TORONTO — Is there a doctor in the house? A paramedic? A holistic medicine practitioner? A shaman?
The Toronto Raptors will take just about anyone to help solve what has likely been their greatest issue since the season started.
Forget the poor defence, the sometimes stagnant-looking half-court offence and poor bench productivity. Those are all mere consequences of what’s truly ailing the Raptors: Manpower or, rather, the lack thereof.
The Raptors have been playing handicapped pretty much all season long, from Pascal Siakam beginning the season still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery, to OG Anunoby banging his hip in practice after one game on their recent six-game road trip, to a nagging knee issue with Khem Birch and more, the Raptors just can’t seem to get healthy, and they’ve suffered as a result of it.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, when it rains it pours.
For the sixth straight game, Anunoby was forced out of the lineup with that left hip pointer injury Sunday against the Boston Celtics with what sounds like even more games lost on the horizon — “I don’t really have a timeline, but it looks like it’s a problem,” said Toronto head coach Nick Nurse — Birch missed his third straight game with that swelling in his right knee and, in some new news for the Raptors, Gary Trent Jr. and Goran Dragic were also unavailable.
In Trent’s case, he suffered a right calf contusion during Friday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers and was forced to exit that game midway through the fourth quarter. Nurse described the injury as “just a bruise, but an incredibly painful one at the moment,” so who knows how many more games this may or may not cost him?
As for Dragic, though he was, basically, completely out of the rotation anyway, the Raptors announced he would straight-up just be away from the team entirely for the foreseeable future.
“Goran Dragic is taking some time away from the team, with our full support, to manage a personal matter,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said in a statement.
Regardless of whatever the matter is — and how sparsely Nurse used him — this means Dragic is completely unavailable to the Raptors even as just a warm body to make use of, further compounding the problem the Raptors are facing.
They simply don’t have enough people available to realistically win games consistently.
Take what happened Sunday evening as an example as the Raptors fell to the Celtics, 109-97, despite just an eight-point showing from Boston star Jayson Tatum.
The loss dropped Toronto’s record to 9-12 on the season and 2-7 at home as the team began a lengthy seven-game homestand.
Despite the loss, though, there certainly wasn’t a lack of effort from the Raptors.
Nurse was coaching the game like it was a playoff contest, making offence-defence substitutions and giving quick hooks to players he believed weren’t performing up to the grade he wanted to see, such as when he pulled Scottie Barnes just two minutes into the game for Yuta Watanabe.
“They tried pretty hard, there’s just a couple of things you can’t overcome there,” Nurse said. “Thought it was a good effort, just didn’t bounce our way.”
The quick hook Nurse had on Barnes appeared to spark something in the rookie. Barnes was strong once again finishing with 21 points, including a 4-of-9 mark from three-point range — three of those alone coming in the third quarter.
“It’s good to see him take them and it’s good to see ’em go down,” Nurse said of Barnes’ three-point marksmanship. “In the long run, I think it helps the overall spacing of our offence and will give other guys a chance to have a little bit more freedom on their drives.”
Barnes added: “My man was helping off me a lot, really trying to be in the gaps so most of the time I was just wide open. They’ve been encouraging me to shoot so once I get a wide-open shot I’m just gonna shoot it.”
Nurse also made a point to always have at least one of Fred VanVleet or Pascal Siakam on the floor at all times and they delivered for him. VanVleet finished Sunday with a game-high 27 points and Siakam with 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Siakam played close to 38 minutes and VanVleet about 40. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s also nothing new and, because of the injuries the Raptors have sustained, it felt necessary.
“I think that is maybe a little high (tonight) but not too far out of range,” said Nurse of the minutes for VanVleet, who happens to lead the NBA in minutes played per game. “He is having to do a lot. He is having to take a lot of shots from the team guarding a really good player, playing long stretches. But my answer would be maybe trim a couple of minutes here or there but that is probably 37 or 38, that’s where he is probably going to be most nights.”
Ultimately, Nurse’s decision to ride with his two horses proved to be the correct one as the Raptors played a competitive, scrappy game, despite only having 11 men available.
They trailed by just one after the first quarter, three come halftime and four at the start of the fourth quarter. But in that final frame, the Raptors simply ran out of gas.
Siakam, unfortunately, picked up his fifth foul with 8:22 left to play, forcing him to the bench prematurely. That allowed the Celtics to go on a quick 6-0 burst and take a 93-83 lead with 7:25 left to play and never look back from there, even after Siakam returned to the game.
The Raptors played about as well as they could Sunday, given the circumstances — particularly with Tatum struggling. However, perhaps because of how few bodies were available to them, they proved to more often than not undo themselves by playing some sturdy-looking defence but then bailing the Celtics out by finishing the defensive possession off by fouling them and sending them to the free-throw line — particularly in the first half of the game.
In total, Boston took 15 more free throws than the Raptors and converted on 93.5 per cent of those attempts.
It also didn’t help matters that, besides the contributions from VanVleet, Siakam and Barnes, Toronto didn’t get much else.
Svi Mykhailiuk, who started in place of the injured Trent, was alright as he scored 12 points, but he was just 2-for-7 from three-point range — mostly open looks, too.
This isn’t an indictment on Mykhailiuk, or any other Raptor available Sunday — except maybe Chris Boucher, who was the only Toronto player dressed not to see the floor.
They are simply outmanned and need to find some way — any way — to get healthy again.