An NBA season is long and inevitably marked by minor crises that roll in and then recede like the tide, seemingly urgent for the moment and then often forgotten as the next win, loss, injury or storyline takes its place.
For the moment the focus is on Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s tendency to play all his best available players as much as humanly possible, the problem being that -- as a half season has proven -- he doesn’t have all that many good players, or that he thinks are good enough to be playing for him right now.
The result is that over their past five games Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby have been averaging 42, 41.1 and 38.5 minutes per game, respectively, ranking them first, second and fifth in the NBA over that stretch. It’s been much the same all season: VanVleet leads the NBA in minutes per game while Siakam, Anunoby and Scottie Barnes are all in the top 10. Throw in Chris Boucher playing 34 minutes off the bench over the past five games and it’s fair to describe Nurse’s rotation as tight.
Here’s the thing though:
If Nurse’s job is to win games, and with a team that has been struggling to stay above .500 all season, he doesn’t have much of a margin for error, so with that in mind what else is he supposed to do? The Raptors' rotation is paper-thin to begin with -- coming into their road game against the Washington Wizards on Friday night they ranked last in the NBA in bench scoring at just 23.7 points a game. Toronto has had more players work their way out of opportunities -- Svi Mykhailiuk, Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn or Yuta Watanabe -- than have managed to push their way into some as Justin Champagnie and Boucher have.
With Gary Trent Jr. having missed six games and fellow starter Khem Birch out for all but four minutes of the past four, Nurse’s hands were tied even further.
And another thing?
None of the players having to shoulder the load are calling in sick or asking to come out. VanVleet and Siakam are making a push to be named to the All-Star team; Anunoby has missed enough basketball due to injuries this year and every year in his young career, that he’s not going to balk at more playing time.
“I will speak for myself: I’m a grown man. I have two kids at home. I listen to them. I listen to my lady. Other than that, I come to work every day,” said VanVleet after putting up 21 points and 12 assists in 39 minutes in the Raptors' 109-105 win over the Wizards.
He was echoing comments by Nurse before they game to the effect that the core of Raptors players playing the big minutes are happy about doing it.
“If I didn’t want to be out there, I wouldn’t be,” VanVleet continued. “I’m not playing any minutes I don’t want to play. Coach Nurse isn’t forcing anyone to play that doesn’t want to play. We signed up for this. We’ve got high-character guys, competitive guys, that like to be out there. We’ve all accepted that. Whatever comes with that, it is what it is. I wouldn’t put all of that on (Nurse). Some of it is on us as players as well. We enjoy the challenge of being out there.”
And for the most part, it’s kept the Raptors in the mix in a very tough stretch when they’ve played four of the best teams in league in Phoenix, Milwaukee, Miami and Dallas, earning a win in Milwaukee and going down to the wire in the other three games.
“It’s been good. I think we’ve played really, really well,” said Nurse. “I like the progress we’re making. I like how things look out there. I kind of looked at the schedule and saw we had several teams with championship aspirations right in a row, and I wanted to see and give our main guys as many reps against that and see what it looked like.”
Good for Fred, btw. Raptors have one of the best sports science depts in the league; they are very proactive with regard to player health. Meanwhile the players job is to take prep & recovery seriously. It’s manageable. Once upon a time guys not getting minutes was the story. https://t.co/8Sh9t3Mh3v
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) January 22, 2022
Playing his best players a lot is a perfectly acceptable stance for a head coach to take. The Raptors have one of the most respected health and performance departments in the NBA -- led by Alex McKechnie. If the load is too much for any given player, it’s up to them to determine that, not the coaching staff, and Raptors history has shown they’re willing to guard against overuse injuries and fatigue, as the way they managed Kawhi Leonard proved in their championship season.
And if there aren’t enough good players on the roster to push the core for playing time or take advantage of the minutes they get?
That’s on Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster. The trade deadline in coming up on Feb. 10, so they have until then to solve a problem of their own making.
