TORONTO — It hasn’t happened very often, but for just the 20th time this season the Toronto Raptors had their preferred starting lineup available and — for one of the very, very, few times in a season that was 76 games in as of Wednesday night — they had their entire rotation healthy, too.
Good health is always reason to celebrate, but for the Raptors it’s cause to contemplate: why has their preferred starting lineup simply not been all that effective?
And failing a simple answer presenting itself, should head coach Nick Nurse do something about it?
In the 19 games the Raptors have been able to roll out Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., and OG Anunoby, Toronto can point to their 13-6 record and say, 'hey, good things happen when they can play together.'
But as a group they haven’t exactly been the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.
In their 310 minutes together — which somewhat amazingly constitutes the Raptors' most frequently used lineup in this disjointed season — Toronto’s starting five is minus-2.0 per 100 possessions. On Monday against a Celtics team missing four of their five starters, Toronto’s starters were minus-19 in their 11 minutes together. Among the Raptors' five most frequently used combinations, it is one of two that has a negative net rating. The other is a group that swaps out Anunoby for Khem Birch and is minus-5.5 per 100 possessions and is Toronto’s third-most frequently used lineup.
“The main thing is that the record is good,” said Nurse before the game. “[But] I think we need to get them a little more organized and a little bit more connected.”
They didn’t really look much better against Minnesota, but once again it didn’t matter as the Raptors shook off a slow start to storm back for the 125-102 win, their fourth straight. It improved their record to 44-32 and pulled them back into a tie with idle Chicago for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, two games ahead of seventh-place Cleveland who lost to Dallas. The Bulls have the tiebreaker on the Raptors, but with six games left the Raptors are very much in control of finishing no worse than sixth.
Minnesota fell to 43-34 and remains in seventh in the West.
The Raptors were led by Siakam — which has been one constant in their push up the standings.
The sixth-year do-everything forward followed up his season-high 40-point outing Monday with 12 points, a career-high 13 assists and 10 rebounds for his first triple-double of the season after a number of close calls. Trent Jr. led both teams in scoring with 29 and Anunoby had 22 as all five starters finished in double figures, as did Precious Achiuwa and Thad Young off the bench, with 13 and 10 points, respectively.
Young had the game’s signature moment, a driving, left-handed dunk that dialled back the clock for the 33-year-old in his 15th season that put Toronto up 27 midway through the fourth quarter.
“That’s his name, right? Thad Young? He’s Young,” said Siakam. “That boy was up there. I didn’t expect that. I was trying to get the ball from him and he was saying ‘screw Pascal, I’m just gonna jump off a trampoline and dunk this thing.’ It was impressive.”
It was an impressive team win against a solid opponent looking to make a playoff push.
The Raptors threw a number of different coverages at Minnesota star Karl-Anthony Towns and most of them worked as they held Towns — who averages 24.6 points a game on the season — to 16 points and forced him into seven of Minnesota’s 23 turnovers (to 18 by Toronto) which off-set the Timberwolves' 18-9 edge on the offensive glass.
The Raptors shot 50 per cent from the floor and 18-of-36 from three while holding Minnesota to 40.2 per cent shooting and 11-of-37 from deep.
But perhaps the most telling takeaway was that the Raptors' best moments came when Nurse went away from his starters. The game-turning second-quarter run featured reserves Achiuwa and Young playing key roles and when the Raptors asserted themselves even further in the third quarter Nurse opted to sit rookie Barnes in favour of Achiuwa to start the half.
Coincidence or not the Raptors looked balanced at both ends of the floor with the additional spacing provided by Achiuwa’s new-found confidence in his three-point shooting (he was 3-of-7 Wednesday and continues to shoot better than 40 per cent from deep since the all-star break) giving the offence more room to breathe. The second-year big man’s nimble feet made him a capable option to guard Towns, the Minnesota big man who punishes teams from the outside-in as well as anyone in the game.
“Listen, he [Barnes] was a part of that decision too,” said Nurse. “He just thought that Precious should matchup on [Towns] and he's like, ‘I'll come off the bench and let Precious go guard him.’
“… We see that every now and then [where] the ball doesn't find him [Barnes] and he can't quite find those maneuvers in towards the rim.”
Will it be a lineup that Nurse tries again, perhaps to start games? It certainly looked good.
The Raptors' first four baskets after halftime were assisted as Toronto jumped out to a quick 10-point lead, and they were able to push from a two-point lead at half to 15 points by the start of the fourth quarter. They eventually got contributions from Barnes who still managed to finish with 17 points, five rebounds and four assists and converted a pair of offensive rebounds to help the Raptors keep the pressure on Minnesota. A generous dose of Trent Jr. — who has shown a penchant for playing big against his hometown team — was also a big help. The Minnesota product had 30 when he led the Raptors to a win over the T-Wolves before the all-star break and had 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the third as Toronto led 97-82 to start the fourth.
It was all perfect for Siakam, who was the object of a collapsing Timberwolves defence and responded by moving the ball early and often.
“I’d come down the floor and it felt like everyone was open,” said Siakam, who is averaging 26.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists in his last 15 games.
It will be interesting to see which direction Nurse goes from here. With his most-used starting lineup available Wednesday, the Raptors came out of the gates flat. Minnesota finished the quarter on a 10-2 run to give them a 30-20 lead to start the second period.
It would be hard to argue the issue was personnel: the Timberwolves — in a battle to pull out of the play-in tournament and determined to avoid losing their third straight game — simply played a lot harder: drawing charges, getting to offensive rebounds and forcing turnovers with chest-to-chest defence.
Toronto was down 17 early in the second quarter as Minnesota played to the identity shaped by head coach Chris Finch, who was on the Raptors staff in Tampa last year before leaving to take the Minnesota job. Finch has a long history coaching with and against Nurse and a broadly shared philosophy which is represented in each of their team’s propensity to crash the offensive glass, force turnovers and try to play in transition offensively when the opportunity presents.
The Raptors finally started playing to their identity early in the second quarter, and it was with Barnes on the bench and Achiuwa and Young providing some extra floor spacing. That the Raptors were suddenly drawing charges, swarming ball handlers and forcing misses helped. That Toronto pushed the pace and were rewarded with a flurry of open looks from three and transition chances helped more. Achiuwa and Anunoby combined to go 6-of-9 from deep as Toronto led Minnesota 12-2 in fastbreak points. It was all part of a 39-20 surge that gave Toronto a 62-60 lead at half after VanVleet hit a buzzer-beating triple on a fantastic pass by Siakam, who had four assists in the quarter on his way to his triple-double.
The Raptors are healthy and they’re rolling — an ideal situation as the playoffs come firmly into view. What will be interesting from here is if Nurse decides to juggle his lineup with a full complement of options at his disposal.
File under good problems to have.