Raptors’ Marc Gasol given big opportunity by Serge Ibaka suspension

Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – "No more losing sleep," Nick Nurse said of the fact that one of his bigger game-to-game decisions has, for the next week at least, been made for him.

During an off-day on Tuesday, Nurse and the Toronto Raptors awaited word from the NBA regarding what kind punishment Serge Ibaka would receive following his ejection and altercation with Cleveland’s Marquese Chriss on Monday night.

Ibaka, it was announced late Tuesday afternoon, has been suspended for three games and won’t return to the Raptors until next Wednesday’s matchup with his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

So, the debate over who starts at centre for the Raptors between now and then is over.

The Ibaka suspension decidedly pushes Marc Gasol into Toronto’s starting lineup for the foreseeable future, beginning with Thursday’s contest at home versus the Los Angeles Lakers — now that the Lakers are all-but eliminated from playoff contention, it’s officially the only time notorious Raptor hunter LeBron James will visit Scotiabank Arena this season.

Gasol, the Raptors’ marquee trade deadline addition, has been settling into his new environment and shown flashes of the often-countless ways he impacts both ends of the floor. But it’s been a process — "You take two steps forward and one step back," Gasol described his experience on the court in Toronto thus far — albeit one that should be sped up thanks to the increased floor time and responsibility that awaits him over the next week.

Nurse says he’s aiming to play Gasol roughly 35 minutes during that stretch.

"I think maybe he needs it," Nurse said after practice on Wednesday. "Maybe he needs some of this extended run here to get unleashed. He’s making a lot of good decisions, getting to good spots [but] he’s not finishing a lot of things that we think he can – the three-ball, some post moves… Hopefully we can get him a little more rhythm and a little more volume of attempts and play through him a little bit more."

While some players will tell you that it doesn’t matter how much they play, that they’ll take to the court with the same purpose regardless of circumstance, these things do matter. It’s especially true for a player like Gasol, who has been starting and logging major minutes during the entirety of his 10-year career before landing with the Raptors. This season he averaged 33 minutes in 53 games with Memphis, compared to the 22 per game he’s logged in 12 games as a Raptor thus far.

Gasol maintains that no matter how many minutes you play, the energy level needs to be high, but conceded that "knowing you have more minutes, you play with a little more patience."

Call Gasol’s opportunity an unintended consequence of Ibaka’s loss of judgement on Monday. But the Raptors’ head coach knows that moments like that should be avoided.

"It’s not great," Nurse said of Ibaka’s actions. "It’s not great that this happens. And it’s not great from the big-picture. I thought he’d done really well this year, emotionally. He’s just had a great season and has been a good teammate. So, it’s a little bit of a bummer from that standpoint."

Nurse, in his first year at the helm of an NBA team, is a coach who tends to looks inward when problems arise, questioning his own role and potential impact, for better or worse.

On Wednesday, he wondered whether or not he should have called the play that led to Chriss and Ibaka getting tangled under the basket — the two had had some words on a few occasions earlier in the game — but it’s not up to a coach to control the actions of his players. Ibaka practiced with the team but as of Wednesday morning hadn’t addressed his teammates yet.

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Looking back on Monday’s ugly loss, Nurse also questioned some of the minutes his veterans logged against Cleveland, a classic trap game against a limited opponent on the second half of a back-to-back on the road. "If I could go back I probably would have tried to rest some of the vets and gone with the young guys. Maybe that would have supplied some of that energy we needed off that road trip in that circumstance."

Against the Lakers they’ll get some of that youthful energy in the form of Chris Boucher, who is expected to get extended minutes as the Raptors’ backup centre while Ibaka is out. Pascal Siakam will likely see time at the five spot as well.

The Raptors practice court emptied quickly on Wednesday once practice was completed, one in which some veteran players took part in only lightly as key pieces like Danny Green and Kyle Lowry fight through the nagging injuries that often flare up this time of year.

The lone rotation players who remained after practice wrapped were Siakam, who got several three-pointers up, and Boucher, who took part in a number of low-post drills, including one in which he was tasked with posting up big man coach Jamaal Magloire.

But as tip-off nears on Thursday, it’s not Boucher who will be in focus for those tuning in. Instead all eyes will be on the matchup between Kawhi Leonard and James, one that has delivered fireworks on the Finals stage in the past.

"It’s another great player on the floor, a hall of fame player, and that’s who you want to compete against," Leonard said of his Lakers counterpart. "This is why you come to the NBA, to play against great players."

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While injuries have been one of the many issues plaguing this Lakers season — the team recently announced they’ll officially be without Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball for the rest of the season — Leonard added that he’s happy with how his own injury recovery has gone, mentioning that the Raptors staff has done a "great job" managing things.

"I’m just happy to play. I’ve mentioned it before, but I only played nine games last season. To be able to get up to the number of games I played now is amazing," he said. "I feel good and we have something to look forward to."

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