn coming to the corner with Gillespie setting the screen, but then used that as a distraction to inbound to Gillespie slipping out and cutting instead to a wide-open drive. Gillespie got hacked and made them both. This comes on the heels of Nurse burning a late timeout to get Gillespie a play driving downhill for a layup in the Bulls game. First off, those were great plays by Nurse, but it's also just valuable experience for the young guys. When else are they going to be asked to deliver in a fourth-quarter setting?
Ten — Plea: The Raptors play their last game of the year on Sunday, and the one plea from Raptors fans is to see Kyle Lowry in for what could potentially be his last game. It's one thing if Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby miss time, because they seem to be nursing actual ailments and they're locked into long-term deals that will keep them here for many years. Lowry is entering free agency, and he was almost moved at the trade deadline. The tank is over, the lottery odds are secured. Please get the greatest Raptor of all-time some burn in the last game of this miserable season.
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