Raptors’ Nogueira comes up big in surprise playoff appearance

Serge Ibaka scored 23 points and grabbed 12 boards as the Toronto Raptors took game one against the Washington Wizards 114-106. It was Toronto's first game one victory in ten tries.

Like everyone else at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday evening Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira had no idea he was going to get put in the game either.

The Toronto Raptors were trailing by one to the Washington Wizards. Toronto had last won a series opening game when Barak Obama was still a senator.

There were 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, neither of the Raptors other big men were injured or in foul trouble and – perhaps most pertinently – the big Brazilian who wears heart on his sleeve and mostly like has a few tattooed elsewhere, hadn’t been on the floor once for the previous 38 minutes.

Anytime can be Bebe time – and more moments aren’t — but this time?

“No. No. Fourth quarter? Playoffs? No. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to play,” said Nogueira at practice the day after the Raptors second-ever Game 1 win and first of the Dwane Casey era. “I’m always ready to play but me … as a third big, I don’t expect to play in a playoff game. But like I said, I’m always ready to contribute if I have to jump in. But I wasn’t expecting.”

The results were almost expected if you’re into unreasonable expectations.

Nogueira only scored one point and grabbed one rebound but the Raptors were +8 in his nine minutes of floor time as his 7-foot-5 reach helped Toronto hold the Wizards to 2-of-11 shooting down the stretch and his pass-first instincts helped the Raptors outscore Washington 21-13 in his stint as the Raptors established control of the game and jump out to a 1-0 lead in the series.

But getting game-turning performances that materialize out of thin air from the 25-year-old have almost become routine for the Raptors, even if his role positioned firmly behind starter Jonas Valanciunas and back-up Jakob Poeltl means his playing time is routinely sporadic.

Scanning Nogueira’s game log is like reading an EKG – there are a lot of flat spots when he barely plays or doesn’t play at all interrupted by dramatic spikes when for stretches he can be the most impactful player on the floor.

Prior to his fourth-quarter outing on Saturday Nogueira hadn’t played in 134 minutes – nearly three full games – and just 14 inconsequential minutes combined in the two games before that.

And going back a little further is a four-game stretch where he played eight minutes total and not all in two games.

But sandwiched in the middle of nearly nine games of being used like a soup ladle – nice to have, but how often do you use it – Nogueira played 18 minutes in the Raptors home win over the Boston Celtics that clinched the first-seed in the East.

The Raptors were +19 in his minutes in a game Toronto had to win and did – by 18 points.

Ten times the Raptors have been +9 or better during Nogueira’s minutes and in only one of those games has he been on the floor for more than 19 minutes. In the Raptors shootout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last month the Raptors were +8 with Nogueira on the floor. His total clock time? Two minutes.

And then there are the personable centre’s flat spots – the 21 DNPs (Did Not Play on the box score) and the 12 times he wasn’t on the active roster.

It can by dizzying. Nogueira has given up trying to embrace any version of routine to cope with a role that doesn’t provide any patterns.

“How I know? I never know,” he says. “You know me, probably watching me. I’m always there sitting on the bench, drinking coconut water and watch the game. Some days, they say ‘Lucas, go ahead’ and I just go and play.

“I don’t have pre-game preparation, nothing, I just stay in the bench seat and watch … It looks like I’m not paying attention, it looks like I’m not ready, but I am. I’m looking at what’s going on out there, and every time I go I just try to change what is wrong.”

In this he has earned Raptors head coach Dwane Casey’s faith, even if the two men couldn’t be more different – one a button-down traditionalist, the other the freest of free spirits. “We trust Lucas at any point of the game, in any situation, his shot-blocking ability to make the right decisions, especially when teams are double-teaming,” says Casey. “He’ll make the right read, most of the time … it’s easy to put Lucas in, just because of the confidence we have in him.”

