TORONTO — It’s been three weeks since Draymond Green dislocated Jonas Valanciunas’s left thumb with a hard, clean swat in the paint at Oracle Arena. Three weeks since the Toronto Raptors centre was left screaming in pain on the floor. Three weeks since he underwent surgery because the dislocation was so bad that trainers couldn’t pop his thumb back in place. And with each game they’ve played in Valanciunas’s absence over those three weeks, the Raptors have increasingly demonstrated just how much they miss him.
It’s not only the reliable double-figures scoring he provides, as Valanciunas has averaged at least 12 points per game each of the last five seasons. That’s nice, but the Raptors have plenty of players who can score — most nights, Valanciunas is at best their fourth or fifth option.
Rather, it’s what he takes away that stands out. It’s the rim protecting. The defence he plays against opposition bigs. The rebounds that don’t end up in the wrong hands. The paint presence that prevents opponents from feasting down low, as they have been against the Raptors for the last three weeks.
And with the Utah Jazz in town Tuesday, it was hard to envision things getting any better. Utah started two players — 6-10 Derrick Favors and 7-1 Rudy Gobert — with a size advantage over Serge Ibaka, who started at centre for the Raptors. But although the Jazz had plenty of success exploiting that matchup, it wasn’t nearly enough on a masterclass night from Kawhi Leonard, who poured in a career-high 45 points of 16-of-22 shooting in a 122-116 Raptors win.
Leonard carried the Raptors through this one, responding to a slew of non-calls in the first 24 minutes by staging a dizzying second-half takeover. His third quarter was one of his best of the season, as he scored 19 points on 7-of-7 shooting, while getting to the free-throw line eight times. Even as the Jazz double-teamed him aggressively with blitzes and traps in the fourth quarter, Leonard consistently made good decisions under considerable pressure in his best game as a Raptor.
Pascal Siakam’s contributions were critical, too, as he scored a career-high 28 in 32 minutes, shooting 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Norman Powell had a quietly strong night, scoring 14 off the bench. And Danny Green continued to excel at the little things, finishing a game-high plus-16 and grabbing a massive offensive rebound in the final minute.
“We made a concerted effort to play a little faster,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “It was getting a little bogged down. And it kind of started midway through the last game. I was just like, ‘Guys, just because they score doesn’t mean we have to hang our heads and take it out and walk it up. Let’s go, man.’ And I think we did a better job of that tonight.”
It was a much-needed offensive breakout for a group that played to a 107 offensive rating in December, down from 115 over the season’s first two months. Defensively, it was far from Toronto’s best effort, as the Jazz shot 43 per cent from the field and came down with 12 offensive rebounds. With Leonard playing the way he was, the game could have quickly turned into a blowout had Toronto earned a few more stops.
And although the Raptors didn’t get as badly burned at the rim Tuesday as they have recently, it still has to be an area of concern for Nurse going forward. His team hasn’t been doing nearly enough in the paint since Valanciunas went down. And it didn’t do enough Tuesday, as Favors and Gobert combined for 37 points and nine offensive rebounds.
It’s been happening for a while now. Against the Philadelphia 76ers two Saturday’s ago, Joel Embiid got essentially anything he wanted, scoring 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Then, when the Raptors went to Miami following the Christmas break, Hassan Whiteside took full advantage of Valanciunas’s absence, hitting 8-of-12 from the field and playing plus-22 basketball. Two days later in Orlando, Nikola Vucevic had his best night of the season, going off for 30 points and 20 rebounds in a plus-33 performance.
Utah, Miami, and Orlando each scored north of 50 points in the paint, while the 76ers poured in 60. The only game this season that’s seen the Raptors allow more was in November against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. Protecting the rim’s been a problem.
Rebounding has been, too. Philadelphia outrebounded the Raptors by a significant margin, while the Magic pulled down 60 boards, including 11 on the offensive glass. Ibaka’s struggled to pick up Valanciunas’s slack in that regard, and wasn’t much better against the Jazz, who fought their way to 12 offensive rebounds.
“Offensive rebounding’s been really important this year,” Nurse said before the game. “We’ve had some noticeable lapses protecting the rim and I just think [Valanciunas and Ibaka] as a one-two punch all game long are pretty solid. When Serge has to do it all night long it’s a little harder for him.”
When the Raptors are healthy and at their best, they’re using Valanciunas against bigger, traditional centres and Ibaka against more mobile bigs. Meanwhile, Greg Monroe provides a veteran, always-prepared third option who’s good in small doses, while fourth centre Chris Boucher is playing big minutes with Raptors 905, continuing his development.
But what the Raptors have had of late instead is Ibaka struggling to contain larger centres down low, Monroe getting burned by big men who can stretch the floor, and Boucher taking his knocks on the defensive end in the first extended NBA run of his life.
It’s not easy to determine an answer to these issues short of getting Valanciunas back in the lineup. And progress is being made. Valanciunas had post-surgery sutures removed from his hand on Saturday and is expected to be out of his cast within another week. But he’s still far off from returning to games — the Raptors haven’t put a timeline on it — which means Toronto’s remaining centres are going to have to sort out these issues without him.
Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry sat out Tuesday night for the eighth time in Toronto’s last nine games as he continues to battle lower back soreness. On Friday, he received what the team described as “pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory injections” during a procedure with a spine specialist in New York. He was feeling well enough to perform some shooting drills prior to Tuesday’s game, but his availability going forward remains a mystery.
It’s tough to imagine an athlete as competitive as Lowry sitting out Thursday’s much-anticipated game in San Antonio, when the Raptors will play the Spurs for the first time since last summer’s swap of DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl for some guy with big hands named Kawhi. It’s going to be intense. And you know Lowry wants to be a part of it.
But back injuries can be fickle and no one knows that better than Lowry who has a history of similar issues. It would be an obvious call to err on the side of caution if he isn’t quite ready by Tuesday. But there will be no shortage of motivation for him to find a way.
“It’s now into a pain management stage a little bit,” Nurse said. “Each day we’ll be monitoring him and seeing when he’s going to be ready to go.”