Morning Coffee

Morning Coffee – Thu, Mar 14

48-20 – LeBron and his shit show are in town (anyone else really happy about what is happening in LA this year?)

Raptors’ Marc Gasol given big opportunity by Serge Ibaka suspension –

Nurse says he’s aiming to play Gasol roughly 35 minutes during that stretch.

“I think maybe he needs it,” Nurse said after practice on Wednesday. “Maybe he needs some of this extended run here to get unleashed. He’s making a lot of good decisions, getting to good spots [but] he’s not finishing a lot of things that we think he can – the three-ball, some post moves… Hopefully we can get him a little more rhythm and a little more volume of attempts and play through him a little bit more.”

While some players will tell you that it doesn’t matter how much they play, that they’ll take to the court with the same purpose regardless of circumstance, these things do matter. It’s especially true for a player like Gasol, who has been starting and logging major minutes during the entirety of his 10-year career before landing with the Raptors. This season he averaged 33 minutes in 53 games with Memphis, compared to the 22 per game he’s logged in 12 games as a Raptor thus far.

Gasol maintains that no matter how many minutes you play, the energy level needs to be high, but conceded that “knowing you have more minutes, you play with a little more patience.”

Call Gasol’s opportunity an unintended consequence of Ibaka’s loss of judgement on Monday. But the Raptors’ head coach knows that moments like that should be avoided.

“It’s not great,” Nurse said of Ibaka’s actions. “It’s not great that this happens. And it’s not great from the big-picture. I thought he’d done really well this year, emotionally. He’s just had a great season and has been a good teammate. So, it’s a little bit of a bummer from that standpoint.”

Nurse, in his first year at the helm of an NBA team, is a coach who tends to looks inward when problems arise, questioning his own role and potential impact, for better or worse.

What Didn’t Suck for Toronto: The Raptors are forced to start Marc Gasol – Raptors HQ

Some of this statistical shrinkage here is attributable to the fact that Gasol has indeed been yanked around in the Raptors’ lineup, playing with different teammates on any given night. And of course having his minutes cut by almost a dozen doesn’t help matters either. The even more astute, however, will note that Gasol has been in decline all year, his overall numbers and shooting stats gradually decreasing as the season has worn on. It’s fair to ask: is Gasol, at 34, just a bit too past his prime? Or is his decline coming because of the way the Raptors are using him?

Toronto’s thinking behind the Gasol trade remains sound. While Jonas Valanciunas is the younger player, his skill-set for the Raptors was always going to be limited. JV may be “20 and 10 sleepwalking” in Memphis, but playing behind Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry meant he’d always have to find other ways to contribute. The Raptors turned him into an explosive off-the-bench scorer this season, but it’s clear they thought that wouldn’t work when it came time to face off against some of the do-it-all threats in the playoffs. The Raptors’ offense had to be even more high-powered and unpredictable to succeed at that level. It needed more play-making, and more overall basketball IQ. In short, the Raptors needed more guys like Kyle Lowry, a player with a dynamite skill-set who also elevates the play of the rest of the team. To that end, enter Gasol.

The case against Gasol starting is two-fold. The first contains a lot of statistical noise due to the relatively small sample we have with him in the Raptors’ starting lineup. Right now Gasol’s net rating when on the court for Toronto is a paltry 0.5. And off it? The Raptors are 5.3 points better. On the surface of that assessment, it makes it difficult to suggest that the solution is more minutes for Gasol. On top of that, there’s some thinking that suggests Gasol may be better facilitating the bench groups as the primary play-maker at the top of the key. We’ve seen contests where, for example, Norman Powell has gone off for a few buckets simply because Gasol set him up with solid screens and passes. Then again, this may not matter as much in the playoffs, when it seems likely the Raptors won’t gamble with bench-heavy lineups featuring all of Jeremy Lin, Powell, Patrick McCaw, and OG Anunoby. There could be a place for some of those guys in the post-season, but Gasol won’t be stranded with them all trying to generate points. I realize I’ve only addressed half of the two-fold issue here, which is what makes these next three games so interesting.

Ibaka suspension opens door for Gasol –

Despite his experience and wealth of basketball knowledge, this has been an adjustment – being traded mid-season, switching teams for the first time in his 11-year-career and trying to get acclimated on the fly while filling a fluctuating role.

True to character, he’s been an absolute professional about it, but he’s looking forward to the extended run he’s about to get – even in these unusual circumstances.

“You understand the situation and you deal with whatever’s best for the team,” Gasol said. “There’s not going to be any complaints or negative vibes coming from me. The job is to do what’s best for the team and we have to figure out what we have to do going forward. I know at least for the next few games, it’s going to be consistent and I’m going to try to be consistent as well.”

So far, Gasol has played 62 minutes with Toronto’s regular starters. That group has outscored opponents by 11.0 points per 100 possessions. They’ve looked good, particularly on offence where they’re scoring 118.1 points per 100 possessions, but the sample size is still small.

