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Raptors put on show, but COVID-19 concerns remain front of mind

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TORONTO — You had to make sure you appreciate it.

On Monday night the Toronto Raptors hosted the Sacramento Kings, the last date on a seven-game homestand, the longest of the season.

They won in style, 124-101, jumping on the Kings early and never letting up. The win gave them a 4-3 record during their run at home and improved them to 13-14 on the season. Given their injury situation through 27 games, there’s reason for optimism — at last in basketball terms.

And Scottie Barnes? If you can’t appreciate the uber-talented forward out of Florida State, you probably don’t love basketball, sports, puppies or cold beer on a hot day.

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Just saying. The rookie brought it again. It was that kind of night.

The building was full. The music was loud. In-arena host Mark “Strizzy” Strong did his full-throated player intros at centre court.

It was like nothing had ever happened, or ever will.

Both aren’t true. The pandemic was only ever on pause and in the space of days it has ramped up again with the Omicron variant spreading faster than anything that has come before.

Full buildings? Snarfing arena food with your mask down? Chanting “D-Fence” from the depths of your lungs like it seemed like everyone at Scotiabank Arena was when the Raptors outlasted the New York Knicks in a nail-biter Friday night? It’s been taken away before and — as it increasingly seems likely — will be again.

“Governments will only be able to ignore Omicron for a short while longer,” Andrew Morris, a Raptors fan, youth basketball coach and the medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the Sinai Health System and a Harvard-trained epidemiologist. “They’ll have to shut down arenas to fans — very soon.”

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse isn’t paid to hold court on the pandemic or speculate about the math behind the rising COVID-19 numbers which everyone wishes would go away but won’t.

But he’s been through the bubble in Orlando and the lifeless lost season in Tampa and understands where the winds might be headed on this one.

Enjoy it while you got it, was the message:

“Listen, I don’t know how many thousand times better it is with the fans in the stands; I don’t know exactly where that is correlated, anyone’s shooting percentages, or their energy levels, or our win-loss record, but it’s certainly great,” said Nurse. “And it feels even better now that we did it without them. It even feels so much better that they’re back.

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“So, I mean listen, hopefully they keep coming out, and they keep cheering like they’re cheering. This place is a special building. You go around the league and you see how special this building is and how special the fans are. Keep on trucking, there.”

All you can do is hope — and especially hope for a quick and efficient rollout of booster shots and that people remain committed to the other measures required to slow viral spread and that in the end things don’t get too out of hand.

But you have to pay attention. The Raptors had their game against the Chicago Bulls postponed because the Bulls have so many players in health-and-safety protocols they can’t field a team. The Toronto Maple Leafs had their upcoming game against the Calgary Flames postponed because of an outbreak among the Flames. Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri has tested positive for COVID-19 and the team kept broadcasters Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong at home Monday night because they were deemed to be close contacts with someone not affiliated with the organization who later tested positive. Things are happening.

But for a couple of hours, it was great not to dwell on it.

“I think I’m like everyone else. I think about it,” said Nurse. “It gives you a reminder that when this ball goes up tonight, we’re out here, we’re playing, it gives you a chance to play… You can sit there and think about what may or may not be coming at you or what may or may not happen as far as practice times, protocols, testing… but once you get the game going, we owe it to everybody to focus in on it and enjoy it.”

“…[Because] when you really love it and you love what you do for a living and you love to play, it’s the escape. It’s your moment of nothing else going on but pure basketball out there. That’s a nice couple of hours. That’s a nice couple of hours, you know what I mean?”

Yes, we do.

Fortunately, there was much to enjoy in 48 minutes of Raptors-Kings; two teams trying to find their way to .500, to the play-in tournament or maybe a little bit more.

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Top of the list? Barnes, the Raptors rookie who continues to amaze and can’t help make you excited about the future, whatever is happening now.

The last time Barnes played the Kings was a little over three weeks ago. Barnes had hit what seemed like a little slump with the travel mounting and the minutes building up to levels he’d never experienced in college.

Nurse challenged him to stay aggressive and start shooting more threes. He even called him out after one game and sat him down early in one, pointing to a lack of focus.

Yet in his last eight games? How about 16 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals while shooting 50.5 per cent from the floor and 38.2 per cent from three on more than four attempts a game? It’s hard to play basketball better than that at 20 years old.

But Barnes is still getting better; gaining confidence by the day, if not the play.

“He seems to have snapped out of that,” said Nurse of Barnes’ brief stumble late last month. “He’s really brought — everybody says his energy is infectious — a real boost of that lately. He’s more vocal to timeouts, to ‘Come on, let’s keep rebounding.’ He’s been doing it, crashing the boards and saying, ‘Come on, you guys come with me. Let’s all do it.’ There has been some more urgency and that kind of stuff from him. And that’s great.”

Barnes’ first three plays against the Kings were: A blocked shot on Kings center Alex Len, leading to a run-out hoop for Pascal Siakam; a lob to Chris Boucher set up by Barnes’ dribble penetration and full-speed spin dribble in transition leading to a left-hand finish of his own.

Barnes was just getting rolling. He finished the quarter off with a deep step-back two at the buzzer to give Toronto a 30-22 lead and then in the second quarter helped the Raptors to the cusp of a blowout by orchestrating what ended up being a 40-point quarter as the Raptors led 70-45 going into the half.

Barnes was in the middle of everything, leading a bench unit featuring fellow rookies Dalano Banton and Justin Champagnie, along with Yuta Watanabe and Svi Mykhailiuk. It was Barnes who initiated a dribble hand-off with Banton that got the rangy rookie point guard from Rexdale a lay-up early in the clock. And it was Barnes who started another set with a down screen for Watanabe that eventually led to a Watanabe hitting Barnes on the roll in the paint for a lay-up. And later in the quarter it was Barnes who sprinted to the corner on a Raptors break, setting a target for a driving Siakam. The ball was delivered in rhythm and Barnes dropped it for three like he was Ray Allen, and then turned and roared at the Raptors bench.

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It gave the Raptors a 23-point lead. It was peak Barnes. He finished the half with 14 points and three blocks. He slowed a little in the second half as he finished the game with 16 points, four rebounds and a career-high five blocks along with a pair of assists.

He wasn’t the only Raptors player worth watching on this night. All five starters were in double figures scoring along with three more off the bench. Chris Boucher continued to shine in his third straight start, filling in while Precious Achiuwa (COVID protocols), Khem Birch (knee) and OG Anunoby (hip) remain out. Boucher finished with 17 points in 22 minutes, looking more and more like his old self from his breakout season last year. Malachi Flynn put up 14 points in his 14 minutes, all of which came in the second half.

The Raptors held the Kings to 39 per cent shooting as they continued their strongest stretch of defensive basketball on the season. Only a late bucket by former Raptor Terence Davis prevented Toronto from holding an opponent under 100 points for the fifth time in six games.

It was truly a team effort, even if it’s hard to take your eyes off Barnes.

Hopefully we get to watch in person again soon — the Raptors’ next home game is scheduled for Saturday against the Golden State Warriors.

But if we don’t — and it feels that way — they put on a show.

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