Raptors must set sights on title defence in final third of season

Phoenix Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. (3) controls the ball as Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) defends during first half NBA basketball action. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO — On a night when he wasn’t exactly seeing eye-to-eye with the “selective vision” of the officials, Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse huddled his players during a timeout with about five minutes to play and offered the following.

“I said, ‘I’m having as much fun as you guys are. Probably less the way I feel now,’” Nurse said after the Raptors out-paced the Phoenix Suns, 118-101, Friday night. “’But we’ve got to dig in together here and go play.’”

And so the Raptors did on a night when Nurse admits “nobody was having any fun out there.” The game certainly lacked a rhythm, a pace and an aesthetic. But it was one of only 27 — now 26 — remaining for the Raptors prior to the playoffs, and while the first two-thirds of the season has been about simply getting through all the injuries, all the jumbled lineups and all the not-so-fun nights like Friday, the final third will be about putting Toronto’s many distinct pieces in place for a championship defence.

The Raptors will spend the next eight weeks learning just what they have, what works and what doesn’t ahead of the playoffs, when Nurse’s rotation will shrink, his playbook will be more focused, and his team will face a series of do-or-die moments over the NBA’s second season.

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To that end, Nurse said this week that the Raptors would make a point of feeding Pascal Siakam a high volume of touches down the stretch, endeavouring to expose the team’s primary scorer to as many situational challenges as possible. And that began in earnest against the Suns, as Siakam took a quarter of his team’s attempts in a 25-point first half.

He didn’t have much of a break over the last week, fulfilling the many obligations and demands that accompany the honour of an all-star selection. And this year, that included taxing on-court minutes in the actual game itself, which featured a physicality and competitiveness rarely — if ever — seen before.

Of course, playing as hard as Siakam did in the fourth quarter of the all-star game is probably more benefit than detriment. Those are the kind of high-leverage repetitions against the league’s best players he needs to continue his growth. The kind he’ll be asked to excel in two months from now.

They’re also the kind he isn’t likely to get against a struggling Suns outfit relying heavily on the madcap play of Kelly Oubre Jr. But the Raptors continued to force-feed Siakam as the game went on, and he responded with 37 points on 23 used possessions, featuring sharp marksmanship from beyond the arc (he hit 5-of-9 three’s he attempted) to draw out defenders and open up room to cut toward the basket.

“It’s just being aggressive, being assertive. Making sure that I just go out there and show that type of energy every single night,” Siakam said. “Just knowing that you have to go at the other player that’s guarding you every single time. Having that mentality, I think that’s something I have to work on. And coming into the second half of the season, that’s something I want to put an emphasis on.”

On the other hand, aggressiveness is not something that’s lacked in Terence Davis’ game, and Friday was no exception as the undrafted rookie ransacked his way to a 14-point effort off Toronto’s bench.

Even though we should all understand what he’s capable of by now, Davis’ athleticism is still mind-boggling at times, like when he turns a corner on his defender as if he’s running a route downfield and, without breaking stride, finishes a one-handed, reverse lay-up over his head from beneath the basket.

It’s way too early to ponder Nurse’s potential playoff rotation, considering the ever-uncertain status of this team’s health and the different permutations that match-ups can force. But then again, how could Davis not be a part of it? Even with Norman Powell presumably back in the fold, and Nurse’s unwavering belief in Patrick McCaw’s effectiveness well established, Davis has to factor in somehow, doesn’t he?

There will surely be nights when he doesn’t have it, which is an easily managed situation considering Toronto’s depth. But on the nights that he does, Davis’ energy and fearlessness taking in-rhythm, without-hesitation three-pointers — he hit a pair Friday night — can help keep the scoreboard moving in the middle of games.

“The pace that he was playing at was opening up the floor,” Nurse said. “And he can just score, man. All he needs is a little space and he can score.”

