Raptors’ season of change continues to test Nick Nurse

Marc Gasol scored 16 points and the Toronto Raptors defeated the Brooklyn Nets for their fifth straight win.

TORONTO — Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse had watched Fed VanVleet rattle off three strong games in a row. A nine-point, seven-assist effort in a lopsided win over the Los Angeles Clippers. A plus-10 night in Philadelphia, where the Raptors beat the conference-rival Sixers by a dozen. An absolute explosion against the Atlanta Hawks that saw VanVleet go off for 30 on 11-of-22 shooting. Nurse was just starting to get used to it.

“He was just kind of getting back into being himself, I thought. He was good with Kyle [Lowry,] they added some pace up the floor. Obviously, he started to shoot it a little bit better, too. He had a huge game in Atlanta,” Nurse said before Monday’s frenetic 127-125 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. “His end-of-shot-clock making, his end-of-quarter making, and his end-of-crunch-time shot-making is pretty special. Those things will be missed.”

Yes, missed, because the Raptors are evidently required to be without at least one key rotation piece at all times this season. VanVleet will sit out the next three weeks at least, creating a point guard vacuum behind Lowry and forcing Nurse to continue to operate with his lineups perpetually in flux.

“It’s part of it, right?” Nurse said of his team’s injuries. “I always try to keep a positive attitude that these things balance themselves out. We’ve been a little bit on the unbalanced side here going in [to the all-star break.] And maybe we’ll be balanced just at the right time.”

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The particulars of VanVleet’s left thumb ailment — dubbed by the team as “a partial ligament injury” — are unknown. The Raptors say it occurred during the second quarter of Saturday’s 104-99 victory over the New York Knicks, but it wasn’t bothering VanVleet enough to stop him from playing 10 minutes in the second half. His performance was clearly affected, as he missed both shots he took, and finished a team-low minus-13 in the half. But, at the time, Nurse didn’t believe VanVleet was dealing with anything too serious.

“He did ask to come out later in the game. But I didn’t think it was going to be a two-to-three week injury,” Nurse said. “So, my reaction is that it’s a little surprising. But the good news is one week of that or a little bit more is going to be through the all-star break. So, hopefully he won’t miss too many games.”

If you have to sit out a few weeks, this is certainly the time to do it. The Raptors play only four more times between now and the end of the month, which is approximately when VanVleet is expected to be out of a splint. Of course, VanVleet’s been playing through injuries all season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him attempt to shorten his timeline.

Regardless, it appears the Raptors have found a more than capable replacement in Jeremy Lin, who’s expected to join the team later this week after he was bought out by the Atlanta Hawks Monday. There’s a possibility he could be active as soon as Wednesday’s game against the Washington Wizards. But the Raptors may opt to wait until after the all-star break for Lin to make his debut.

A capable three-point shooter with a proven ability to create for himself and others, Lin will be an extremely useful addition to the team, whenever he arrives in Toronto. He’ll likely see considerable minutes right away, and maybe wouldn’t have even joined the Raptors if that opportunity didn’t exist.

But there will still be games down the stretch when one or both of VanVleet and Lowry, who’s battled back soreness all season, aren’t available. And the Raptors will need other point guard options to step up. And Monday against the Nets, Patrick McCaw and Norman Powell got an opportunity to demonstrate what that might look like.

The majority of that responsibility fell to McCaw, the 23-year-old who joined the Raptors last month after an early-season holdout. McCaw played some point guard during his two seasons at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, before declaring for the NBA draft as a shooting guard in 2016. Of course, this is the present-day NBA, where long, athletic wings like McCaw — he’s 6-foot-7 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan — can play and defend a variety of positions depending on the night.

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Nurse brought both McCaw and Powell into the game with four minutes left in the first quarter, leaving Lowry on the court to run the floor. But Lowry checked out shortly after, and McCaw took over primary ball-handling duties. His first few possessions were a little frantic, two of them resulting in turnovers by Kawhi Leonard as he threw passes to positions on the floor that McCaw had recently abandoned.

Powell got to bring the ball up a couple times, too, but didn’t have much more success. He got into the paint on one drive but couldn’t get his shot to fall, and wasn’t able to engineer a good look at the end of the quarter, as the Raptors failed to even take a shot with their final possession.

But a quick regroup between quarters proved beneficial as the notoriously trigger-shy McCaw began the second frame draining a contested three and driving to the rim for an acrobatic finish. He finished his 10 first half minutes with 9 points on 4-of-6 shooting, and managed to do more with his limited opportunity than Powell did.

When McCaw plays aggressively, attacking off the dribble and using his quickness to throw opposition defences into a state of disarray, you can see why so many coaches have liked him throughout his young career, and dreamed on the type of weapon he could be with some seasoning. For instance, here he is doing something not many guys can, turning a rebound into a bucket at the other end in the span of about four seconds:

Nurse stuck to his rotations in the second half, bringing Powell and McCaw on nine minutes into the third quarter with the game tied. McCaw made an immediate impact defensively, wrestling a clumsy pass away from Shabazz Napier and forcing a jump ball that resulted in a change of possession. But it was actually Leonard who took on primary ball-handling duties late in the third, in a move Nurse had hinted at before the game.

It’s certainly another option. Likely not Nurse’s preferred one. But with Leonard scuffling a bit of late, playing with noticeably less aggressiveness than he had been earlier this season, letting him take on more ball-handling responsibilities could be one way to get him back in his groove.

But to begin the fourth, it was back to McCaw and occasionally Powell, who did well to utilize Marc Gasol in an intriguingly effective unit that also featured OG Anunoby and Danny Green. First, Powell drew a help defender before finding Gasol in the post for a dunk. Then, McCaw and Gasol combined on a pretty inbounds play that freed up the guard for an easy basket. And finally, Gasol was set up beyond the arc at the end of a pretty play for a wide open three that brought the building down. It was the moment Gasol officially arrived in Toronto.

However Nurse pieces together the puzzle during VanVleet’s absence, he certainly has options. The Raptors ran up 32 assists Monday, with four players notching four or more. And maybe that’s the best scenario for Toronto. Who brings the ball up the floor? Could be anyone. Considering the injuries the Raptors are perpetually dealing with, sometimes that’s just how it has to be.

“I think we’ve got one eye on the break a little bit — I think they’ve played a lot of games and a lot of minutes,” Nurse said of his veteran team. “I always feel that, however I’m feeling, they’re probably feeling. And I’m looking forward to a couple days off. So, I’m sure they are, too.”

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