PORTLAND – Having a flexible lineup that can adapt to almost any situation has been a stated goal for first-year Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse this season.
But becoming experts in playing without their best players was never part of the plan although necessity is the mother of invention.
Just as Kawhi Leonard returned to the lineup after missing two games with a bruised hip the Raptors found themselves taking on the Portland Trail Blazers without all-star point guard Kyle Lowry after he was a late scratch after his thigh tightened up following the Raptors’ off-day on Thursday.
It didn’t go well. The guy who did play – Leonard – looked stilted and out of rhythm by his elevated standards and was guilty of forcing his offence on too many occasions, although his four triples in seven attempts were welcome – one of them down the stretch as the Raptors nearly stole the game with a furious comeback from down 13 with 4:28 to play. Toronto got it to four on Leonard’s three with 2:15 to play and then to two with 1:50 to go after Fred VanVleet scored a layup.
But they really could have used Lowry then. Two critical errors cost them as VanVleet – otherwise brilliant starting in place of Lowry – forced a fast-break and turned it over allowing C.J. McCollum to score a triple at the other end – and a five-second violation with 1:16 left that Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu turned into another triple put Portland up eight and ended the Raptors’ hopes.
Things happen might as well have been the theme of the night.
“It is what it is and hindsight is always 20/20. I go in there and get an and-1, get a layup, I’m a hero, it’s a tie game,” VanVleet, who scored 16 of his 21 points and counted five of his eight assists in the second half, said of his late drive and turnover. “The ball gets stripped there and I suck, I’m stupid. If Kyle plays, we win the game. You know what I’m saying? You’ve gotta live with that. I’m gonna make mistakes. I’m gonna play as hard as I can … that was obviously a turning point there.”
In addition to playing without Lowry the Raptors were without Pascal Siakam for all but seven minutes in the second half after his back tightened up after a first-half flagrant foul by McCollum put him awkwardly to the wood. Leonard managed just three first-half points before exploding for 25 in the second, only to miss two late threes that after helping the Raptors storm back. Just a strange game.
“First of all, they really played great, right from the start they were super fast and cutting hard and making shots, making the right decisions and I thought we were a half-step slow out of the gate,” said Nurse. “Man, their bench was unbelievable, 58 points or something like that. They just put it on us.”
There likely aren’t many lessons to take away from this one. The Raptors will miss Jonas Valanciunas on the boards, that seems evident. The big Lithuanian was in a gigantic cast after having his dislocated thumb surgically repaired. Portland out-rebounded Toronto in the early going although the tally evened up as both teams went small down the stretch although Valanciunas would have been nice to have to matchup with the Blazers’ powerful Jusuf Nurkic.
The Raptors also need to find a better playmaking mix when Leonard is at the fulcrum of the offence although the big wing was certainly playing hard – diving on the floor, fighting for deflections, absorbing blows as he got to the free-throw line. He finished with 28 points on 17 shots but five fouls – rare for him – and three turnovers, a hint at the how much of a grind it was for him most of the night.
“Obviously you got a talent like that you probably try to cater to them a little bit and he’s probably going to have to do a good job of catering to what we do as well,” said VanVleet.
“It’s trying to find that balance, man. We have to plug him in and see where we think he can fit. You saw how the offence moves without him it’s a matter of figuring out how to find a happy medium there. He’s kind of giving in a little bit and we’re giving in a little bit and we’ll find ourselves in the middle a little bit, but it will take some time.”
But their defence was as much a problem as anything as the Blazers shot a comfortable 56 per cent from from the floor with eight players in double figures, including Mississauga’s Nik Stauskas, who finished with 13 points and a pair of assists as the Blazers second-unit was plus-19 against the Raptors bench.
The Raptors may have been 7-1 without Leonard but there was no such sample size to measure their performance without Lowry as he had missed just one game so far this season – six games ago against Cleveland — also because of back tightness.
But in the early going it was clear Lowry was missed. No comment on VanVleet – who has rounded into form of late after a slow start but he was responsible for three of the Raptors’ seven first-quarter turnovers, but with Leonard looking a bit out of sorts early after missing two games, not having Lowry – a sparkplug coming off two of his best games of the season – hurt.
Routine possessions turned into adventures of poor timing and worse spacing. Pascal Siakam suddenly seemed to have the floor shrink on him as he spit up two first-quarter turnovers while Greg Monroe – getting second-unit duty in place of Valanciunas – looked as lost on defence as you might expect given how little floor time he’s seen this season.
Only a pair of late corner threes from Siakam kept the Raptors from being down double figures early as Toronto trailed 28-23 after 12 minutes.
The Raptors treaded water early in the second quarter with a makeshift bench unit but a 13-4 run by the Blazers bench gave Portland a 13-point lead by the time the Raptors starters were all back with just over five minutes left before half.
Three-point shooting kept the Raptors in it most of the night as they finished 18-of-31 from deep, sparked by Danny Green going 5-of-7. He finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds as well.
Toronto kept Damian Lillard (24 points) and McCollum (14 points) largely under wraps but allowed too many secondary players to have good nights. After a reasonable first quarter the Blazers were piling up straight-line drives and dominated the boards in the absence of Valanciunas. The Raptors were lucky to head into the half with the game still in reach, trailing 58-50 with Lowry not playing and Leonard contributing just three points and taking only five shots in his absence.
The Raptors were never quite on point defensively but Toronto was able to find something offensively in the second half. The key was VanVleet who caught a rhythm and scored 11 points in the final six minutes of the frame, finishing his run with a triple that cut the Blazers lead to two at 91-89. Also key was Monroe, who chipped in three quick buckets on leak-outs and put-backs, and Leonard showed signs of heating up too.
“We got it right where we needed it to start the fourth and, man, it was like a one-minute barrage [at the end],” Nurse said, referring to three triples the Blazers hit in a 91-second span beginning with 2:27 to play in a four-point game. “We had to climb back up the hill again and we almost did it.”
The Raptors are now 1-1 without Lowry but what the night really proved is life is easier when both your stars are present and available. On to Denver.