Nearing full health, Raptors have second half to reach true potential

Kyle-Lowry

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) drives against Washington Wizards guard Ish Smith (14) during first half of their NBA basketball game in Toronto, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (Cole Burston / CP)

Halfway home.

The NBA schedule is long and winding, and markers like the quarter- or mid-point, or “pre-All-Star and post-All-Star,” are all arbitrary. Wins in October matter as much as losses in March. Success in the regular season guarantees nothing when basketball starts for real in the playoffs.

But there does seem to be an “out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new” feel as the Raptors look ahead to the next 41 games after their 140-111 win over the visiting Washington Wizards on Friday night at Scotiabank Arena.

For optimists, it was a sign of things to come as a nearly full Raptors roster showed off a little bit of everything against the overmatched Wizards to improve to 27-14. They had moments of dominant defence; long stretches of near-impeccable offence; and they got significant contributions from all over the rotation with seven different players hitting double-figures early in the fourth quarter.

Did we mention Marc Gasol was 6-of-7 from three? Or that Norm Powell scored 28 points off the bench?

Then again, this all came against the defence-optional Wizards (13-28), so probably wise not to get too carried away.

But it was a nice rinse for what has been a trying first half of the season, although one that may pay long-term benefits.

Still, the temptation might be to put the first half in the rearview mirror and speed away as quickly as possible. Six of the Raptors top-seven rotation players – the exception being OG Anunoby – missed at least a quarter of the season to this point. That doesn’t count Matt Thomas or Patrick McCaw, who have missed 22 and 21 games, respectively, with their hurts.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wasn’t so much coaching as he was working on a post-apocalyptic survival plan, routinely rolling out lineups featuring rookies and undrafted free agents, and expecting them to play heavy minutes and compete against the best players in the world.

The good news is they did. The Raptors beat the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center without Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry. They beat the Portland Trail Blazers without Lowry, Ibaka and Anunoby. When Pascal Siakam, Gasol and Powell went out with their injuries, the Raptors were able to come back from down 30 against the Dallas Mavericks and blowout the Boston Celtics at TD Garden.

It wasn’t all perfect but somehow, someway a bunch of people in Raptors uniforms that didn’t look very much like the team that won the NBA title last June was able to keep the team afloat. As a result, they enter the second half of the season in fourth place in a competitive Eastern Conference and on pace for 54 wins. Remarkable.

There have been some downsides – perhaps most significantly Lowry leading the NBA in minutes per game, averaging 38.3, with Fred VanVleet, the Raptors other point guard in fourth and Siakam, the team’s leading scorer just behind that. While the game-by-game load should be mitigated by extended “rest” they’ve each had due to injury, having to roll out your key horses for league-leading minutes totals all year is probably playing with fire in the long-term.

Still, the best should be to come. Friday night’s win was the third game since Powell, Ibaka and Gasol returned. The expectation is that VanVleet (hamstring) will return after a five-game absence when the Raptors visit the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night.

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What would a relatively healthy 41-game runway mean for a team that has high hopes of taking off in the post-season?

Nurse can’t wait to get the blender out.

“(It would mean) being versatile, mixing lineups – small and big – continuing to develop some confidence in some of our younger guys,” said Nurse, warming up to the thought of having nearly unlimited options at his disposal. “Possibly trying to control minutes a little bit more here as we go.

“And then lots of tweaking,” he added. “Just making sure we’re ready defensively, our coverages continue to get some polish, being versatile there, just making sure we’re getting good late-game, fourth-quarter execution on both ends of the floor. Things like that.”

As an example: For the second straight game, he started with their “big lineup” rolling out Ibaka, Gasol, Anunoby and Siakam, along with Lowry, while bringing Powell off the bench, where he’s shown himself equally adept at bringing the heat.

It will be interesting to see what Nurse decides to do with his suddenly overflowing bench once VanVleet is up to speed.

One option that could help keep his second unit engaged while also keeping minutes more manageable for Lowry and VanVleet, in particular, would be to carve out a more predictable rotation for his non-starters. He could create a unit run by VanVleet, reprising the “Bench Mob” that was so successful in 2017-18 and helped launch Siakam and VanVleet.

Tempting?

“We’ll consider it,” said Nurse, but he’s got other priorities for the moment.

“Right now it would be more of a temptation to be really versatile in the starting lineup which, again, will naturally change second units each night,” he said. “That’s probably more at the forefront of my mind and hoping that the second unit can, whoever they are — whether it’s a combination of Kyle coming back, or Fred coming back, or Marc or whoever ends up being that one or two stabilizing force, or whatever they are in that unit — that they’ll be OK.

“But, I think that there may be a little bit here in the not-too-distant future that we try to get a second unit that’s more locked in.”

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The benefit of the Raptors having so many key players miss big chunks of games in the first half is that almost everyone on the roster has had their time to shine.

Would Nurse have learned to lean on Rondae Hollis-Jefferson if Ibaka hadn’t gone down? Maybe not, since the versatile power forward played four minutes in the Raptors’ first eight games. Would rookie Terence Davis have been able to play with the kind of game-changing confidence he’s flashed at times if he didn’t have opportunities for extended runs with the likes of Powell, Lowry, VanVleet and McCaw all down for long stretches? Unlikely, and on down the list.

Now Nurse has an embarrassment of riches as he tries to figure out the end of his bench.

It’s a luxury Nurse won’t be shy about using as he sees fit. “I think that’s probably just going to be a little bit of a feel thing,” he said. “… I don’t mind once in a while just doing it, out of nowhere, and just seeing a wild-card type of thing.”

It’s fun to think about because of the platform the Raptors have to work from. It would have been easy for them to fumble their way down the standings or even fold the tent and figure it out when they were healthy. Instead, Toronto has put together a remarkable first half against all odds and made some believers based on what they should be able to do if their health can hold up from here on in.

Catching the first-place Milwaukee Bucks might be a stretch – the Raptors were 9.5 games out before play Friday night – but the second seed and a more favourable first-round playoff matchup is within easy reach, with the Miami Heat just two games ahead of Toronto.

The Raptors’ tenacity has been hard not to notice.

“They’re probably in the best position of everybody (in the East) because no one expects them to be where they want to be and they have every bit a chance to be in the Finals,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks. “They have experience, they have length, they have toughness, they got a bench, they got a good coach, they have great fans. They’re right there.

“They’re right there with the best teams in the East. Obviously Milwaukee is playing lights out, they started the season that way and they’ve been money every night and they’re going to be tough to beat, but Toronto has that championship DNA, that fibre, They’ve been there, they’ve seen it and they always have something to fall back on, potentially, if they’re down 1-0 in a series, or 2-0 in a series. It’s a good thing to have.”

The Raptors feel good about it too. What their record could have been if they were healthy in the first half is fun to think about – might they be nipping at the heels of the Bucks? And what they are capable of now that they have their full complement of players is equally enticing.

But their job is to manage what is, not what could have been or what could be. They’ve done that beautifully and are now poised to come out on the other side.

“… We dealt with what we have and I think there’s a lot of positives to take from it,” said Nurse. “It hasn’t been easy, but there have been some positives. We’ve seen lots of minutes by lots of guys in different ways. We’ve been forced into a lot of different defences and lineups, and all kinds of things.

“(But) do we know who we are?

“Yeah, I think so,” said Nurse. “I think we’ve got a good team out there, man.”

And 41 games and then some to find out how good.

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