TORONTO — Exactly an hour and 45 minutes prior to every Toronto Raptors home game, the team’s head coach, Nick Nurse, stands in front of a clear, plastic podium in a room adjacent to his team’s locker room and answers questions from the media. Immediately following the game, he returns to do the same.
Monday evening, before the Raptors throttled the New York Knicks, 128-92, Nurse stood before that podium and spoke about how pleased he was to "finally get our entire team on the floor." He was casting ahead to Wednesday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Of course, there were 48 minutes of basketball to be played in between.
"I never should have said that," Nurse said, facetiously, when he returned to that room later Monday night, hitting his fist on the podium. "Can we get a wood podium up here?"
About 30 minutes prior, it was Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry who was hitting wood. First with his torso, when Knicks centre Mitchell Robinson fell onto Lowry’s right leg after the two battled for a rebound in front of the Raptors basket. Then with his fists, as Lowry pounded the court in pain after his right ankle rolled outward under Robinson’s weight.
Lowry remained down for a few moments clutching his leg, before picking himself up and limping gingerly to Toronto’s locker room in obvious pain. The Raptors described the injury as "right ankle soreness" and neither Nurse nor Lowry suggested he’d miss extended time. Of course, as with all injuries, how Lowry feels tomorrow will say a lot more than how he feels today.
"It’s pretty tender right now," Lowry said after the game. "I think it was a little bit dirty. He grabbed me, pulled me down. But he’s a young kid, so I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not. But I think he’ll learn his lesson next time and be a little bit more careful.
"I’ll be doing some treatment all night, trying to get myself healthy — trying to get back and not be out long."
Returning to action Monday after missing two games with an injury to his opposite ankle, Lowry didn’t appear to be experiencing much rust through 26 minutes, shooting 5-of-9 from deep and registering a plus-33 night. Meanwhile, Serge Ibaka’s three-game suspension was coming to an end and Kawhi Leonard’s load had been appropriately managed. The Raptors appeared to finally be putting all their pieces in place.
And it was a good time to do it. The Raptors will be in Oklahoma City to begin a home-and-home series against the 42-28 Thunder Wednesday, with the return date occurring Friday night at Scotiabank Arena. From there, the Raptors will finish the season playing nine consecutive games against teams that do not currently possess winning records.
On paper, these next two games will be Toronto’s stiffest tests between now and the end of the season. And playing them against the same opponent in different cities will partially mimic the conditions of a playoff series, which is a small thing but can only be beneficial as the Raptors try to sort out their rotations for April. It was all lining up until Lowry went down.
"It’s super frustrating for our team," Lowry said. "But we’ve done a great job of handling everything and playing through the injuries and rest games and trying to keep everyone together. We’ve done a great job of just continuing to have guys step up, in and out of lineups. [Fred VanVleet] being out, myself, Kawhi. Now integrating Marc [Gasol in here. Everything’s been kind of up and down. But we’re a good team. All we need is a couple games on the floor together and we’ll be all right."
Even a brief absence from play would be quite a fortunate outcome for Lowry and the Raptors, considering how the 32-year-old looked when he went down. Not to mention the competitiveness of the game in which it occurred. The Raptors put the lifeless Knicks through a wood chipper. They scored 73 points on 62 per cent shooting through 24 minutes, and had more assists (18) than the Knicks had field goals (16) at the half. The Raptors were up over 100 points through three, and finished the night with eight players scoring double figures.
That’s a good result for the Raptors, if expected. But no matter how thorough, the wins and losses mean less at this time of year than the process that begets them. Considering the current state of the Eastern Conference standings, there is only a marginal chance the Raptors finish anywhere but second place. So, between now and the playoffs, Nurse will focus less on his team’s outcomes, and more on how they’re produced.
"Even for the last 12 to 14 games, I’m not really putting a ton of emphasis on the results," Nurse said before the game. "I just want to keep finding guys minutes, continue to polish and expand our defensive coverages. We’ve got some shoring up to do on some of those. It’s a little bit up and down. But I think some of that gets worked out when we get our main guys together and back on the floor. Less mistakes in coverage, less mistakes in game plan, et cetera."
Nurse says that come the playoffs he’ll aim to trim his rotation down to nine regulars. Assuming Lowry dodged a serious injury, he’ll join Leonard, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, and one of Ibaka or Gasol in Toronto’s first unit. Playing with Ibaka or Gasol in the second unit will be VanVleet and OG Anunoby.
So, there’s eight. Jeremy Lin, Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw will fight it out for the ninth spot, and as things currently stand, none of the above have separated themselves. With that in mind, games like Monday’s serve as somewhat of an audition for that trio. And perhaps the most interesting candidate to monitor is Lin.
The 30-year-old’s first dozen games as a Raptor were certainly underwhelming, as he played to a minus-7.7 net rating while seeing more than 20 minutes of run per night. His true shooting, effective field goal, and assist percentages were all way down from his time in Atlanta earlier this season, and he’d finished on the right side of the plus/minus category in only half his games with his new team.
An early adjustment period is to be expected from a player thrust into a new situation, but Lin’s struggles seemed to go beyond that. Nurse thinks part of the reason for it is that Lin’s been asked to step in as one of Toronto’s primary point guards in the wake of injuries to VanVleet and Lowry. It’s not easy to go from watching the symphony to serving as its conductor.
"I think that’s probably the hardest position to come into mid-season, because you’re trying to learn a whole new offence — a whole new everything, really," Nurse said. "Getting to know me, getting to know what we’re doing, getting to know what we want him to do… That’s a pretty big ask mid-season."
Nurse tells a story from a recent game, when he drew up a play on the Raptors bench that called for Lin to handle the ball. As the Raptors took the court to execute, Lin asked his coach if he should take the shot if he was open coming off a particular action.
"I was like, ‘Hell yes,’" Nurse said, laughing at the memory. "’Don’t ever ask me that again.’"
In order to address this, Nurse plans to use Lin primarily as a shooting guard going forward, playing alongside either Lowry or VanVleet rather than instead of them. That was the case Monday, when Lin checked in for Lowry about eight minutes in, and played the remainder of the first quarter with VanVleet. Lin remained on the floor to play with Lowry to begin the second.
It wasn’t a particularly informative sample. It was actually remarkably average considering the blowout nature of the game, as Lin didn’t register an attempt and finished his nine-minute shift plus one.
Perhaps a little too ironically, Lin’s first field goal attempt of the night didn’t come until after Lowry’s injury, which forced him into the point guard role Nurse felt was challenging him. Lin then proceeded to put up a strong night’s effort in a little more than a quarter of play, scoring 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting while playing all of Toronto’s minutes at point guard. So, essentially, the most Toronto Raptors thing that could have happened.
It’s apparently the rule for this team. When things appear to be going in one direction, they ultimately pivot in the other. The one constant seems to be that Toronto is destined to go the entire season without all of its players active and healthy at once. If they’re ever whole, if Nurse ever gets his wood podium, maybe we’ll finally find out just what these Raptors can be.
"That’s kind of what life is — it’s going to keep throwing things at you. And it’s how you react to what happens that really matters," Gasol said. "You can’t predict guys getting hurt or guys getting bumps and bruises out there. The next guy’s got to be ready to step in and fill those shoes, play the same way, play unselfish, play for one another, sacrifice on both ends of the floor. If you do that over and over again, good things normally happen."