The dog days of the bubble are upon us.
The two best teams in the Eastern Conference met on Monday night at Walt Disney World Resort in what could have been the kind of match-up to get people rubbing their hands together, but life is all about timing.
And the time for a showdown between last year’s Eastern Conference finalists isn’t right. Check back in about a month.
That was made plain when Giannis Antetokounmpo – likely to win his second consecutive MVP award for the Bucks – was ruled out due to dental surgery, and the Raptors held out Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka for minor ailments.
But the game wasn’t without significance.
The Raptors cemented their No. 2 seed and earned their 50th win by going 4-1 through their first five games in Florida but part of that involved Raptors head coach Nick Nurse riding his big horses pretty hard, with VanVleet and Lowry playing 37 and 35 minutes a game, respectively, and Siakam clocking in at 34.
The loads weren’t overly burdensome, but it’s meant that Nurse has had a hard time finding minutes for anyone other than his starters and Norman Powell and Ibaka, the first two players off the bench.
A by-product has been some sub-par bench production – it’s hard to produce when you don’t play.
Different players approach these kinds of situations differently.
Chris Boucher could smell a boost in minutes with Ibaka sitting, and he didn’t want to waste his chance.
“We knew some guys would be out,” said the lanky centre from Montreal. “Obviously it was an opportunity. Every time you get a chance to play 20-25 minutes, everyone on this team is going to take it.”
For Matt Thomas, it was about sticking to his routines, and not getting too ahead of himself, even with an obvious opportunity yawning in front of him.
“I do my best to always stay ready regardless of the situation because I never know when my number’s going to be called,” he said. “… there’s going to be games where I don’t play at all and there’s gonna be games where I play one or two minutes. Regardless of the opportunity I just have to prepare myself the same way every game, come in and produce, and do what I can to help the team get wins.”
But on a night with two backcourt players sitting out, surely the juices get flowing a little bit …
“For you, from the outside looking in, you might see it that way but for me? Well first of all I had no idea we were resting guys today until right before the game,” said Thomas. “And even so, I still don’t know what the coaches are thinking or how many minutes I’m gonna play. So, like I said answering your first question, with whatever opportunity I get I’m gonna do my best to take advantage of that.”
Whatever the individual approach, it worked.
The Raptors 114-106 win over the Bucks improved their record to 5-1 in the bubble and 51-19 overall and they got it done without missing a beat even while playing shorthanded.
Bench production? How about a career-high 22 points from Thomas or a career-high 25 points and 12 rebounds from Boucher?
Meanwhile, Powell – the Raptors’ most significant bench sparkplug – got untracked for 21 points and eight rebounds, although he got the start so technically it doesn’t qualify as bench production, but it’s a line worth noting.
But most impressive was the showing by Thomas who came off the bench and looked like he was vying to push into a playoff rotation that Nurse concedes will only run eight or nine at most.
Thomas might have an edge to carve some space out for himself because he was one undeniable skill – he came into the game shooting 47 per cent from three which would be the top mark in the NBA if he had enough attempts to qualify for the official league leaders.
He knocked down three triples and scored 15 points in the space of three minutes spanning the end of the first and start of the second quarter on his way to his career night. His spark helped the Raptors to leads of 36-31 after 12 minutes and 67-53 at the half.
Moreover, he was active inside the three-point line too, making plays for his teammates when the Bucks ran him off the line of creating space for his own growing basket of mid-range tricks.
It’s the second time in the bubble he’s provided instant offence when required – it was a pair of threes by Thomas to start the second quarter with the Raptors trailing against Memphis that removed the lid from the basket when the Raptors were struggling on Saturday – and the kind of performance that a coaching staff can’t help but notice.
But Thomas wasn’t alone.
Boucher has seen his role ebb and flow over the season but he didn’t waste his opportunity either.
With the Raptors coming in waves the Bucks never really challenged as they fell to 2-4 in the bubble with their top-ranked defence — 10th since arriving in Florida — continued to look porous
Boucher’s fastbreak dunk and foul early in the fourth quarter came on the heels of a triple was part of an 11-0 run that also featured another Thomas three that pushed the Raptors lead to 97-77 with 10:23 to play, plenty of cushion, as it turned out.
What the performance of players lower in the rotation means long term is impossible to say, other than it’s a tribute to their ability to keep ready and stay sharp.
Nurse was both positive and realistic about the situation.
“I believe in both of them. That’s two games in a row Matt’s been (a) spark-plug in a game that really mattered and then really, really good tonight just as a basketball player,” said Nurse.
“And Chris, as well. I thought he was good against Memphis [on Sunday] too …. I guess I just don’t know really what to say other than we believe in them and there’s going to be circumstances where we need them and the first thing we’ve got to do is they need to come in and impact with energy and try to make some positive plays.
“I don’t want to get too carried away because we really haven’t used the bench too much, right?” said Nurse. “[We] had a couple of guys play really well tonight in a game that was absolutely meaningless and a team that wasn’t playing very hard against us. [So] I don’t want to get too carried away.”
It’s the reality of the role Boucher and Thomas are in, and the time of the season. All they can do is play every minute like it matters, even if in the big picture they might not.