NEW ORLEANS – It was with a certain amount of hard won confidence that Nick Nurse could say that he felt he knew that the character of his team — headed into the crucible of both the highest-profile and most challenging road trip of the season — would shine through, regardless of circumstance.
"You know what? I think we got a good team with some special players and we’re trying to figure out how to play to the best of our abilities right now," said the Raptors head coach before his club hit a significant regular season roadblock hours later. "I don’t feel like we’re trying to make any statements whatsoever. Do we want to win? Yes. Do we want (to win) tonight? Yes. Do we want to win both in LA? Yes. I just think we’re a growing team with some really special players and we’re tough to beat. It takes a lot to beat us. That’s who we are."
The Raptors (6-2) will never have a better chance to show just that than in the coming days or potentially weeks.
Toronto got some career-worthy performances on their way to a 122-104 win that was a blowout for large portions but still had some moments of tension. Pascal Siakam tied his career high with 44 points, looking unstoppable in every situation. OG Anunoby’s 21 points was one off his career high but his five triples – two down the stretch in the fourth quarter – was a new benchmark. His seven rebounds and four assists were further evidence of a player growing his game almost every night out. Norm Powell finally showed some signs of life with 18 points off the bench.
But the game quickly became secondary with revelations afterwards that two of the Raptors’ essential pieces – Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka – could miss significant time on the road trip and beyond with injuries to their thumb and ankle respectively.
"It was an offensive rebound and I swiped down and it felt weird from the rip" said Lowry of the injury he sustained to his non-shooting hand late in the first quarter trying to take the ball from Pelicans big man Derrick Favors.
Lowry subbed out, returned for the second quarter — and played a part in the Raptors’ early 22-3 surge that blew open a 30-30 tie — but was ruled out at halftime.
"I kept playing through it and kept playing through it," he said. "We thought it was something in the nail bed because the nail bed turned black and blue. We got some X-rays, and sent the X-rays off to the doctors, and it’s a small fracture in the thumb."
He said he’ll see a specialist when the Raptors visit Los Angeles for a pair of games against the Lakers and former teammate Danny Green Sunday night and the Clippers and departed Raptors hero Kawhi Leonard.
Ibaka said his ankle was "a little swollen but not broken" after the game, but given the pain he was in when he injured contesting a shot by the Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram just before halftime, and the difficulty he had putting weight on it heading back to the locker room, it seems likely the Raptors’ most important reserve and only other centre on the roster will be out for the rest of the road trip at a minimum.
"It’s pretty bad," said Nurse. "I didn’t see what happened. But the report is it’s a pretty bad sprain."
Few teams can manage losing two of their most important players but after years of seemingly having enough depth to weather almost any storm the Raptors were thin already this season after pushing their chips in last year to acquire Leonard and Marc Gasol.
Lowry was already leading the league in minutes per game at 39 a night and Fred VanVleet, who was third at 37.4 before the game, is the only other point guard on the roster.
The only reason Siakam’s minutes aren’t in the same stratosphere is he’s been in foul trouble so often.
It’s been clear all season that Nurse doesn’t trust anyone outside of his top seven, but he’ll have no choice now.
Just in time for the Raptors’ trip into the lion’s den.
For Raptors general manager Bobby Webster, job one will be finding a competent point guard to support VanVleet, which could require cutting a player to create a roster spot. How to get quality minutes to replace Ibaka could be even harder, although it seems like Chris Boucher will finally get a chance to show whether he can play an NBA role or not. The Raptors have called up rookie Dewan Hernandez from the G-League as another body.
In the first half, Toronto showed how good they can be when firing on all cylinders. They put up a franchise-best 45 points in the second quarter while shooting 53.8 per cent from the floor, 8-of-12 from the three-point line and counting 11 assists on 17 field goals while holding the Pelicans to 32 per cent shooting.
"It was a really good performance by us, I thought," said Nurse. "And an unbelievably great performance in the first half."
No one was better all night long than Siakam, who scored at the rim, from the post, in the mid-range and from deep in a virtuoso performance.
"He’s got the green light to make any move he wants at this point. Serious, man," said Nurse. "We just want him to see how far he can go here: drive it, post it, shoot the three, take it in transition, play the pick-and-roll. We want him to get as many reps as he can."
Siakam’s load will only grow from here. He says he’s ready.
"Obviously [it] makes me work harder, work harder on my handles and work harder on different things I am going to need," said Siakam. "I like that. It makes me work on my game."
The Raptors led 75-53 at the half but then showed how vulnerable they can be without a full complement of their best players.
They held the fort in the third quarter, maintaining their 22-point advantage thanks to Anunoby and Siakam, mainly, and a scrappy defensive effort, but the cracks started to show as the game began to lengthen.
At one point in the fourth quarter the Raptors were playing a lineup featuring three undrafted free agents, two of them rookies in Terence Davis and Matt Thomas, along with little-used Malcolm Miller. They contributed three points in 37 combined minutes.
The lack of confidence Nurse has in his options might be best expressed by the fact that Stanley Johnson – signed to two-year deal for $7.5-million in the off-season – never saw the floor.
The Pelicans began clawing back, sparked by Canadian rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who had 10 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter and looked good doing it.
A pretty left-handed layup on a drive by the shifty Canadian cut the Raptors lead to 11 with 7:31 to play as the Pelicans started the fourth on a 13-4 run.
But the Raptors held firm, the key shots a pair of triples by Anunoby that pushed the Raptors lead to 15 with 4:36 to play and some finishing touches by Siakam that put the game out of reach.
But it needs to be pointed out that the 2-7 Pelicans came into the game giving up an NBA-worst 124.3 points a night. The Raptors opponents on the rest of the trip – they go to Portland and surging Dallas after the LA gauntlet – are in a different category of difficulty.
How the Raptors navigate those waters will be a trick.