TORONTO – Following a day off on the heels of two consecutive losses, the Toronto Raptors were back at it on Thursday, holding a long practice session at their training facility near the shores of Lake Ontario.
With a mini road-trip on hand, and a much-awaited post-season run on the horizon, there is no shortage of work to be done before the team heads to New Orleans to play the dysfunctional Pelicans on Friday.
Following practice, head coach Nick Nurse held court and discussed a number of topics concerning his team, including the challenge of building chemistry with limited reps, his ever-evolving lineup, and how his struggling second-unit can turn things around.
GETTING IN TUNE
“It’s kind of a delicate thing,” Nurse said when asked about the balance of using his team’s down time between games to rest key players and getting ample time on the floor for his best players to build cohesion as the post-season nears — just a little over a month until the playoffs begin April 13.
The Raptors have infamously had but a handful of games with all of their players at their disposal due to various injuries and ailments. Throw in the trade-deadline acquisition of Marc Gasol, who projects to be an integral part throughout the playoffs, and the subsequent signing of Jeremy Lin, the clock is suddenly ticking despite only a small slice of the regular season remaining.
To wit: on Thursday, the team took part in what Nurse called a “high-intensity” shooting drill in which players had to get up shots with their teammates closing in on them on defence, all at game speed.
As is customary at this time of the season, the Raptors’ veterans did fewer reps than the rest of the team, sitting out while Gasol, for instance, remained on the floor with Toronto’s younger players as he continues to establish himself and learn his new team’s nuances.
“There’s some times when the young guys will come in as a group, and Marc and Jeremy will come in, too, since they’re new,” Nurse said, “and the vets aren’t anywhere around. They’re resting and recuperating from 40 minutes of action the night before. So there’s just a lot to piece together.”
“But [rest] is important,” he continued, “both mentally and physically.”
He cited long hours the team will log in the film room prepping for playoffs, to say nothing of the possession-to-possession intensity of post-season ball.
“We know it’s coming and we want to manage through it.”
On the season, the Raptors boast the fifth-highest bench scoring average in the NBA — no surprise for a team that counts its depth as one of its strengths en route to the East’s second-best record.
But the second unit has struggled to score as of late, dropping to 12th over the last five games while shooting a dead-last 22.7 per cent from deep during that stretch. Some key bench players are really suffering on that end of the floor. OG Anunoby, on paper a dangerous two-way threat once he hits the floor, has topped five points only once in his last five games. Norman Powell, despite a strong outing in a marquee matchup with the Boston Celtics last week in which he was 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, hasn’t fared much better.
So is there a solution to getting the bench back on track?
“One hundred per cent there’s a solution,” Nurse said on Thursday, followed by a long pause and knowing grin. After some gentle coercing, the coach elaborated: “They’ve got to play better, man!”
He maintained that for that group, it all starts on defence. And with a bench unit featuring young talent who have shown flashes of defensive ability and built early reputations off performing on that end of the floor, it’s a reasonable request.
“If they want their offence to get a little easier then they need to get a few stops,” said Nurse. “Norman Powell, OG, Pat McCaw, those guys are long and fast and strong, and can be disruptive on defence. And that’s where it starts.”
One notable bench player — although he was placed in the starting lineup when Kawhi Leonard sat out Toronto’s loss against Orlando last week — who has struggled is newcomer Jeremy Lin. Handed over more responsibility and playing time than imagined in light of the Fred VanVleet injury, the reserve point guard has had difficulty adjusting to his new role and team.
Over his past five games, Lin is averaging five points while shooting a fairly dreadful 26.1 per cent from the field. What’s more, the floor general looks to be lost at times, something that Nurse was willing to shoulder some of the blame for.
“He’s just a little uncomfortable with me, more than anything,” Nurse said.
The first-year head coach wants Lin, like the rest of the Raptors’ point guards, to take more ownership over play-calling duties when he’s out there on the floor.
“I’ll say to him, ‘Jeremy, hey, call something. You’ve got the ball in your hands and you look like you don’t know what you want to do out there. You don’t have to look at me. Call this, this, or this,'” Nurse points to an imaginary clipboard in his hands. “‘Pick one.'”
“Even though I’ll try to shorten it down to three [options], he’s so new that sometimes he can’t quite come up with one.” Nurse acknowledged that, until he sees what he wants from his backup point guard, it’s the coach that will need to adjust his approach for now. “I need to give him more help until he’s more comfortable with that. That’s the first thing.”
The second thing, Nurse said, had to do with Lin adjusting to the intensity of virtually each and every Raptors game at this point in the season. “The way teams play us, and the games that we’ve been in here with really quality teams, they’re pretty high-level.”
Needless to say, for a team atop the East with a target on it’s back working to play at a finalist level, it’s been a far cry from what Lin was used to with the 22-44 Atlanta Hawks prior to signing with the Raptors after the trade deadline.
“And he will [adjust]. He’s tough. I don’t question that has the ability to do it, it’s just about getting him more used to it.”
“Right now it’s still game-to-game,” Nurse says of his centre rotation and who he considers his starter between veterans Gasol and Serge Ibaka. He added that he’d like to find a consistent starter by the time the playoffs roll around.
Nurse went on to explain that, in general, he expected his starting lineup to be far more fluid throughout the season in terms of who starts and who comes off the bench — and not just regarding the centre spot — but some revelatory performances put an end to that early in the ’18-19 campaign.
“I thought OG was in the mix [at power forward, but] Pascal [Siakam] has obviously grabbed that position,” he said, citing the most-improved-player candidate. “Who knew he was going to play at a near all-star level?”
He also mentioned that, heading into the season, he expected there to be more change game-to-game when it came to shooting guard, but Danny Green has fit in so seamlessly from the start that it put an end to that notion fairly quickly.
Which leaves the lone remaining lineup debate between Gasol and Ibaka, the latter of whom engaged in a pick-and-roll drill with perennial starter Green following practice. For now, Nurse will continue to choose his starting pivot based on matchups, but look for he and the team to settle on one or the other in time for the post-season.
The Raptors now embark on a three-game road trip that will take them to New Orleans, Miami and Cleveland, before returning home for their lone matchup at Scotiabank Arena this season with familiar foe LeBron James and his imploding Los Angeles Lakers.