Battle of old pals turns into rout
Rajakovic’s side proves too much for Williams’ Pistons
DOUG SMITH SPORTS REPORTER
It is a deep and abiding friendship cemented through walks in the Arizona desert air, when neighbours and colleagues Darko Rajakovic and Monty Williams would share stories of the past and talk of their hopes for the future. Two tremendous and honourable men who understand that coaching at the highest level of professional basketball is so much more that strategic decisions and minutia of the game. They’d talk about that — Williams, then head coach of the Phoenix Suns, and Rajakovic, one of his assistants — and to hear them recount those days is to feel the guts of an enduring relationship. “He really cares about people and he’s genuine and he’s direct,” Rajakovic said Sunday before the Raptors destroyed the Detroit Pistons 142-113 at Scotiabank Arena. “Apart from his basketball X’s and O’s, and being a very smart basketball coach, he’s just somebody who really cares about everybody in the organization. “He cares about myself and my family and all coaches on the staff. And (he is) really somebody who I’m looking up to, and (I) try as much as I can to be that type of man.” They are not dissimilar, Rajakovic — the Raptors’ 44-year-old firstyear head coach — and the 52-yearold Williams, who moved from Phoenix to the Pistons this past offseason. Their concern for players extends beyond the court. They are good teachers of the game and of life’s lessons, and both are regarded as genuinely good people. “He’s just a gem of a person,” Williams said of Rajakovic on Sunday. “We would take long walks because we lived right by each other in Phoenix, and we would just talk about life. I was always interested in what it was like growing up in a different country (Serbia) and going the route that he went on to get to this position.” Nothing in those conversations could have possibly prepared them for where they are today. Williams is struggling with an overmatched Pistons team that has some potential, but is now 2-12 after 11 straight losses in what looks like another long and disappointing season. And Rajakovic? He’s got an all-star (Pascal Siakam), the 2021-22 rookie of the year (Scottie Barnes), an NBA all-defence wing (OG Anunoby) and two seasoned veterans (Dennis Schröder and Jakob Poeltl) in his starting lineup, and a team with exponentially more potential than the Pistons. Not surprisingly, there was little doubt about Sunday’s outcome from the opening minutes as the Raptors dominated from start to finish. “At halftime we had 23 assists, I believe. And when you play the way we played in the first half, it’s such a natural thing to do in the second half, to stop moving the ball and stop playing together,” Rajakovic said. “I told the guys: Let’s not talk after the game that we only had seven assists in the second half. “They did a really good job over the course of the whole game.” Toronto had 44 assists in all, a franchise record, while the 142 points were the third-most in team history and a season best. Six players scored in double figures, led by Siakam’s 23 points, and eight players hit at least one three-pointer. The Pistons were missing some key players, but their presence wouldn’t have made a difference given how well the Raptors played. “Today was just one of those games where the ball was on a string for us,” said Poeltl, who had 16 points, 10 rebounds and four of the assists. “We saw it in the numbers as well. The assists numbers were pretty high, and it’s not just one person with 20 assists. Throughout the whole team, everybody was sharing the ball, everybody was moving the ball. “You create a lot of easy shots that way.” And for Williams, who is charged with turning kids into NBA players, Sunday’s signals were bad. “We have to do a much better job of handling adversity in-game,” he said. “Lately, I haven’t seen that from us. Tonight when the adversity hit, I thought we just went down in our spirit, and we can’t afford that. “I think a few of our guys are dealing with how hard the league is. When you’re dealing with it, the one thing you can control is your competition level. I didn’t see that across the board tonight. This is not a rescue business. This is a man’s business, and you have to play the game like a man. You’ve got to compete like NBA players do.” That’s probably not what he and Rajakovic talked about on those strolls through the streets of Phoenix.