Raptors hope to help in the healing process as RJ Barrett grieves his brother, Nathan

TORONTO — One of the underrated things about work, should it provide enough mental (or physical) stimulation, is that you can get lost in it.

This is not a healthy thing to do regularly, for sure. There is much more to life than what you do to be able to afford to live. If work is all you have, that will become a problem at some point. Sometimes, though, work can represent freedom, not a holding cell.

Almost two months ago, Golden State Warriors assistant coach Dejan Milojević died after suffering a heart attack at a staff dinner. He was 46. Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajaković is also a Serbian coach in the NBA and just two years younger. Milojević was a star player back home and Rajaković has been coaching since he was 17, but in the world of the NBA, they were far more similar than different. They were friends.

“It is an escape. It is a safe place,” Rajaković told The Athletic on Friday evening of being able to coach his team in the wake of his friend’s death. “It’s something that we get the opportunity to do. And we are not taking it for granted. Myself as a coach and all the players, you’re not taking those opportunities for granted.”

Everybody grieves differently. The Raptors will now face that reality on an even more personal level. RJ Barrett’s younger brother, Nathan, died Tuesday. According to Sportsnet, he had been ill for several weeks, returning to Toronto from Florida, where he was studying to be a pilot. The family has asked for privacy.

RJ left the Raptors after playing on the road against the Denver Nuggets on Monday and has missed the last two games, including Friday’s 113-103 loss to the Orlando Magic. There is no timetable for his return, nor should there be.

There is no making sense of any of this. When speaking to the media before the game, Rajaković was close to tears. He said most of the players knew generally what was going on with Barrett and his family, but that didn’t make it less jarring when he left following the game in Denver. The coach said he has been in touch with the Barrett family, as has Canada Basketball.

There are just about five weeks left in the season, so Barrett will likely be back at some point. What then?

“RJ knows really well that we are here for him and that he can make a call and get anything that he needs,” Rajaković said. “Sometimes it’s just a conversation. Sometimes it’s just getting in the gym and getting some shots and getting your thoughts off of it.

“(We’re) just making sure that everybody knows that we are here for (all the players), that we’re gonna help you in any way possible. The worst thing for anybody in that case is just to shut down and get in your own world. You’ve got to be able to ask for help and receive help and just have conversations.”

The conversation about the NBA regular season’s length has been loud over the past few years, and for good reason. Games can lose their intensity, especially when the standings cease to matter to some teams. The Raptors won’t be fighting for placement for the last month.

Beyond the reality that many players are fighting for their spot in the league, each game really is an opportunity for everyone who plays, even if you’re not aware of what that opportunity is from the outside.

“I’m trying to talk with the players and catch up with them individually and as a whole group there as well, how everybody’s processing these kinds of things. It’s not easy,” Rajaković said. “Unfortunately, it is part of life. It’s something that all of us need to learn how to deal with. Definitely knowing that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, something like basketball and the NBA and a team that you play for, it just helps the healing process.”

Whenever he is ready, the opportunity to get lost in basketball awaits RJ Barrett. Don’t underestimate the value of getting away, if only for minutes at a time.


• It is shocking, after years of the Magic doing a Raptors impression from a team-building standpoint, how small the Raptors now look in comparison to their former younger doppelgängers. Aside from Joe Ingles, the Magic don’t play any below-average defenders.

• Rajaković was notably animated after the Magic scored 10 of the first 13 points. It looked like Gradey Dick was getting the majority of the coach’s ire. After the timeout, Rajaković pointed out some spacing concerns to the rookie. On the first play out of the timeout, Dick was Immanuel Quickley’s outlet out of a trap, and Dick made an aggressive play to get to the free-throw line.

• Dick had some interesting opportunities to make quick decisions. Trying to hit a layup right in Magic centre Wendell Carter Jr.’s face is not a good idea. He did a nice job of navigating a fast break and throwing a lob for Ochai Agbaji, though. On the whole, Dick was overmatched by a much more physical team. This was his worst defensive game in a while. The Raptors lost his 23 minutes by 32 points. The coach left him on the bench for the end of the game. Though you want him out there during most competitive finishes, it wasn’t a bad night to use the bench as a lesson. Dick played more than 30 minutes in each game on the trip, and Rajaković said he wasn’t surprised his play dipped after such a heavy workload.

• The Raptors weren’t always so crisp with their decision-making off Orlando’s traps of Quickley.

• Gary Trent Jr. missed the Detroit Pistons game with a groin strain but was back against the Magic. He was the beneficiary of one of the nicest Raptors possessions of the season, a product of some excellent passing and off-ball movement from Quickley. Trent had a season-high 31 points and was their only threat in the half court.

• I’m not going to give Jahmi’us Ramsey credit for banking in a 3-pointer unintentionally, but he played some awesome defence on Markelle Fultz leading up to that possession. Ramsey, on his second 10-day contract with the Raptors, showcased his defensive potential often against the bigger team.

• Also defending well: Ochai Agbaji.

(Photo: Yong Teck Lim / Getty Images)

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