Friday was an interesting illustration of the Raptors trying to learn what they have in terms of centre depth, as well. Marc Gasol will be on the shelf for some time, and Serge Ibaka can only play so much, which mean Chris Boucher will have plenty of opportunities over Toronto’s next several games to show the club’s front office it doesn’t need to sign a bought-out big prior to the March 1 cut-off for playoff eligibility.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and OG Anunoby will likely see some time at centre as well, undersized as they are. But the optimal situation is that those two remain fours while Boucher takes his opportunity and runs with it, leveraging his energy and athleticism to create defensive disruption like this:

You can’t really teach that. And Boucher did it again in the fourth, sending a Dario Saric three-point attempt into the second row for his fourth block of the night.

Still, Boucher’s minus-five in a 17-point win is telling, as was the fact he played only 14 minutes on a night when Ibaka picked up his fifth foul early in the third quarter. Boucher struggled at times in an admittedly lopsided matchup with Phoenix’s much thicker, much stronger centre tandem. But he’ll keep getting his opportunity, and it’ll be up to him how far he carries it.

“I want Chris to carve out this role and keep it,” Nurse said before the game when asked how he’d deploy Boucher in Friday’s unideal match-up. “We’ll give him his chance. And if it looks good, we’ll let his stint roll and we’ll give him a second stint. If it doesn’t, we start shifting around.”

Now, if the Raptors are at full health during the playoffs, Boucher likely doesn’t leave the bench during meaningful minutes. Maybe if Nurse wants to match up with an uber big lineup. Maybe if Gasol or Ibaka are in critical early foul trouble. Brass tacks, it would take an “if.”

Thing is, the Raptors being at full health is a pretty big “if,” too. It really hasn’t been the case at any point this season. The club’s obviously hoping it’s getting the worst of its adversity over with now. But a heavy workload and previous injuries are fairly reliable predictors of future injury. And the Raptors, who played more games than anyone last season and have been hurt for most of this one, satisfy those criteria. There’s no guarantee Toronto will suddenly hit a run of better injury luck come playoff time.

So, keeping a down-bench player like Boucher well accustomed to Toronto’s on-court rhythm and familiar with the in-game tendencies of his teammates could be a boon sometime this spring. Only so much of that can be accomplished on the practice court. In-game repetitions are paramount. Even against a team still half on vacation like the Suns were Friday night.

And even with Gasol and Ibaka healthy, Toronto’s rebounding at both ends has been a quiet, lurking issue all season. Entering Friday, the Raptors ranked No. 22 across the NBA in offensive rebound percentage and a much-more-concerning No. 26 defensively. Opponents had come down with 29 per cent of available offensive rebounds, which led to the Raptors surrendering an average of 13.9 second-chance points per 100 possessions, the fourth-worst mark in the league.

The problem hasn’t necessarily been put-backs or unnecessary opportunities beneath Toronto’s basket, as the Raptors are actually the second-best team in basketball at limiting opposition paint points, averaging 41.4 per 100 possessions coming into Friday night. Rather, it’s the long rebounds off missed shots that have ended up in the hands of an opponent on the perimeter and created a fresh, 14-second possession.

A lot of that’s luck. You can’t control the behaviour of the ball when it’s out of your hands. It’s going to bounce where it’s going to bounce, and sometimes that’ll be right into the grasp of an opponent. But it’s also a product of Toronto’s run-and-gun approach in transition, as all Raptors know that if they get a head start in the opposite direction off a stop, one of the team’s facilitators is liable to push the ball up to them. An added emphasis on staying home and securing the rebound may be necessary going forward.

Boucher ought to be able to help improve those rebounding numbers, considering his urgency and craftiness beneath the basket. But he’ll have to play better to remain on the floor to do so. Friday, he came up with only one offensive rebound and two on the defensive end. Meanwhile, the Raptors surrendered 10 offensive boards.

So, some of what the Raptors wanted to work on Friday came through. Some didn’t. What matters is a win, and making the most of an opportunity to continue putting the pieces in place for an impending title defence. Regardless of how much fun the head coach is having or not.

“I didn’t have much fun out there tonight coaching. It wasn’t very enjoyable,” Nurse said. “But when I sit here and look back on it right now, I don’t mind that it got a little tough and tight and we had to bounce back and respond and guard and execute down the stretch.

“It’s a nice little learning moment, I guess. Confidence booster, actually. So, I’m getting happier as I keep talking here. And I know you’re all concerned about my happiness.”

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