Raptors’ Powell feels Valanciunas’ pain on slow return from injury

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Toronto Raptors' Jonas Valanciunas (17) reacts after scoring against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

With recent signings and a return from injury in the headlines, the Toronto Raptors practised Thursday ahead of their Friday matchup against the Brooklyn Nets. Here are some takeaways from the court:

Valanciunas practises

Although it appears it’ll still be some time before Jonas Valanciunas gets back into game action, the Toronto Raptors centre participated in practice on Thursday, his injured hand taped. The Raptors’ seven-footer took part in 60-70 per cent of drills with his teammates but was held out of rebounding drills for obvious reasons.

Valanciunas was on his way to the best start of his career before the injury, averaging 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds in just 18 minutes of action. He’s proved to be a potent one-two punch with Serge Ibaka at centre, providing the Raptors with size and good matchup options against the NBA’s bigger low-post forces.

His absence has opened up minutes for Greg Monroe as the team looks for ways to make up for Valanciunas’ production.

“I show up every day and night and wonder who’s on the floor,” head coach Nick Nurse said about the Raptors’ rash of injuries and ailments this season. “I’m used to it.”

The Raptors have been hit with a number of injuries, although most not as serious — he’s missed Toronto’s last 13 games and is expected to be sidelined as long as one month.

In the meantime, he’s been pestering Nurse to be involved as much as he can while recovering and getting to full strength.

Norman Powell knows how frustrating that process can be. He missed a month and a half with a shoulder injury before recently returning to the court.

“Me and J.V. joke all the time about the process of rehabbing and the conditioning,” says Powell. “I’m always asking him: Are you bored yet?” After like the third day I was bored out of my mind. He’s been really good though, he’s been here every day working, itching and hungry to get out on the floor.”

While Powell was sidelined he was in constant dialogue with coaches trying to figure out exactly how he can help contribute once he returned to the floor, and says he sees Valanciunas doing the same.

“Being that big, dominant post presence and rim protector,” Powell says of how Valanciunas will impact the Raptors once he’s back. “How he can help the guards in the pick and roll… being a presence on the offensive scoring load down in the post. He’s working with coaches and studying film sessions to see where he can help when he gets back.”

Patrick McCaw signing just a report for now

The Toronto Raptors reportedly signed 23-year-old Patrick McCaw, a third-year wing player and former second round pick out of UNLV.

As of now however nothing is finalized, although it’s expected a deal will be done as early as Thursday evening.

It would be an interesting move for the Raptors. McCaw’s free agency comes under some contention — after not coming to terms on a deal this summer with the Golden State Warriors, his previous team, McCaw sat out most of this season before being dealt to the Cleveland Cavaliers and waived after three games, a move that is reportedly under review by the league.

McCaw is notable for his experience with the Warriors the past two seasons, where he’s collected two championship rings. Last season he suffered a scare in which he fell awkwardly on his back, leading to a spinal injury that cost him much of the ’17-18 campaign, although he did make his return by the time the Finals rolled around and played spot minutes in garbage time during the Warriors’ sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

A useful piece off the bench as a rookie the previous season, his career highlight to date was an 18-point outburst in the 2017 playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs that saw him catch fire and go 3 of 4 from deep.

That said, McCaw isn’t known as a reliable three-point shooter — just 29 per cent on his career — and as of right now that is the Raptors’ biggest area of weakness. While they are comfortably in the top-10 in the NBA in field goal percentage at the rim and from mid-range, Toronto ranks just 23rd in three-point shooting.

It remains to be seen what kind of role McCaw carves out in Nurse’s rotation as the season wears on, but his playoffs and Finals experience and a young career surrounded by greatness help to make him a worthwhile flier for the 31-12 Raptors. He is reportedly set to sign a one-year contract at the league’s minimum salary.

What’s more, should the Raptors hypothetically reach the Finals, in McCaw they have a player with detailed knowledge of the Warriors — the most likely opponent — players and systems, an asset that several have pointed out.

Tough test on Friday

The Raptors play the Brooklyn Nets on Friday at Scotiabank Arena in what will be a surprisingly tough test. Despite a record just under .500 at 21-22, the Nets already have one victory over Toronto this season, and come to town winners of four of their last five.

“They’re one of the biggest surprises [in the NBA],” Nurse said of this season’s Nets team. “They drive hard, shoot the three, and play pretty succinct defence…Obviously their guys have bought in.”

A young, fun team to watch, the Nets have a number of shooters and are a difficult offence to contain. D’Angelo Russell is enjoying his best season to date and is averaging over 22 points per game in his last five games.

The last time these two teams met, in Brooklyn, the Raptors lost in overtime following a missed game-winner attempt from Kawhi Leonard. Leonard had 32 points in that game, while Russell led the Nets with 29.

In 12 games since, Leonard is averaging 29 points, seven rebounds, and two steals per game while shooting over 54 per cent from the floor.

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