Danny Green a pillar of stability for injury-depleted Raptors

Fred VanVleet hit a three-pointer with 25 seconds remaining to cap a fourth-quarter rally for the Raptors, helping them beat the Pacers 99-96.

TORONTO — Before every game, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and his staff throw the names of their available players on a white board and sort out the night’s rotations. Some games are more straightforward than others. Lately, as the Raptors have suffered through an extended stretch of untimely injuries to key players, it’s been a bit of an adventure.

Anyway, Nurse was looking up at the board Wednesday evening, considering how he’d use his three-and-D wing Danny Green, when something dawned on him.

“I said, ‘Geez,’” Nurse said, “’he’s the only guy that’s been here every night.’”

It’s true. Wednesday’s 99-96 victory over the Indiana Pacers was Toronto’s 33rd game of the season. It was Green’s 33rd, too. And his 33rd start. No other Raptor can claim either of those achievements. Pascal Siakam’s played in 32 games, Serge Ibaka’s played in 31, and Jonas Valanciunas has played in 30. If any Raptor is going to play every night pole-to-pole, it’ll be Green.

It’s tough, today’s NBA. Tough to stay healthy, tough to avoid missed time due to nagging this or pesky that. Tough to absorb the physical toll, the travel, the back-to-backs, the three-in-four-nights-on-the-road, and keep coming back for more. Last season, only 26 players appeared in 82 games, and only eight started all 82. And that might have been high. The year prior, it was 17 and five. A year before that, 18 and six.

Green might not even get there — who knows? It’s only December. But he’s on track so far and that’s fairly impressive considering how much he plays — his 30 minutes per night are third on the team — and the abuse he’s taken.

The other night they even went for his eyes. It was the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to Denver when Nuggets guard Monte Morris swiped at Green, who had just corralled an offensive rebound, and jammed one of his fingers right into the Raptor’s right eye socket.

The gouge left Green with an abrasion and forced him from the game for a spell. But he returned only a couple minutes later, running around screens and playing defence with one eye closed. It was the second time this season Green’s absorbed an eye poke, which has to be just a little disconcerting for a guy who underwent laser eye surgery three summers ago.

And it has to be a little disconcerting for Nurse and Co., considering Green’s the most consistent three-point threat on a Raptors team in dire need of one. There’s an argument to be made that Toronto’s struggles of late, which saw the team drop five of eight coming into Wednesday night, can be blamed in large part on spotty three-point shooting. Since the beginning of the month, the Raptors had been shooting 33.6 per cent from range, which ranked within the bottom third of the league. And Toronto’s season-long rate of 34.8 per cent (18th in the NBA) wasn’t much better.

And yet, there was one lone Raptor shooting over 40 per cent on the year — Green. He came into Wednesday night hitting 42.3 per cent of his attempts while taking more than five triples a night, the second-highest rate on the team after Kyle Lowry. It stood to reason that if the Raptors wanted to hit more threes, they needed to get Green more shots.

It was a topic of discussion between Nurse and his staff Wednesday morning. How, exactly, do they get Green more looks? The problem was that teams were specifically taking Green away beyond the arc, helping off other defenders to crowd his space. It’s exactly the same strategy the Raptors have used against sharpshooters on other teams.

“You guys saw us play Golden State. We were eyeball-to-eyeball with Klay [Thompson] and Steph [Curry,] and we were off everybody else. Trying to limit their shots and hope we could direct it where we wanted to direct it,” Nurse said before Wednesday’s game. “So, it’s hard to force feed a little bit when the help is designed in a certain way. But I’d love to get him some more shots. I’m going to work on that tonight a little bit.”

Turns out it wasn’t so easy. Two quick fouls made Green’s first shift an abbreviated one, as Nurse was forced to sub him out less than four minutes into the game, lest one of his most integral players run into early foul trouble.

Green stayed on the bench until a couple minutes into the second, when the Raptors were trailing by 13. He missed his first two shots from distance, but nailed his third with about 90 seconds to play in the quarter. By halftime, the deficit had been cut to eight. Green was the only Raptor to finish the half with a plus rating. (The NBA’s leader in net rating at 17.1 coming into the night, Green’s made a habit of helping his team out of holes.)

Green’s third quarter stint was not a productive one, as he missed both threes he attempted. But when he returned from the bench in the fourth, the Raptors quickly went on a 6-0 run, punctuated by a soft Green floater after he was run off the line.

But then, of course — of course! — Green came down awkwardly under Indiana’s basket and appeared to tweak his left knee. He spent a few minutes trying to loosen it up on the sidelines before limping off to the locker room. Would that be it for Green’s streak? Would he be the latest vital Raptors rotation piece to fall?

Nope. A couple minutes later, Green was back, chasing around Victor Oladipo, sprinting up and down the floor, and forcing an eight-second backcourt violation in the final minute. His evening ended 2-of-8 from the field, and 1-of-6 from three. It’s not what Nurse had in mind when he was brainstorming ways to free his shooter up that morning. But a player like Green plays as much as he does for a reason — he finds ways to impact the game regardless of how his shots fall.

Moments after forcing the backcourt violation, Green gathered a loose ball off his final missed shot and set up Fred VanVleet for a go-ahead three. Moments after that, Green forced a jump ball by swarming Oladipo. And moments after that he won the jump — banged up knee and all — before hitting a pair of free-throws to put Toronto up three with 2.5 seconds remaining.

Just another night for Danny Green. Just his 33rd of the year.

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