For instance, Kawhi Leonard has missed two of the five games Gasol has started, and will almost certainly get another night off for load management in the upcoming back-to-back with Detroit and New York.

Even if the full first unit is only out there for two of the next three games, that should still give Gasol some much-needed reps and a chance to continue building chemistry with the team’s best players.

“I think maybe he needs it,” said Nurse. “I think maybe he needs some of this extended run here to kind of get unleashed, maybe. He’s making a lot of good decisions. He’s getting to a lot of spots. He’s not finishing a lot of things we think he can finish, even the three-ball. A lot of post moves he’s making fairly easily and they’re not going in. Maybe we can get him a little bit more rhythm and a little bit more volume of attempts and play through him a little bit more.”

Coach Nick Nurse says Raptors need to show suspended Serge Ibaka ‘some love’ – The Globe and Mail

“It’s not great that this happens. Obviously it’s not great, the ramifications of the punishment,” Nurse said. “And it’s not great from the big picture. [Controlling his emotions] is something he’s done really well this year, emotionally, just in general. He’s just had a great season. He’s been a good teammate and all of that stuff.

“It’s a little bit of a bummer that he’s got to go through it and we’ve got to go through it. It’s just another little thing we’ve got to handle and move on from it and learn from it if we can and look at the positives.”

The positives are some enforced rest for Ibaka ahead of what could be a long playoff run and more playing time for Marc Gasol, who’s bounced up and down between the starting lineup and second unit since the Raptors acquired him in a deal at last month’s trade deadline.

Nurse joked that at least he wouldn’t be “losing sleep” over which one – Gasol or Ibaka – would start.

Ibaka will miss Thursday’s game against the visiting Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday’s game in Detroit, and next Monday’s game against the visiting New York Knicks.

It’s an obvious opportunity for Gasol to jell with his new teammates. Averaging just 22 minutes a game compared with the 33 minutes he’d been playing with Memphis, his chemistry in Toronto remains a work in progress.

“You take two steps forward and one back and you just stay with it and be patient and don’t get frustrated, which could be easy at times,” Gasol said.

Gasol needs an extended run, said Nurse, to “get unleashed.”

“He’s making a lot of good decisions. He’s getting to a lot of spots. He’s not finishing a lot of things we think he can finish, even the three-ball. A lot of post moves he’s making fairly easily, and they’re not going in,” Nurse said. “Maybe we can get him a little bit more rhythm and a little bit more volume of attempts and play through him a little bit more.”

Ibaka suspension gives Gasol first clear shot with Raptors | The Star [subscription]

“I think maybe he needs some of this extended run here to kind of get unleashed, maybe,” Nurse said of Gasol after the Raptors practised on Wednesday afternoon. “Again, he’s making a lot of good decisions. He’s getting to a lot of spots.

“He’s not finishing a lot of things we think he can finish — even the three-ball. A lot of post moves he’s making fairly easily, and they’re not going in. Maybe we can get him a little bit more rhythm and a little bit more volume of attempts, and play through him a little bit more.”

Gasol has played less than 23 minutes a game since joining the Raptors just over a month ago and while he’s had moments of clarity with a new team, there’s been inconsistency in his play.

He should play 10 or 12 more minutes a game over at least the next three, and that’s got to get him more in tune with all his teammates.

“Regardless of the minutes that you play, your energy level has got to be really high and (you have to) be really assertive in doing those things,” Gasol said. “Knowing you’re going to have big minutes, maybe you play with more patience and read things a little slower.”

As the regular season winds down, Kawhi Leonard ‘feels good’ physically |

Following Wednesday’s practice, Leonard was asked about his health at this point in the season – his positive outlook suggests that Toronto’s choice to err on the side of caution has reaped benefits.

The former Finals MVP told reporters that “we’ve been doing a great job of making sure that nothing flares up or gets out of control and it’s just been great.”

The All-Star continued, providing perspective on why he feels so positive despite missing nearly 20 games already this season: “I’m just happy that I’m able to play. I’ve said this before, I only played nine games last year, so to be able to get up to [the number] of games I’ve played now is amazing.

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“I feel good and we have something to look forward to.”

In the 49 games he has appeared in so far, the Raptors are 34-15 thanks to Leonard’s career high-averages of 27.0 points and 7.3 and rebounds per game. With just 14 regular season games remaining, it should come as no surprise that Leonard and the team are looking forward to the postseason.

Kawhi Leonard Praises Raptors for Doing a ‘Great Job’ Managing His Health | Bleacher Report

Leonard praised how the Raptors have managed his health in his first season up north, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports.

“We’ve been doing a great job of making sure that nothing flares up or gets out of control. It’s just been great. I’m just happy that I’m able to play. … It’s amazing. I feel good and we have something to look forward to.”

