Raptors’ tough stretch to offer glimpse of how Nurse will manage rotation

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse discusses his mentality for picking his 9th man on any given night, and with a bunch of players in the mix, says each decision will be a "gut call" right now.

TORONTO — Now that the banner’s been raised, the rings have been bestowed, and everyone in the organization has enjoyed one last moment in the sun with which to celebrate the franchise’s first championship, the Toronto Raptors can get down to the dirty business of an NBA regular season.

It will not wait for them, after all, and it’s announcing its presence in an awfully difficult way this weekend as the Raptors begin a stretch of four games in six nights with a road back-to-back on Friday and Saturday in Boston and Chicago. The Celtics promise to provide a much stiffer on-court test than the Bulls, but the two games ought to both be challenging considering the timeframe and travel.

At least one win from these two games should be the expectation, and a pair would be great to stuff into the back pocket next to Tuesday’s 130-122 overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans in Toronto’s season opener. But more interesting than the results will be the process as we continue to gather clues as to how Raptors head coach Nick Nurse will navigate the early parts of the season.

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It’s expected that Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry — each in their mid-30s, one coming off a busy summer of national team duty, another still ramping up after off-season thumb surgery — will have their workloads managed in the early going, and these games could be the first opportunity to get one or both of them a night off their feet.

That will naturally create opportunity for other players on the roster, whether it’s Pascal Siakam continuing to vacuum up a high-usage role, Fred VanVleet playing north of 40 minutes, Terence Davis earning more unexpected rookie run, or a depth player like Malcolm Miller, Matt Thomas, Patrick McCaw, Stanley Johnson or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson making their season debut.

Interestingly, Nurse ran Tuesday’s season opener like a playoff game, deploying what was essentially a seven-man rotation, with Davis getting some limited run as the eighth man at lower leverage points in the game.


That’s obviously unsustainable and more a reflection of how ready Nurse feels some of his depth pieces are to contribute than how he’s going to run his team this year. Towards the end of training camp, Nurse challenged essentially all of Toronto’s newcomers to up their defensive effort if they expect to see the floor. Evidently, he hadn’t seen enough from any of them — save for Davis, whose stock won’t stop surging — to award opening-night playing time on a championship team.

That said, the rotation will soon deepen, perhaps as soon as this weekend. Hollis-Jefferson and McCaw are nearing returns from minor injuries and the latter in particular will likely factor into Nurse’s lineups before long. McCaw could actually slide into the eighth spot Davis occupied on opening night, pushing the rookie into a more limited role as a ninth man off the bench.

From there, a 10th man will likely appear in spurts, and who gains that playing time could fluctuate from night to night and matchup to matchup. Long after Thursday’s practice, the bottom half of Toronto’s roster was running physical, near game-speed sets against one another on a half-court in the far corner of the gym as Nurse looked on.

“If I go to the next guy down the line, it could be any one of five guys — it really could. It’s just going to be a gut read for me,” Nurse said. “It could be Malcolm [Miller], it could be Matt [Thomas], it could be Stanley [Johnson], it could be Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson].

“They all have different qualities. I’d like to sit here and say I know exactly who to use when. But it’s going to be a gut feel and, hopefully, I’ll pick right. It probably won’t be the same guy every night.”

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One thing Nurse says he isn’t looking to change is Toronto’s primary starting lineup, which featured Lowry and VanVleet operating as dual guards. Each ball handler had the floor to themselves for brief periods in the middle of each half while the other rested up on the bench. But for the most part, Lowry and VanVleet were a tandem on Tuesday, ultimately spending 36 minutes on the floor together, the most of any of Toronto’s two-man lineups on the night. The Raptors played to a 6.9 net rating during those minutes, outscoring the Pelicans by nine.

“I’ve got a great feel for him and where he’s at in the game and how the flow is going — if he’s doing better with the ball in his hands, if he needs some spot-up shots, if he’s tired,” VanVleet said of trading ball-handling duties with Lowry. “We just read each other’s minds in that sense of figuring out what’s best.”

The look inherently involves a size sacrifice, but Nurse feels it’s mitigated by Lowry and VanVleet’s abilities to guard effectively above their weight classes. Lowry’s doggedness when switched onto players much larger than him is well-established, and VanVleet demonstrated some of the same efficacy during Toronto’s playoff run in the spring when teams regularly tried to overmatch the Raptors with big lineups.

“Those guys are little,” Nurse said, “but they both play about six-foot-five.”

The biggest concern will be rebounding, an area the Raptors struggled in at times last season. Lowry and VanVleet can both go and get it, but their heights are what they are. When the Raptors are playing the dual-guard look, the emphasis to box out and be strong on the glass will only increase for the three individuals playing alongside them.

It’s one of the reasons why Siakam ended up with 18 boards in Tuesday’s opener. He spent more time on the glass than he did last season, eschewing his trademark transition sprints to the other end in favour of ensuring the Raptors weren’t allowing second possessions. His unique ability to bring the ball up the court and operate as a point-forward allows that.


If Gasol and Serge Ibaka — who each played more than 25 minutes Tuesday but, somewhat remarkably, combined for only nine rebounds — can pick up some more of that slack, the Raptors should be fine with Lowry and VanVleet sharing the floor. They’ll certainly have their hands full Friday in Boston, as the Celtics will run out both the six-foot-six Jaylen Brown and six-foot-seven Gordon Hayward alongside point guard Kemba Walker.

“I mean, my stats against post-ups have been pretty good the last few years. So, I do take some pride in that,” VanVleet said. “Usually, the general belief is that if you’ve got a small guy you post him up. But I think me and Kyle have been at the top of — it’s a small sample size — but guarding the post. Our numbers are pretty good. You do take some pride in that. You don’t want to get scored on.”

VanVleet’s availability for Friday is technically in question due to a sore right ankle he injured landing on a baseline photographer late in the third quarter during Toronto’s opener. But the 25-year-old’s stubborn and has played through much worse. It would be a surprise to see him sit out.

“It’s a little sore. I’m just seeing what I can do. Just trying to get through the day and see how I feel tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll get some good treatment and try to be ready for tomorrow. I’m not sure [TD Garden] is a friendly place to try and go out with a bum ankle. So, I’ll try to make sure I’m good before I step out there.”

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