Raptors must re-learn how to play with fully healthy roster

Jimmy Butler had 22 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists and the Miami Heat beat the Toronto Raptors 121-110 in overtime.

TORONTO – Twenty-five days, 11 games.

That was the length of time the Toronto Raptors were without something resembling a "regular" lineup after both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka went down with injuries in a Nov. 8 game against the New Orleans Pelicans.

During this timeframe, the Raptors learned a lot about themselves — including the fact that they have more depth than they believed after Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher all stepped up and looked like they could become certifiable rotation pieces when the team returns to full strength.

And, more importantly, that partially thanks to the discovery of this depth, the team can keep motoring along and rack up wins in bunches even with key players sidelined.

So, yeah, even shorthanded, things were humming along nicely for the Raptors.

But shorthanded is still just that, and no matter how well they were playing, the Raptors are a better team with both Lowry and Ibaka healthy and available on a nightly basis.

It just might take a game or two to actually see it again.

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On Tuesday, the Raptors welcomed back Lowry to the lineup as they hosted a tough Miami Heat team, giving the Raptors what, essentially, is their main roster for the first time since that fateful game against New Orleans.

It was a feel-good, relieving moment for the Raptors as Nurse announced that Lowry would be playing, and starting, in the game beforehand, followed by the welcome sight of Lowry’s low-five-covered, workout-inspired player introduction just before tip-off.

And then the game started and it was apparent there was still a fair bit of rust to shake off, not just from Lowry — who finished 2-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-11 from deep — but from the entire Raptors team as they shot 38.5 per cent from the field and 25.6 per cent from three-point range in a 121-110 overtime loss to Miami.

It was pretty apparent that after not playing altogether for nearly a month — and including new faces such as Davis and Hollis-Jefferson who weren’t really in the mix before — there’s going to be an adjustment period over the next few games, with Tuesday’s being the first.

"We have to figure out how we play, myself and Serge figuring out where to be at," Lowry said after the game Tuesday. "[Fred VanVleet] and Pascal [Siakam] are playing so well so you want to let them stay in their rhythm."

Siakam and VanVleet, the two main horses who carried the Raptors during their shorthanded span, finished a combined 10-for-30 from the field for 34 points as they, rather decidedly, were unable to find that rhythm Lowry mentioned. This isn’t to say that the return of Toronto’s regular roster was entirely the culprit — the Heat’s defence deserves credit, in particular Bam Adebayo’s performance matched up against Siakam — but with trying to re-adjust, you could tell things were out of sorts for the Raptors Tuesday night.

"We’ve got to figure it out, it’s new rotations and things like that," said SIakam. "We kinda got used to not having those guys kind of, but having them back now, we should be thankful to have them back, but we’ve got to just figure it out and make sure that we understand what we do."

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And to this point, the minutes distribution that head coach Nick Nurse used looked a lot more like the ones he was running out at the beginning of the season with the likes of Lowry and VanVleet both logging in excess of 40 minutes and Siakam not far behind.

Granted, it was an overtime game, but the players who really seemed to take a step in the 10 games without Lowry and Ibaka either didn’t get a chance at all or were very limited as Hollis-Jefferson played 16:45, Davis 14:47 and Boucher never saw the floor.

This is something that has to be balanced out a little better moving forward, and in all likelihood it will.

But it wasn’t all rough sailing as the Raptors adjusted to this new again rotation as Norman Powell, who has been fantastic filling in as a starter, seamlessly took to a bench role, scoring 23 points and knocking in 4-of-8 three-pointers, including one with about 43 seconds left to play that gave the Raptors their first lead in the fourth quarter before Jimmy Butler hit a free throw afterwards to send it to overtime.

"No matter where you put me, I do my best to help the team," said Powell of his easy adjustment to coming off the bench. "Whatever position or role they have me on the team, I try to go out there and play as good of basketball as I can, and play the way the game is flowing, help the team win, make the plays that way."

For 25 days and 11 games the Raptors looked like one of the best teams in the NBA. They still probably are, particularly with getting two key players back, but for the time being it looks like they’ll be re-educating themselves on how exactly to be the elite squad they are once more.

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