Raptors shake up status quo, unearth new identity in return to win column

Toronto Raptors guard Norman Powell, left, goes to the basket. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

TORONTO — If the Toronto Raptors are going to find a way to turn their season around, it’s clear that sticking with the status quo just isn’t going to cut it.

And so, in his seemingly eternal search for answers, Toronto coach Nick Nurse decided to shake things up with his starting lineup Friday, replacing the underachieving Aron Baynes with the maybe-achieving Alex Len and, the big one, giving Norman Powell the start in the place of Kyle Lowry.

Unlike the decision to bench Pascal Siakam just one week ago, however, the decision to not have Lowry available wasn’t the team’s choice.

The Raptors leader was listed as out a few hours before the game for “personal reasons” and is expected to be with the team again Sunday for their contest with the Golden State Warriors.

So, already staring at a 1-6 record on the season and without his team’s leader, Nurse decided to go back to the drawing board and inserted Len into the starting lineup against his former team.

“I just think that the main thing is this, as you guys know, we’re trying a lot of guys here,” Nurse said before Friday’s game with the Sacramento Kings. “You know, different positions and I’m trying to figure out where guys play best and maybe, you know, maybe it changes a look for a guy, coming off the bench he plays a little better, plays a little bit more relaxed, maybe plays better with a different group of guys, maybe the matchups on the other team are better for him, whatever it is.”

Nurse apparently pressed the right button as the Raptors picked up their second win of the season with a 144-123 victory over the Kings Friday evening.

An offensive clinic of a game, the Raptors ended up shooting 58.2 per cent from the field while making 20 threes and shooting 51.3 per cent from outside. The 144 points they put up was also a franchise record for points in a regulation game.

And while the victory was sweet to savour, the Raptors may have discovered something even more important in that the team’s identity may be to play small more and big less.

Though Len started, he only played five minutes and the main big used was the slender Chris Boucher, with OG Anunoby utilized as a centre at times, as well.

It’s no secret that Toronto’s centres have struggled to start the season here and it looks like the answer Nurse has found to that particular problem is to simply not play them.

“Obviously it has been a couple of games in a row where our defence looked more like itself with the small lineup. So I think that there is still a lot of investigating to do about who else we can play,” said Nurse.

Toronto’s defence was abhorrent in the first quarter as it gave up 43 points and allowed Sacramento to shoot 17-for-21 from the floor and 6-of-8 from three-point range and trailed by as much as 19.

Thankfully for the Raptors, however, the Kings proved to be only a little bit better than they were defensively as they only held an eight-point lead heading into the second quarter, where Toronto started coming alive thanks to a smaller lineup that featured Anunoby at centre alongside Pascal Siakam and three guards and/or wings.

This smaller lineup was featured Wednesday against the Phoenix Suns and helped the Raptors pick up some stops and give them some momentum and it did much the same Friday night.

“I think the biggest thing is playing small, it does a number of things for us, but the biggest thing it does for us is it enables us to switch all the pick-and-rolls which, late in games, that’s going down pretty much at both ends, it’s pick-and-roll basketball,” said Nurse.

“And then secondly, it almost puts OG and Pascal in the handling and screening situations, which, you know, OG is a good screener and finisher in that stuff. That’s where we got some opportunities the other night. And again, it puts Pascal in those too — we can, if they’re going to stay big, we can put a lot of pressure on their big guy, stretching him out, putting him in pick-and-rolls, making him chase our guys with the ball a little bit.”

This lineup helped spark the Raptors to a 18-10 run to start the second quarter that saw Siakam drill a left-wing three with 6:12 to play in the frame to even the game up at 53-53.

From there, the Raptors briefly took the lead, but it looked like their comeback attempt perhaps took a little more out of them and they weren’t able to sustain it, entering the second half trailing 74-71.

In the second quarter, Siakam scored seven of his 17 points and his combination of scoring and playmaking was the main catalyst of Toronto’s comeback. He committed a pair of bad turnovers and was forced to sit early to end the first half with foul trouble, but the strides he appeared to take from Wednesday night in Phoenix looked to carry over as he finished the contest with a near triple-double, racking up 11 assists and nine rebounds as well while shooting a very-efficient 7-for-11 from the field.

In the third quarter, after a little bit of back-and-forth between the two sides, the Raptors pulled away thanks to the efforts of Fred VanVleet, who scored 16 of his game-high 34 points in the period.

Toronto led 111-103 after three and then put the game to bed without any fuss in the final frame — like they used to do.

Getting the start in place of Lowry, Powell finished with 22 points on 6-of-8 shooting, including a 4-of-5 mark from deep, making a case to be made a starter on a more consistent basis, something that may not be too out of the question given the dividends that playing small has been paying out in a small sample size for the Raptors.

“I think so. I think we’ve seen some success with different teams around the league,” said Powell when asked if he believes small-ball lineups can work. “But that’s not my job to figure out how it works and when we’re going to use that lineup and go to it. That’s the coaches job and I just go out there and do my job to the best of my abilities. It’s my focus in trying to help the team win. Outside of that, you know, I leave it up to the coaches.”

Added Nurse about potentially considering Powell as a starter: “Yeah, I would. I would. He obviously looks — he’s had two really good games as a starter and I would hate to count how many not so good games coming off the bench. So I would consider that at this point.”

They’ve just appeared to play better when smaller. And not just defensively as has been noted before, but offensively as well.

“It gives us more options,” said Powell. “Our small lineup is fast, we’re able to do a bunch of different things to give the opposing team different looks and the smaller lineup, you know, got shooters, got playmakers, you got drivers. Guys that can collapse defences and kick out and make the defence scramble.

“So I think that it’s a good look first to go there and be able to play our style of basketball at a high intensity and pressure on the defensive end.”

As Nurse has said many times before to start this season, he’s searching and probing for answers and while the decision to start Len didn’t work out — and Baynes didn’t even enter the game — he may have discovered something in playing small without a traditional centre as opposed to trying to shoehorn in a centre.

The status quo wasn’t working and while Toronto still has a lot of work to do to crawl out of the 2-6 hole they’re in right now, this apparent shift in strategy Nurse dialled up is an encouraging sign that the Raptors may be able to do it.

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