But right now, Nurse is playing the cards he’s been dealt. On Friday night at the end of a tough road trip, the Raptors came out ahead and improved their record to 22-21 and dropped Washington to 23-23. The Raptors won the season series against the Wizards as well, which could be meaningful given Toronto is now just a half-game up on Washington for eighth place in the tightly packed East.
The Raptors were led by Barnes' career-high 27 points while five more members of Nurse’s seven-man rotation finished with double figures – VanVleet was joined by Siakam, who had 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Barnes, Siakam, Anunoby and VanVleet all played 39 minutes or more.
It got a little dicey. The Raptors looked like they were going to coast home after going up 18 early in the fourth quarter.
But their offence stalled and the Wizards were able to creep back in. It’s easy to say that fatigue was a factor in the fourth quarter, but it could just be that Bradley Beal was going to go off against anyone. He’s been rolling in January (24.4 points and 8.3 assists for the month) after a slow start to the season and got hot in the fourth.
The Wizards were trailing by 18 with 11 minutes to go when Beal put together an 7-0 run and 11 points in six minutes as Washington cut Toronto’s lead to six with 5:16 to play. The Raptors had the energy to compete defensively but perhaps their legs showed at the other end.
The Wizards got a three-point play from their top substitute, energizing big Montrezl Harrell, to cut the lead to two and then tied the score with 1:10 left when he leaked out on the break after yet another Toronto miss, this time a long VanVleet two. Toronto was 5-of-21 from the floor in the quarter at that point, but somehow found a little more gas.
VanVleet came out of a timeout to make a big three thanks to a strong screen by Siakam; the Raptors dug in and got one more stop before Anunoby sealed it by scoring an offensive rebound off a rare Barnes miss on the night to put Toronto up five with 20.4 seconds left. They ended up shooing 7-of-24 from the floor in the fourth – tired legs maybe? -- but weathered the storm.
It was a strange game that came in waves, with each team taking significant leads before squandering them. But the Raptors had enough.
The game turned in the second quarter when the Raptors finally woke up, shook the lead out of their legs or decided that if they’re going to play all those minutes, they might as well compete. It wasn’t looking promising early when the Raptors fell behind 30-20 in the first quarter and were the victims of multiple backcuts; got beat for seven offensive rebounds while grabbing just two of their own and turned it over four times to two for the Wizards.
But the second quarter was a different story.
Nurse used a seven-man rotation and kept Siakam and Anunoby on the floor for 11 and 12 minutes respectively, while Barnes played 10. They all deserved the time. Toronto was trailing by 13 when Barnes started going to work in the paint in earnest, fueled by a flurry of turnovers by the Wizards prompted by the Raptors' length and activity -- exactly what was missing early and which theoretically would be in short supply from a tired team. Not a problem as Toronto tied the score after a 22-9 run.
Barnes was everywhere defensively, but offensively he lived in the paint. Four times they went to the rookie inside six feet and four times he scored on his way to 17 first-half points in 17 minutes. Toronto forced nine turnovers in the second quarter while giving up just one of their own and took a 55-54 lead into the third quarter.
“When he stretches out, he’s big out there and I think he can use that length advantage to his advantage,” said Nurse of his prized rookie, who was 12-of-19 from the floor and grabbed eight rebounds as well. “And tonight he got it in places, or took it to places where he could do that and he just stayed with it. Was really aggressive, good ball game for him.”
Toronto gained energy as the game went along. The Raptors closed the third quarter on a 25-7 run. What looked like a potential blowout in the first quarter and then looked like a nail-biter against a team that the Raptors will likely be jostling with for playoff seeding for the rest of the season suddenly turned into a possible blowout in favour of Toronto as the visitors started the fourth quarter with a 91-77 lead.
It didn’t finish that way and the Raptors core had to dig deep again to get them over the finish line, but Nurse played the players he felt he needed in order to win -- and those he entrusted the job to were able to get it done.