Raptors cap off successful regular season keeping all eyes on the prize

Toronto Raptors' Pascal Siakam holds on to the ball next to Minnesota Timberwolves' Gorgui Dieng during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in Minneapolis. (Stacy Bengs/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS – They’re here. The time is now.

Or is it?

Before the ball ever went up in the 2018-19 season, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made it clear that this season was about another — the post-season, the one that could last two months or two weeks, but would mean everything.

Game 82 of the regular season meant nothing, in case there was any doubt.

To underline the going-through-the-motions element of the whole thing, not playing against the Minnesota Timberwolves was Raptors’ bell-weather point guard Kyle Lowry, along with Serge Ibaka, whose resurgence this season has been a feather in Nurse’s cap, given Ibaka looked like he had gravel in his knees during the post-season a year ago.

On the floor in the first quarter at one point were the following: Jodie Meeks, Chris Boucher, OG Anunoby, Jeremy Lin and Norm Powell.

I’m not even going to look it up: That was the first time those five had ever played together.

And hey, let’s be clear, it’s not like the lottery-bound Timberwolves were laying it all out there.

In a perfect end-of-season NBA moment, Minnesota centre Karl-Anthony Towns took to mid-court before the game to thank the fans on fan-appreciation night wearing street clothes. He didn’t appreciate them enough to play, apparently.

The Raptors took care of business 120-100. The win left them at 58-24 for the season, the second-best regular-season record in franchise history, one off the mark set last year. It also guaranteed them home-court advantage in the NBA Finals, for what that’s is worth.

On a side note: I have no idea what Boucher’s long-term NBA future holds, but given he’s incredibly quick, fast, tireless and plays as hard as he possibly can all the time, there should be bright things ahead. The G-League MVP and defensive player of the year from Montreal finished with 15 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks in 24 minutes, and was the by far the best Canadian on the floor as T-Wolves Andrew Wiggins coasted to 16 points on 17 shots while counting three rebounds and three assists as his most disappointing season yet comes to a close.

On the Raptors front, given that Lowry will enter the playoffs as the only holdover among the starting lineup, and that Kawhi Leonard missed 22 games, Lowry missed 17, Fred VanVleet missed 18, and on and on and on… — Nurse had to navigate 22 different starting lineups and a second unit that was even more uncertain — there is no way to argue that it wasn’t remarkably successful regular season, even if it was, as Leonard said, just practice.

“The one thing I’ve tried to make a theme this year, or we’ve tried to make a theme, is you know the script can’t always be followed,” said Nurse. “We’ve been forced into go off-script a lot. We’ve been looking at different lineups, different second units, different starting lineups, different combinations, small, big, super big. And I guess the whole point of that was we get some type of familiarity with things not just being perfect all the time. And I feel good about that.”

He had reason to on Tuesday. There was Leonard, moving well, looking healthy and emerging unscathed as he finished with 20 points on 14 shots in 24 minutes. It’s easy to forget that, when the ground-shaking trade was made last summer, there were no guarantees that Leonard would be able to carry a regular load after missing 73 games a season ago. It looked uncertain at points, such as when he failed to play three games in a week over the space of seven weeks after the trade deadline on Feb. 7. But last night was his fifth game in nine days, giving every indication that he’s ready for a playoff schedule.

“We did a great job just attacking the problem in the beginning during training camp,” said Leonard. “Laying out the schedule. I feel good. I wasn’t as healthy as I wanted to be this year, but, I couldn’t say I would have this type of season in the beginning of the year the way things started, the way I felt. I’m happy. We’re second place. We’ve got an opportunity to get where we want to get to.”

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This time a year ago, VanVleet separated his shoulder in the last game of the season, which essentially made him a shadow of himself in the playoffs. VanVleet started in place of Lowry, looked in complete command of his game and got on the charter in one piece — victory.

“That’s all you ask for,” said VanVleet. “I’ve been dreading this week for the last three, four weeks, having nightmares about how it played out last year, just wanting to get it out of the way and be at full strength and so, God forbid anything crazy happens in the next few days, we’re going into it feeling pretty good.”

Marc Gasol continued to have his seemingly magical effect on the Raptors’ three-point shooting. Since he arrived from Memphis, he has averaged a fairly modest nine points, 6.6 rebounds and four assists, but the Raptors have converted 41 per cent of their threes — the best mark in the NBA since Feb. 9 and a fantastic trend if it could continue into the playoffs.

Gasol himself is shooting 42.9 per cent from deep since arriving — and that was before he went 2-of-3 against Minnesota — but it’s more his pass-first ethic that seems to be catching on.

“With his addition he may be getting the ball [to shooters] a half count quicker than they’re used to, so they’re open and they’re staying open or the contest might not be quite as hard as maybe they’re used to because it touches his hands and it’s getting to the next guy’s hands quickly and they’re getting them away with more clearance,” said Nurse. “His ball movement has made it a little more contagious for all of us. We had a game — maybe five games ago — where we had 373 passes and the average is 275 or something. It was really flying around. The contagious passing that’s he brought is only going to make us shoot the ball better.”

The Raptors were 16-of-37 from deep against the T-Wolves, a rate of efficiency they would love to see when the playoffs begin.

So, with all of that behind them, is it ‘go’ time? Is now the time to get the revs up, allow the hype to build?

Nope — and not just because the Raptors will have to wait until the final night of play is completed Wednesday to find out if they’re going face one of Orlando (most likely), Brooklyn or Detroit (least likely).

For Nurse, the second season is just like the first: Don’t get too high or too low. Keep all eyes on the prize.

“A couple of weeks ago people were worried if we’re going to be peaking down the stretch here and I was like, I don’t really care about these games,” said Nurse. “There’s a long way to go before we have to be at our peak and even when we start in the playoffs there’s a long way to go before you have to be at your ultimate best.

“It’s such a long time. A team can really grow over a month of six weeks or hopefully a two-month season that we’re getting ready to start.”

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