Leonard has played in just 49 games for Toronto this season but has made the most of his playing time, leading the team with 27 points per game.

Leonard is coming off a season that saw him play only nine games for the San Antonio Spurs due to a lingering quad injury. The Spurs’ handling of his injury was widely criticized, and Leonard sought help from outside medical personnel. At the time, then-Spurs point guard Tony Parker publicly said he had dealt with a similar injury that was “100 times worse” and took only eight months to rehab.

With the Raptors presumably intent on locking Leonard up long-term after his current contract expires, establishing a positive relationship regarding his health is paramount given the distrust Leonard felt toward the Spurs. Leonard isn’t set to become an unrestricted free agent until 2020 but can exercise his player option following this season.

Toronto Raptors HQ Roundtable: The NBA playoffs are coming – Raptors HQ

1) If the Raps finish the season as the second seed, which seventh seed team would you like to see in the opening round of playoffs? (And who will actually make it?)
Sully Akbari: I’d like to see the Charlotte Hornets sneak into the seventh seed but that looks unlikely. Of the teams actually in the mix, I’ll go with the Brooklyn Nets. The Raptors’ two wins over the Nets this season have been opposites: they won on January 11 by 17 points and then on February 11 by two points (courtesy of Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning basket). Meanwhile, Toronto’s one loss came in overtime on December 7, a 106-105 defeat, but it was one they had three chances to win — in the fourth with Leonard’s miss, and two more times in OT courtesy of a missed three-pointer by Kyle Lowry and the wide-open game-winning three-pointer miss by Fred VanVleet.

Although the Raptors haven’t had a dominant season series against the Nets, I think a playoff series will be controlled and won by Toronto in four or five games. I just don’t see the Nets’ three-point heavy offense coming through enough in the playoffs. It would also be great to see because I want the Raptors’ brutal 2014 playoff series to be avenged in a way that it leaves the Nets with so much despair so as to never want to play Toronto in a playoff series again.

Thomas Mooney: Give me the Miami Heat all day long. We saw a preview of what the series could look like on Sunday, and Kawhi Leonard wasn’t even playing. Dwyane Wade can still have his flashback moments, but the team overall just doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up with the Raptors when they’re on their game. But with the Heat three games back of the seventh seed with 16 games to go, it’s likely we’ll see either the Detroit Pistons or Nets. In that case, I’d rather see the Nets.

Jay Rosales: Tired: Charlotte because the Raptors haven’t lost to the Hornets this season.

Wired: Brooklyn, because the Raptors have three players (Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam) who are better than their best (D’Angelo Russell). Because an eight-man playoff rotation that includes DeMarre Carroll is not scary. Because when playoff basketball calls for physical play, a team that turns the ball over 15 times a game (sixth-highest in the league) and gets called for fouls at a top-10 rate (21.6/game) is not scary.

I think the Magic sneak into the seventh-seed. They only face five teams with records over .500 the rest of the way. Meanwhile, Brooklyn, who many believe will finish as the seventh seed, has a seven-game road trip coming up plus match-ups against East playoff teams for all other games.

Toronto Raptors: 5 keys to winning the Eastern Conference – Hoops Habit

3. Ball movement
Playoff basketball is the picture-perfect explanation to those who claim that the NBA does not produce quality basketball action. Even though this statement is more than accurate during these showcasing and stat-padding regular season games, once the playoffs start, nothing remains the same.

The biggest example of playoff modification is defensive intensity. If somebody were to tune in and watch a regular season game tonight, they might stumble upon minor defensive aggression. But teams tend to play better defense once the stakes are higher.

Paint defense becomes the No. 1 priority for most defenses, making it extremely difficult for players lacking a reliable outside shot. Take Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo, for example. Instead of stepping up during last season’s playoff run, they took a step back as they struggled to find the adequate space to attack the paint.

The Raptors are not a good 3-point shooting team. They rank 18th in the NBA in 3-point percentage, shooting just 35.2 percent from behind the arc. Fortunately for them, they have another trick up their sleeve called ball movement, serving the purpose of creating more open looks for the team’s shooters.

There is a certain passing statistic called a secondary assist. A secondary assist is a pass leading to an assist within two seconds and one dribble. The Raptors are currently tied for first place with the Golden State Warriors in secondary assists per game, meaning they move the ball with ease and do not shoot the basketball immediately after receiving it.

This kind of ball movement is going to come in handy when going up against tight defenses. Take the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, for example, as a team where sharing the basketball was the top priority. All those banners hanging in the AT&T Center certainly prove sharing the ball is the way to go.

Thursday NBA preview: L.A. Lakers at Toronto Raptors | The Star [subscription]


James vs. Leonard

It doesn’t matter that his team’s not very good. James is still James, and a matchup with Leonard will be interesting to see unfold. James had 36 points and 10 rebounds in Chicago on Tuesday.

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