Opener offers look into how Raptors’ Nick Nurse handling late situations

Toronto Raptors' Fred VanVleet (centre) tries to find a way to the New Orleans Pelicans. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — Tied at 117-117 with eight seconds remaining, a timeout, and the ball, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse drew up what could have been the game-winning play.

These situations were so simple months ago. Give it to the guy with the No. 2 on his shirt and let him do what he does. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. But there was never a question as to whose hands you wanted the ball to be in.

Well, that guy isn’t here anymore. He’s home in California. And the other guy you’d most trust in that spot, the out-of-nowhere star you just gave max money to, had fouled out of the game moments prior. And the other other guy, the undrafted guard who bet on himself and has a habit of hitting clutch shots, was playing on one ankle and compromised to a point that Nurse was considering taking him out of the game.

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There was the starting point guard and franchise icon — the beating heart of your team and your highest paid player. But his shot wasn’t falling on the night, and there was no way the New Orleans Pelicans were going to let him be the one to beat them. The options were rather limited. So, Nurse put the game in Norman Powell’s hands.

Powell sized up Frank Jackson, the Pelicans sophomore guard, dribbled three times to his left, and opted for a 29-foot three-point attempt as the clock expired that he left just a little too heavy.

“Almost what we wanted,” Nurse said after the Raptors ultimately beat the Pelicans 130-122 in overtime. “We would’ve liked Norm to get that thing inside the three-point line. It’s something we work on. But [Jackson] pressed up on him. … Really pressured him early on the catch because there was only eight left. And [Powell] never really got it down to get it into that range.”

As much as there was anything instructive about it, Tuesday’s emotionally-draining, opening-night win was a first glimpse at how Nurse will approach these situations. Some early insight into how he’ll approach the biggest questions his team has to answer over the next half-year or so as they endeavour to defend their throne and raise a second championship banner. Who gets those looks with the game in the balance? Who do the Raptors go to when they desperately need a bucket? How does this team compensate for the loss of Kawhi Leonard?

“There’s a chunk of the offence that’s missing. That’s got to be filled in by somebody. And I think we start with our own guys,” Nurse said before the game. “I think that there’s plenty of guys that could use a few more shots a game or a little more usage. That’s where it’ll come from for now.”

The biggest beneficiary from a usage standpoint Tuesday was Pascal Siakam, who either shot, drew a foul, or committed a turnover on 35 per cent of the possessions he was on the floor during. That was Toronto’s highest usage rate by far — even higher than the 30 per cent mark Leonard led the Raptors with over his torrential season in Toronto, which ranked among the top 15 across the league.

“He was pretty good. He was carrying us there for stretches,” Nurse said. “We had to go to him time and time again there for stretches. And he produced.”

He did, but it played out in such an odd way. Siakam’s first half felt slow and disjointed, but by the time the teams were heading to the locker rooms, he already had 16 points, nine rebounds and two assists. Compare that to the 19, seven, and three he averaged per game in the playoffs last season as Toronto’s second option to Leonard and you get a sense of how heavily involved he’s going to be.

When he fouled out late in the fourth, Siakam had 34, 18, and five, having made a game-high — and career-high — 26 field-goal attempts. Was it his most efficient showing? Absolutely not. But if Siakam’s going to carry that big of a stake in the Raptors offence on a nightly basis, he’s going to have some prolific nights this season.

“I’m capable of scoring and scoring in different ways. I know what’s expected of me,” Siakam said. “I just take what the defence gives me. And if I feel like I have an advantage, I use it.”

Then there was Fred VanVleet. He matched Siakam’s 34 points but did it on eight fewer attempts. His usage was only marginally higher than what he averaged last season, but his involvement was much higher as he earned a start, dished out a team-high seven assists, and played more than 44 minutes, trailing only Kyle Lowry in Toronto’s eight-man opening-night rotation.

“I figured it’d be right around 35 [minutes.] I didn’t expect that. But I’m not complaining,” he said. “I think I’m pretty adaptable. I think I can change to however they want me to play. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll slide into any role.”

Earlier in the night, Nurse talked about VanVleet filling the role left open by Danny Green, who wasn’t a high-usage player — his 14 per cent rate last season was the lowest of Toronto’s regulars — but played an important role as an offensive safety valve. When defences keyed in on Toronto’s focal points or things generally weren’t working, Green was there for a quick-release shot from beyond the arc or to draw a close-out and keep the ball moving.

“It’s not really the same position, but that’s kind of what we’re doing,” Nurse said before the game. “Fred’s kind of a leadership guy. He’s a calm, cool, collected guy. He’ll step in and take a shot when you need him to. I think that’s Fred’s spot now.”

But then the game happened. VanVleet didn’t only hit 5-of-7 threes. He beat his man off the dribble again and again, finishing half his buckets at the rim. While most of his teammates suffered through an understandably lethargic start following a lengthy and emotionally draining pre-game ring presentation, VanVleet was one of the most aggressive Raptors right out of the gate.

After VanVleet tweaked his right ankle tripping over a baseline photographer late in the third quarter, Nurse watched him limping while playing off the ball and strongly considered pulling him from the game. But VanVleet was making so many things happen that he wasn’t giving his coach that choice. So, instead, Nurse started drawing up plays for him.

VanVleet hit a timely corner three with 80 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game, then, in overtime, drilled what was effectively the game’s dagger from the same spot. Posting absurd effective field goal (80.6 per cent) and true shooting (82.4) rates on the night, it was VanVleet’s time to carry the load.

“The ball will just find you on some nights,” he said. “And, on some nights, it doesn’t. Tonight it found me. The next game it may not, and it’ll find someone else. You’ve got to be OK with that.”

And maybe that’s the answer, after one game at least, as to how the Raptors will replace Leonard’s usage. A lot of Siakam. A good amount of VanVleet. Powell in a pinch. More opportunities for the veteran facilitators Lowry and Marc Gasol. A little Serge Ibaka when he’s in a groove. And more from OG Anunoby, who played over 35 minutes for the first time since February and made a dozen attempts from the field for the first time since March. A little bit from everybody.

“For me, the type of team that we have, we all know what everyone’s capable of. We play off each other,” Siakam said. “Today, I might score whatever points. And another day not that many. As long as, collectively, we find whoever is playing well that night and continue to feed him the ball, we’ll continue to win.”

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