Six-game road trip gives Raptors a chance to jell

TORONTO – RJ Barrett’s face dropped when he realized he was going to be headed back out on the road.

Barrett had spent most of December travelling with the New York Knicks and was traded, along with Immanuel Quickley, to the Raptors on Saturday, flying straight from Indianapolis to Toronto. They debuted in the red and black on Monday, only to embark on a six-game road trip the next day keeping Barrett and Quickley on the road for another two weeks.

“Man, I thought I didn’t have to do that again,” said Barrett, who is from Mississauga, Ont., when he realized he wasn’t going to have a chance to settle into his new downtown Toronto home. “Those are tough, man. Those are not easy at all.

“But you stay together with the team, and as we’re figuring things out, this would be a good test for us. I’m excited to see how we do on this trip.”

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The Raptors flew to Memphis on Tuesday and will play the Grizzlies the next night. They begin a four-game swing in California on Friday with a stop in Sacramento before heading south with a stop in Golden State on Sunday and then back-to-back games in Los Angeles against the Lakers on Jan. 9 and the Clippers on Jan. 10.

The Raptors end the trip in Utah on Jan. 12 before returning to Toronto and the friendly confines of Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 15 to host the Boston Celtics.

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Quickley said that the long period of time on the road with his new teammates will likely help with the club’s on-court product.

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“A lot of time on the plane, a lot of time at dinner and things like that, on the road,” said Quickley after Toronto’s 124-121 win over Cleveland on Monday. “Just trying to get to know these guys off the court, on the court, knowing where they want the ball and things like that.

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“I think the road benefits a lot for that.”

Although head coach Darko Rajakovic has said all season that the Raptors are relying on a variety of players to step up and be a leader, there’s no doubt that all-star Pascal Siakam holds a lot of sway in Toronto’s locker room. He said that this trip presents an opportunity to integrate Barrett and Quickley.

“On the road is probably the best time to get to know each other,” he said. “You get to hang out. I think we have team dinners and things like that that’s gonna happen.

“I think the more we get familiar with each other and being in tough environments on the road it brings people together, for sure.”

Rajakovic said he still has to tinker with the starting rotation to see who of his players click now that Barrett and Quickley have arrived and OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn have been sent to New York.

“It’s going to be game to game,” said Rajakovic. “We’re going to try really to develop the chemistry between the players and really get to see which lineups work best, who’s complementing who.

“We’re learning a lot about this group right now.”

Rajakovic had settled into a consistent starting lineup for the first quarter of the season, with Siakam, Anunoby, Dennis Schroder, Jakob Poeltl and Scottie Barnes his go-tos, barring injury, with Gary Trent Jr. coming off the bench. Before Anunoby was traded, he began to try Trent as a starter with Schroder a reserve.

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Both formats typically saw a nine-man rotation with Achiuwa, Flynn, and Chris Boucher of Montreal, usually subbing on, although other players like rookie Gradey Dick also sometimes saw the court.

“I do not have my set mind on if (the rotation) going to be eight, nine, or ten,” said Rajakovic. “I want guys to be ready, and I think it’s going to be from night to night.

“We’re going to have moments where guys come in and play for three, four, five minutes, and they might be playing off the bench, they might be playing 20 plus minutes.”

Rajakovic — and former Toronto head coach Nick Nurse before him — usually employed wings-based play with the focus on the long athleticism of Siakam, Anunoby, and Barnes — and before them Kawhi Leonard.

But on Monday against the Cavaliers there were stretches when Toronto had three guards on the floor with Schroder, Trent and Quickley all playing at the same time.

“In this league you cannot have enough shooting and ball handling and skill,” said Rajakovic. “The way the league is changing it’s more and more skill so it’s definitely a huge plus and having those guys out there playing together, I think it’s good for us.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 2, 2024.

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