TORONTO — The good news, in so much as an injury to the fulcrum of your team can be, is that the Toronto Raptors do not appear to be expecting Kyle Lowry to miss significant time. The 33-year-old suffered whiplash in a nasty collision during Friday’s win over the Indiana Pacers and was in a neck brace after the game. None of it looked comfortable. But it could’ve been worse.
“He’s all right,” Toronto’s head coach, Nick Nurse, said of Lowry. “He’s OK, I think.”
You can’t fault Nurse for being noncommittal. Why would he tempt fate? Lowry’s only the latest in an absurdly consistent chain of injury absences the Raptors have withstood this season. Toronto’s taken the floor 53 times now — after edging the Brooklyn Nets Saturday night, 119-118, for their 14th win in a row — and undrafted rookie Terence Davis is the lone roster member to play in all of them. OG Anunoby and third centre Chris Boucher are the only others to appear in more than 43.
It’s just been constant. Joining Lowry on the bench Saturday were Norman Powell, who’s not returning from a fractured finger any time soon, and Marc Gasol, who will be out until at least after the all-star break with his second hamstring injury of the season. That’s three guys who would start on most teams. And the Raptors have been so stricken that missing only those three feels strangely like progress at this point.
And let’s be clear: that the Raptors are 39-14 — the NBA’s third-best record — in spite of all this is a testament to the team’s depth, versatility, and uncompromising nature. Saturday, on the latter-half of a two-city back-to-back, they simply overwhelmed Brooklyn for three quarters, before nearly collapsing in the fourth and ultimately spinning out of danger with the fuel gauge sitting on empty.
“We knew it,” Nurse said afterwards of his fatigued team. “We talked about it in a couple of timeouts: ‘Man, we’ve got to gather everything we’ve got.’”
And they did. The Raptors shot 47.4 per cent from the field Saturday and hit 14-of-35 threes without two of their best scorers. They won the rebounding battle and pulled down 13 offensive boards without their starting centre. Five players finished in double figures. Not a lot of teams could do this. And it’s hard to imagine a team could keep doing this.
Perhaps we’re about to find out. The earliest Toronto could realistically be whole again is likely sometime in March. And that’s provided no one else gets hurt. Reliable predictors of future injury include workload and previous injury. Can you think of a team that’s played an awful lot of extremely competitive basketball over the last 15 months and experienced a lot of injuries recently?
So, this might just be how it goes. The unsettled, improvisational nature of Toronto’s season could very well extend into the playoffs, and for as long as the Raptors keep competing. Players are of course more inclined to play through injuries at that time of year than they are now. But some injuries cannot be played through.
And if that’s the case, the Raptors will need more performances like the ones they’ve been getting lately from down-roster reserves. Saturday, Davis drew into Toronto’s starting lineup in Lowry’s place next to Fred VanVleet, opening the night with a four-point play, three rebounds, and another three-pointer before the game was even four minutes old.
Then it was the Matt Thomas show, as the first-year sharpshooter dropped 11 in the second quarter, including a trio of threes and a ridiculous left-handed finish of a Serge Ibaka lob at the rim.
Davis finished with 20 points and eight rebounds; Thomas, 15 and six. Last season, neither was in the NBA. This season, neither was expected to play this much in the NBA. And here they are.
“Those guys can play, man,” said VanVleet, who led the Raptors with 29 points. “I feel like we’ve had this conversation five to 10 times this year. And it’s a good thing. Every time they step up and they play well, people are surprised, right? Because they’re at the end of the bench. But you’ve just got to wait for your turn, wait for your opportunity.
“Those guys have been good for us all year. And to do it on consistent nights, yesterday and today, is special. That’s what we need out of those guys.”
There’s really no arguing the results the Raptors have produced through all this. Perhaps you’ve heard that they haven’t lost in nearly a month. They’ve also won games with nine different starting lineups. They’ve won four games in which they shot below 39 per cent from the field. They’ve beaten opponents that scored 118, 120, and 121 points against them in regulation. Time and again, they’ve found a way.
“Incredible depth. Gasol’s out, this guy’s out, this guy’s out. That’s a true sign of not only a good basketball team but a good program — when you can have the injuries they’ve sustained and go deep into your roster. You’re going 11th man, 12th man,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said. “They have young guys that are deep in their roster that have helped them win games. That’s how you go on a long streak in this league. You can’t just do it with your top five or your top six — you’ve got to be deep. They are deep. They’re playing great basketball.”
Of course, just because you’re winning every night doesn’t mean you’re always playing exemplary basketball. The Raptors have had plenty of poor runs of play, poor quarters, poor halves. One came the last time the Raptors played Brooklyn, a few games before the streak began, when they found themselves trailing at halftime after a pair of disjointed quarters. When Toronto met for a film session Saturday, much of Nurse’s tape focused on that half, the mistakes his team needed to avoid this time around, and the adjustments that were made to ultimately come away with a win.
It was the same thing on Wednesday when the Raptors suffered a lousy first half at home against the Pacers before rallying after halftime to steal a one-point victory. Toronto then carried that momentum into Indiana’s building Friday night, playing what Nurse could only describe as “a hell of a game” to stretch the streak to 13.
“There’s always plenty of mistakes to show out there, that’s for sure,” Nurse said. “But I think they’re a pretty high-IQ team. They’re always looking to shore things up. They’re a great group to coach. A lot of resilience and a lot of high care level.”
Still, it’s fair to wonder whether the team’s lapses could be more thoroughly exploited in the playoffs with additional focus on scouting and execution from tougher opposition. Particularly if the Raptors are still relying as heavily on depth players as they are now. And as they have been all season.
Things already get a little squirrelly at times, like Saturday, when VanVleet picked up two early, dubious fouls, forcing Nurse into some uncomfortable rotations. Closing out the first quarter were Patrick McCaw, Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Oshae Brissett, and Boucher — a lineup that had played together only once before.
Then, late in the third, it was Davis, McCaw, Thomas, Hollis-Jefferson, and Boucher — another group with only one brief run of play together. Those lineups did fine, mostly hunting quick shots off early actions. But when teams know how to shut down those plays, forcing those units to create on the fly, it remains to be seen whether they can do it without the playmaking of Lowry or VanVleet.
Which is why an injury to Lowry is a little more troubling than the plethora of others the Raptors have withstood this season. It ripples down the roster. Down the stretch Saturday, as Brooklyn was storming back into the game, it was VanVleet taking practically every attempt. He came up with a couple big ones, including a circus-shot three-point play with a minute left. But he couldn’t do it all himself. It took a desperate final defensive possession to eke out the one-point victory.
It’s further proof that, while the Raptors play so collaboratively that everyone’s important, if there’s one player whose contributions are particularly difficult to backfill it’s Lowry’s. If you watch this team often you know by now that he makes a litany of instinctual, winning plays every night, and, in a lot of ways, sets the tone of the tenacious, uncompromising identity the Raptors play with.
It’s the identity that’s gotten this beleaguered team through hell and high water. Saturday, it got them a 14th straight win. And with a turnaround in injury luck, a little more good news for guys like Lowry, it could get them pretty far.
“At this point, I think we’re experienced enough in that realm, unfortunately. We’ve had a ton of guys out this year,” VanVleet said. “So, we don’t really think about it. It’s just more opportunity for a guy like Terence to get some starting minutes, obviously myself to be a primary ball-handler most of the game. Young guys have got to step up and make the most out of the situation, find a way to get a win, and move on to the next one.”