Nogueira might have a bigger role with the Raptors – and the pending RFA could on almost any other team – but he can be his own worst enemy. He is honest in an environment where its often wiser not to be – he once volunteered in a routine post-game scrum a good string of games was attributable to him giving up partying — and can’t disguise his body language in a league where always acting the imperturbably soldier is a survival technique. There are a regular stream of soft-tissue injuries that come on too often and linger too long. The image of ‘sad Bebe’ — shoulders slumped, arms hanging – is well known.

But teammates recognize his value to their overall goals. He may have average just 8.5 minutes in 49 games this season but that he produced per/36 averages of 3.7 blocks and 2.0 steals and 2.0 assists suggest the kind of game-changer he can be, so they make the effort to make him feel needed because he is.

“He has all the talent in the world, he just gets down on himself a lot. It’s about keeping him energetic, keeping him wanting to be here, keeping him engaged,” said CJ Miles, who was in a similar rotation squeeze earlier in his career with the Utah Jazz. “We just talk every day. I remind him that we’re going to need him. I said it to him 85 per cent of the year. Every day we walked into the gym, I said it to him, ‘We going to need you.’ He might not have been played in six games, and then truth be told, in the eighth game he has to play 15 minutes. And he changed the game in the fourth quarter. It happened in the first game of the playoffs.”

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Casey describes Nogueira as a luxury – smart, sure-handed, mobile bigs who can change games defensively and make good decisions offensively are rarely found available as the 11th man in a 10-man rotation, but the Raptors commitment to Valanciunas and the development of Poeltl in his second season has created a log jam that isn’t easy to navigate. Casey tried finding minutes for all three on a regular basis earlier in the season and finally gave up.

Nogueira was relegated to the proverbial “in case of emergency, break glass” role. But with Valanciunas and Poeltl struggling with defending the rim against the Wizards’ lightning quick tandem of guards – John Wall and Bradley Beal – Casey hoped Nogueira’s superior length would bother the Wizards at the basket. He likened it bringing in a specific reliever to get through a troublesome part of the lineup in baseball.

“He’s a wild card. He’s a luxury. I give our front office all the credit in the world to have a guy like that, a third centre that’s as versatile,” Casey said. “Not a lot of teams have a guy Lucas sitting there that’s ready to go.”

Staying ready has become almost an art form for him. At almost every stoppage in play the Raptors trainers are attending to Nogueira, making sure he stays as loose and warm as a seven-foot man can while spending entire quarters hunched on the bench.

“It’s hard … if the regular season is hard, imagine the playoffs,” he said. “Because you’ve been seated for three quarters and you go in fourth quarter, people are already [going] 100 miles. [But] it’s no excuse.

“If you look at the timeouts, I always have two, three people behind me that say stretch, run here. They put like three guys from the training room every time out to get [me] ready and warm so I don’t have an excuse to get in the game cold [but] … it’s hard. I’m not going to lie you. It’s hard to go in there and perform when you’re not getting solid minutes in the season and you might not play in the whole quarter or the whole game. But you have to perform. Sometimes this is your only chance. You’ve got to find a way to play well.”

Many times Noguira does and the Raptors benefit. But many times Nogueira doesn’t play much or play at all. Sometimes he plays but can’t quite find that crack in the game where in can inject himself and make a difference.

In those times he can’t do anything but wait until next time, whenever that may be.

In addition to his tall spiky hair, big smile and quirky, smart game, Nogueira is known for his passion for tattoos. Even with seven feet to work with, the canvas is nearly full. The next one he wants is his daughter’s face on his calf – one of the few beach front lots available.

This past summer he got a handful on his face, ringed around his eyes in delicate script, a decision that Drake teased on a Raptors broadcast and has added to Nogueira’s off-speed legend stats.

He says inscribing his face didn’t take much deciding at all. “I just go and do it. I have already in my mind knowing what I’m going to do. I don’t go to the studio looking for something. I go, do it, and leave.”

Above and below each eye in no order are the Rolex symbol, a pair of musical notes; a diamond, ‘Fear God, ‘self-made, ‘believe’ and – perhaps most relevantly for an athlete depended on to shine in brief, unpredictable moments and trusts himself to do so – one more: the word ‘faith’.

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