Raptors’ lacklustre bench throwing wrench into Nick Nurse’s plans

Watch as Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry speak postgame after the Raptors evened the series against the 76ers.

For all the good that came from the Toronto Raptors‘ Game 4 win on Sunday — Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance and, you know, keeping their season alive — it’s hard to overlook some serious issues facing the team.

The Raptors’ team shooting, which has taken a nosedive since the regular season, has already cost them one game and nearly cost them Sunday’s 101-96 nail-biter. And then there’s the disappointing play of key reserves Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell.

Already playing with a shortened rotation, as is playoff custom, the Raps bench has struggled to make an impact and it’s forced major changes to Nick Nurse’s minutes distribution.

“I think the reason why we have to go with a shorter rotation now is that our guards are having a tough time getting free,” Danny Green told reporters on Monday afternoon at the team’s practice facility in Toronto ahead of Tuesday’s Game 5. “Fred, Norm, even K-Lo … Our smaller guards are having a tough time getting space, getting free and attacking in the paint.”

No player is having a tougher time than VanVleet. It’s become hard to justify his floor time and on Sunday he saw just seven minutes of action, registering zeroes across the statsheet. During the second round, he’s averaging one point and one assist (not typos) in just over 17 minutes of action. In the playoffs he’s reached double-digit scoring just once — Game 1 against Orlando — and is shooting just 29.8 per cent from the floor and 21.7 from deep.

VanVleet’s struggles have been dramatic, but in general shooting has been problematic for Toronto. The Raptors ranked No. 1 in the NBA in three-point shooting after the all-star break, the only team to shoot over 40 per cent from deep (41.5, to be exact).

But the playoffs have told a different story and in this second-round series against Philadelphia the Raptors are shooting just 29.5 per cent from beyond the arc.

“It’s different rhythm shots [in the playoffs]. It’s different looks that we’re getting defensively,” says Green, who points out that the opponents are obviously playing a factor.

“They are very athletic, explosive with long arms, so they can cover ground really quickly,” he said. “As much as you think they’re uncontested [shots], they’re not as uncontested as they feel.”

The Raptors are the second-worst remaining team in the NBA’s post-season at 33.7 per cent from deep. The worst? Philly, at a virtually identical 33.6 per cent.

Nick Nurse likes the looks his team is getting but wants his team’s shooters to recognize their role and stop hesitating.

“We weren’t ready to pull the trigger enough,” he said. “I think we did a better job of that last night [but] you’ve got to take shots when they’re there. They’re sending bodies all over the place and we swung out to guys that we want shooting those shots, who have been shooting them all year. They’ve got to take them.”

The Raptors’ lacklustre shooting and the increasing unreliability of VanVleet and Co., we’ve already seen some major changes. In Game 4, with VanVleet on the bench, Nurse elected to play both of his centres, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, together for long stretches.

It helps the Raptors on the glass, where they’ve been out-rebounded by Philadelphia, but Nurse likes that he can, on paper, play the duo without sacrificing much in the way of shooting.

“I think the good thing is that both those two bigs can pull the trigger,” he said, adding that “they’re going to get their opportunities to.” Nurse added that Joel Embiid’s presence as a shot-blocker around the rim defence helps lead to kick-out opportunities for open looks — a “safety valve outlet,” as he put it.

But, again, the coach stressed that his shooters must be willing to actually shoot.

“Those guys have got to take them. Marc stepped in and made a couple. Serge has, historically, made those,” he said. “They’re going to have four or five opportunities apiece to shoot it tomorrow night.”

As far as minutes are concerned, don’t expect much to change as Nurse continues to lean on his starters. Leonard and Lowry are both averaging 40 minutes of action, while Green has seen his minutes climb to 34.5 per game.

Green certainly has no issues with the increases.

“We’re not old guys.” said the 31 year-old veteran. “We’re not that old. We’ve been fresh all season. This is what the playoffs is about. You get more than enough rest in between [games] — you get more than enough rest to play 40 minutes if you need to.”

As far as how his rotations will shake out as a whole on Tuesday, a critical game with the series now tied 2-2, Nurse says that, just like him, we’ll all just have to wait and see.

“At this point the answer is: You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. Each game takes on its own personality,” he said. “I didn’t plan on it being the way it was last night, at all. I didn’t plan on going bigger to help us with the rebounding.”

But he maintains that there still remains an opportunity for VanVleet and the Raptors’ bench to have their day in the sun if they can perform.

“Tomorrow’s game will probably change, but my basically philosophy is: Whenever you’re rolling, you’ve got to continue to roll. If you come in off the bench and you impact, your minutes get extended. If you come in off the bench and you impact in a big way, you might play 15 minutes straight.

“I think Danny’s right that each and every one of them is ready to play 40-plus if they need to, and I think the bench guys are champing at the bit to make a bigger impact.”

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