DETROIT – The plan was to play Fred VanVleet in small doses. The Toronto Raptors back-up point guard, Sixth Man and talisman was appearing in his first game in five weeks after having surgery on his left thumb.
The plan was to be sensible about it.
The plan went out the window when the Detroit Pistons punched the Raptors in the mouth in the first quarter and never really stopped trying to land bombs.
The Raptors weren’t ready for it. It was a Sunday afternoon game late in a season where the Raptors have a times looked like a team trying to find reasons to play to their fullest.
In a blink, they were down 10 mid-way through the first quarter which did a good job of taking the crowd out of it as it seemed like maybe even more than half of the audience at Little Caesars Arena were rooting for the team from Canada.
They were out in force to cheer on the visitors on St. Patrick’s Day, but ended up watching a team that looked like they’d done their celebrating early.
Toronto was playing catch-up from the start as Dwane Casey’s club took it to Toronto for the majority of the game and ended up hanging on for the 110-107 win, giving Casey a 3-0 sweep in the season series against the team that fired him after a 59-win season and second-round playoff exit a year ago.
The good news is the win pulled the Pistons (36-33) a game ahead of Brooklyn for sixth place in the East as Detroit guns for the playoffs for the first time in two years and just the second time in nine seasons.
With two games in hand on Brooklyn it’s more likely the Raptors (49-21) will be hosting the seventh-place Nets than their old coach.
The Raptors might be happy about that.
"They’re tough. You’ve seen it every year," said VanVleet. "There’s teams that sweep other teams and (then) get swept in the playoffs. I’m not sure how much long-term importance [the season series] has. They’re a tough team and they’ve shown that they match up with us well. So it would be a hard-fought playoff battle obviously if we were to see them and we’ve got to learn from some of the stuff that we’ve done in the regular season but nobody is jumping off a building right now.
The minutes when the Raptors looked best were when VanVleet was on the floor.
Instead of a slow and steady re-introduction to the rotation, the third-year point guard ended up playing 31 minutes off the bench as the Raptors needed a spark with Lowry out for the second-straight game with an ankle sprain and Serge Ibaka serving the second game of a three-game suspension.
"I kind of got the reverse approach to trying to work my way back in," said VanVleet who finished with 17 points and four assists. "There’s only one way to do it and that’s to go and play through it. I didn’t have any minutes restrictions or anything. I think Nurse was a little hesitant in the first half and then as I started to play a little bit he started to open up. Definitely tested my wind, but it’s a testament to the work we’ve been putting in these past five weeks."
The worrying part was how badly VanVleet was needed.
Lin struggled in his second start in place of Lowry, continuing a trend. He finished with three points on four shots in 17 minutes while both Pistons guards – Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith – had their way, combining for 28 points and 12 assists on 19 shots.
After trailing 50-47 at half Nurse started VanVleet over Lin in the third quarter and was rewarded with 10 high level minutes of basketball as the Raptors won the third quarter 37-28. Toronto counted nine assists on 14 field goals as VanVleet made an effort to push the ball up the floor with pace and get the ball moving early in the shot clock.
"Fred obviously was really good," said Nurse. "I thought there was some really good stretches with Fred [and the starters]. They were really moving the ball."
But the opposite was true in the fourth as the Pistons pulled away late after a back-and-forth final frame.
Mistakes were made – in particular a bad pass by VanVleet as he tried to force feed Kawhi Leonard the ball only to have Andre Drummond make the steal and get it to Wayne Ellington to put Detroit up four with 67 seconds left. A pair of free throws by Jackson put Detroit up six with 20 seconds to play.
"Hindsight is 20/20, maybe I’d do something else in that position [next time]," said VanVleet. "But I’m just trying – he’s our best player, one of the best players in the league and just trying to give him the damn ball honestly and it didn’t work out that time, but we still had our chances and learn from it and move on."
What the Raptors may be learning is that the mid-season acquisitions they’ve made aren’t as impactful as they might have hoped. Lin has struggled, shooting 36.7 per cent from the floor and 15.7 per cent from three in as a Raptor before Sunday and has especially struggled as a starter when pressed into the role.
"I don’t want to put it on him, we just weren’t executing very well," said Nurse. "That’s the second time in a row we kind of came out and didn’t execute very well to start the game and you can’t do that. It’s not just on him. It’s all of us getting a little more down and dirty and the start and not spotting them 10 or 12 at the start like we’re in the habit of doing. "
Marc Gasol got a large dose of minutes – 37, his most as a Raptor – with Ibaka out again, and while there were some nice moments he still appears to be struggling to find a fit at times. He finished with 11 rebounds and eight assists, but took only seven shots and scored nine points as he seems hesitant to assert himself offensively.
It’s probably not fair to compare his production with that of Jonas Valanciunas in Memphis (the former Raptors is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds on 58 per cent shooting for the Grizzlies) as Gasol was acquired for his decision-making skills as opposed to his raw numbers, but Toronto is going to need some production from Gasol – especially while Ibaka is out.
Gasol says he’s still studying; the exam isn’t for another few weeks.
"Being on the team for such a short time you have to prepare more because you have to prepare also on the plays that you have and the tendencies and all those things and prepare for the other team," he said. "So everything is a rehearsal and you have plenty of chances to learn and even though tonight we lost, there’s a lot of positives that we can get from and a lot of things that we can also clean up because (those are) things we’re going to see in the playoffs."
That’s all the Raptors can do: make their plans, adjust along the way and hope that it all will be good enough when the games count.
On Sunday in Detroit against their old coach, it wasn’t.