TORONTO – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson spent the first four seasons of his NBA career with the Brooklyn Nets and developed into an energetic presence that offered a stubborn defense, a rebound and an unorthodox yet effective closing ability on the edge. He wasn't a star. And he suffered some brutal injury luck. But he was a solid rotation player and started regularly for the team that selected him in the first round of the 2015 draft.
When his rookie deal expired last summer, the Nets decided not to extend Hollis-Jefferson as a qualification offer and made the team's longest serving player a free agent. Hollis-Jefferson, who had imagined doing the unknown in today's game and spending an entire career with an organization, was hurt.
"Man, it was like growing up there," said Hollis-Jefferson on Friday at the lake practice facility where he was working with his new team, the Toronto Raptors. "Getting into the league at 19, 20, especially in New York, Brooklyn – this is definitely a difficult place. A loving atmosphere. But they want you to play hard every night, like in Toronto. They want you go out and come after it, just to be there to see this culture, to let the fan base grow on me, my family – it was definitely tough.
"When you get into the league and see people like Kobe playing his whole career in one team, Dirk Nowitzki, you want to be the next to do something like that." Things don't work out. Of course it's a business. I was definitely a little hurt. But it's part of the game. "
Of course, the networks had bigger plans for Hollis-Jefferson's Cap Space in July. Brooklyn has essentially revamped its entire squad this summer to make room for the landscape-changing NBA additions of superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Irving gave Brooklyn one of the NBA's most dangerous point guards in its heyday, while Durant, who paused for the entire season after a sore Achilles, is one of the top five players in the game.
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With all due respect for Hollis-Jefferson, the nets hunted a larger game. But that benefited the Raptors, who took the 24-year-old from a remarkably sensible one-year deal worth $ 2.5 million and put it to good use by the bank for his defensive versatility and tenacity. And there is no lack of motivation when he plays against his former team for the first time on Saturday.
"I am a competitor and look forward to every matchup," said Hollis-Jefferson. "But this in particular."
The Raptors will take all the energy Hollis-Jefferson can give them when trying to get out of a five-game tailspin where the team's offensive is crater-like, which they waffle with strong defense and the one trait she thought she could always rely on in good times and bad – a fast-paced, tireless style of play – that is largely lacking.
"One thing we've always tried to be is a super tough team. We usually come with the attitude that we really protect you, get up, play at a pace, things like that," said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. "I think we did that last night (a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers). I think we flew all over the place. And after looking through the tape, we had five or six undisputed three-pointers, and none of them They mixed in a couple of sales and I think we'll let it come to us.
“That stirred up our energy a little. I don't know what to say other than trying not to let it happen. But it's hard not to let that happen. We have to make sure we do a little better. And we have to jump in and take some pictures. "
The Raptors have certainly not done this recently. In the last five games, they shot 39.6 percent from the field and 27.2 percent from the three-point range. In the previous 19 games, Toronto shot 46.3 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from a distance.
Shooting will surely fluctuate over the course of a season. And every team has to find alternative ways to score if three-point shooting is not available. But Toronto's shooting is bad and its first attacker, Pascal Siakam, has seen a slight slump. His starting player Kyle Lowry has not yet ended the injury phase. It's a bad combination and that's why the Raptors lost four out of five.
And especially in the last two and a half games, the Raptors have missed the game from Fred VanVleet, who is struggling with a bruise on the right knee. His relief is not only critical to how Lowry can sometimes play with Toronto's starters on the ball, but also how he plays the VanVleet transition benches at the heart of the games. Not to mention the luxury of having a 39.4 percent three-point shot career on the ground, or VanVleet's ability to accelerate the pace in transition and even get to the brink of dribbling when the Raptors need someone to help you Spark provides.
VanVleet trained on Friday but is likely to be considered dubious if he goes into the weekend. There is a possibility that he will return if his knee responds well to Friday's work and he passes some pre-game tests on Saturday. But it's just as likely that he's not quite there yet and is forced to see his team play from the Brooklyn bench.
And the networks, winners of eight of the last eleven, will not be an easy team to turn things against. The good news for the Raptors is that Irving will not be playing on Saturday as he is away for a month due to a problem with his right shoulder. However, the season in Brooklyn was marked by sustained success, although the two best players are missing. And Spencer Dinwiddie, who has done a little bit of everything throughout his career season, argues that Brooklyn actually has three big ones.
"He's a fucking player. He really is. He's a baller, man," said Dinwiddie's sister. "He can hit the ball. He has enormous confidence and chats out there. He's one of those guys who expects it to come in every time he shoots it. It is getting better and better. He's really been instrumental in their success lately. "
The underrated Dinwiddie has kept the nets running since Irving went under, but it is really Brooklyn's depth of contributions that has fueled his success. Joe Harris, Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple have all brought in activity and three-point shooting from the wing, so the ball stays in motion until it hits the hands of someone who is open.
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In the meantime, Jarrett Allen ensured a physical presence, punched picks, rolled hard to catch buckets, and cleaned up the glass. And Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson takes Allen off the bench with a DeAndre Jordan. There's a reason why the nets are still in the top 5 paint points and rebounding teams, while shooting down the sixth most three-pointers in the league.
"Pretty good ball movement – they know where the ball is going. If you need buckets, you have a few key advisors. You have some shots out there. You have a big player who rolls hard on the edge and gets his share of the basket and plays hard, ”said the nurse. "You are playing very, very well right now."
Still, the nets are a team that the Raptors should beat and must beat if they have plans to be a top 4 team in the East. Brooklyn will be a real problem next season – including versatile, defensive-minded Caris LeVert, who has been out for thumb surgery since early November – behind Durant and Irving, but they should be below Toronto's level at the moment.
And yet it is all on paper. The nets buzzed on the floor and the raptors whirled around. Toronto has an average of only 98.4 points per 100 possessions on its five-game skid. For comparison, the New York Knicks, the NBA's worst offensive team this season, averaged 101.8 through Thursday.
The Raptors will always be a defense-oriented team. But you cannot win if you cannot score. And the Raptors really can't do anything if they don't play with the energy and tenacity they have at their best.
"You just have to enjoy the game, man," said Hollis-Jefferson. "I'm sure you saw it when we got to the difficult moments when a team made an 8-0 run. I think we have to understand that this is basketball. We play teams with some good players – they will race. It is part of the game.
"We still have to enjoy the process, enjoy the fight, and just be passionate out there." Having fun with our teammates – I think that will help us overcome this hump. "