No One-Trick Pony: Thomas mixes it up vs. Hornets

by Chris O'Leary

For efficiency’s sake, let’s get the caveats out of the way up front. 

Big picture, preseason games are generally smaller than the smallest grain of sand on the beach. The offences and defences can be as vanilla as Dwight Schrute’s courting of Angela Martin and success and failures in these situations need to be met with those things in mind. 

While the results of these games are quickly forgotten there are things to gleam, moments that can stick with coaches and hints offered up of what someone can be capable of in a new season. In the wake of the Raptors’ win over the Hornets Saturday night in Charlotte, Nick Nurse had a few of those to process. 

First was the performance of Matt Thomas. The second-year shooting guard came off of the bench with a game-high 16 points that included going four of seven from three-point range. It wasn’t just the marksmanship; Raptors fans already knew that Thomas (47-99 from three last season) could knock down shots. What stood out about the 26-year-old on Saturday was how adaptable he was. 

He worked with a rotating cast of players through the night. He found teammates for five assists, working on driving and kicking out. He finished at the rim and added a couple of steals. There’s opportunity in coach Nick Nurse’s second unit this year and he said before tipoff on Saturday that he’s looking to hand out solid roles this season. A few hours later, Thomas went out and took a step toward that. 

“He kind of gets (labeled as) a shooter but he’s also a good player,” Nurse said after the game. 

“He cuts and he moves and does the right thing on defence. He’ll get overmatched every once in a while size-wise or strength-wise or whatever, but I think as much as he does at the other end and his good decision-making at both ends, I am wanting to lock him into a role this year where he’s a big factor.”  

Raptors fans may have been surprised to see a well-rounded game from Thomas, but it’s nothing new to him. 

“Those are simple plays that I know that I can make,” Thomas said. 

“Those have been plays I’ve made my entire life. At the same time, I'm going to play my role, but if there are opportunities for me to take a closeout, or if I'm playing off of a DHO or a ball screen from time to time, I think I can be a playmaker. 

“On the scouting report, everyone's guarding me as a shooter and they don't want me to shoot the ball. So at times, I will draw two (defenders) and sometimes just making a simple play, if you have two guys on you, somebody’s open. Those are definitely plays that I look forward to making the season.”

Nurse came away from the game happy with what he saw from rookie Malachi Flynn. The 29th overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft was as good as advertised in his debut, with said advertisement coming from Flynn’s teammates and from Nurse, who had been impressed with his work ethic and basketball IQ through the past week of practices. 

The six-foot-one, 185-pound point guard had nine points, four assists, two rebounds and a steal in 20 minutes, finishing with a game-best plus-minus of plus-35. He held his own defensively and played with poise. That’ll likely fluctuate for the rookie through the season, but his NBA debut was a good one. 

“Really good handles,” Nurse said of Flynn. 

“He can move it around in tight spaces and I think (he has) good vision and he's got some patience. 

“He drove it into the lane or drove it baseline, for instance and he just kind of waited. One time he hit the big at the last minute for a dunk and one time he fired it out for a corner three. He's waiting and making the right read. It's kind of a progression thing, you come through there and somebody is helping and pieces are moving and you’ve got to find the right guy. He's got some vision to do that. He’s a good decision maker.” 

To get to the point that the Raptors were at late Saturday, reflecting on a few successes while making it through their first of three preseason games, they had to take care of things on the court. The first quarter got away from them and saw Charlotte jump out to a 25-6 lead. The Raptors had it down to nine, 32-23 by the end of the first, led 58-51 at halftime and didn’t look back. 

The caveats are still there -- meaningless results, tame opposition, etc. -- but as Nurse said, staving off a big, early deficit does show something positive. 

“It does show some stick-to-itiveness and competitiveness and understanding that it is a long game and you just got to kind of get back to plan,” he said. 

“It's good to stick with what you're doing. It's good to have some success. You don't want to come in and get blown out after putting in five days of work and putting in your system and then everyone saying, ‘What kind of system is this?’ 

“It's good that we battled back and we got a lot out of it, we really did. We got a nice run for the main guys. We got to look at guys we wanted to look at and then everybody got a play. So that's that's pretty good for a game like this.” 

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