50-21; Ibaka no business
wow serge really went there with kawhi pic.twitter.com/eOwUVD7tLW
— William Lou (@william_lou) March 19, 2019
“It hasn’t helped us that we’ve had so much movement in our roster, as well,” Nick Nurse said before the game. “But saying that, I’m happy as always to get a look at some other guys and figure out where they’re going or where they’re not going, and look forward to the light at the end of the tunnel. I think by the end of this week we are gonna finally get our entire team on the floor, which should change a lot of rotations and a lot of things. So we’ll keep playing until that moment comes, but we look forward to it.”
He might have to wait a little longer. Lowry sustained a right ankle injury midway through the third quarter when Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson collided with him awkwardly at midcourt. Lowry initially appeared to favor his knee, then slammed his hands on the court a couple of times before clutching at his ankle. He limped off the court, the team ruling him out with “ankle soreness.” Nurse called the injury “not terribly bad” and Lowry didn’t seem too alarmed, though he’ll head for further testing Tuesday as a precaution. (He did call the play “a little dirty” but thought there was no intent on Robinson’s part.)
Realistically, Nurse probably can’t be blamed for having Lowry in the game with the team up 34. There were more than five minutes left in the third, and the general approach around the league is to let guys play to their normal sub-out time in the third. Lowry would have been out shortly, anyway; the timing is just unfortunate. It is not uncommon for stars to log minutes while way ahead. Still, Nurse can be blamed by the superstitious for speaking too soon about having his roster fully in-tact in Oklahoma City, where he should not play with superstition further as the team is staying at a haunted hotel.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Can we get a wood podium up here?” Nurse said, in search of something to knock on. “We’ll see. Hopefully, it’ll be not too serious and he can go, at least maybe go by Friday, if not Wednesday. We may have to wait another game more than we thought.”
A deep exhale and a preparatory dose of expected caution later, and maybe it’s not so bad, even if the Raptors are running pretty short on time to continue to build chemistry and familiarity and all of the other ethereal wonderness that they haven’t seemed to maintain with much consistency yet.
At this point in the season, Raptors fans are surely tired of hearing about the silver linings. The Raptors themselves seem to be, as well, though it doesn’t make those small silver linings any less true. Among some of the upsides to the constant churn of the active list:
Toronto’s moved from 15th in assists per game pre-trade to fourth; To sixth in passes from 20th; from 15th to third in potential assists and all the way up to second from 13th in points created from assists. They’re also up to second in secondary assists from eighth.
“You have to really prepare for his passing, his feel for the floor, where Serge is a really good shooter, shot-blocker, rebounder. Marc is more of a point-centre, so to speak,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey told me on Sunday when I asked about the difference between prepping for Gasol as Toronto’s starting centre vs. when Ibaka is in.
“So the difference in that is you got to have your head in a swivel once he has the ball in the elbow position, or if he’s catching in the pick-and-roll it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to shoot it,” Casey said. “He’s one of the best passers on their team right now so you’ve got to be really cognizant of that. Once he does have the ball everybody’s got to be alert for cutters, the corner three. That type of thing.” Obviously Gasol’s genius as a passer and his unselfishness have a lot to do with the passing numbers going way up, but Toronto simply nailing far more shots lately (especially from three-point range) also has a ton to do with the new numbers.
In Leonard the Raptors have a game-changer, a guy who, when you put the ball in his hands, can get the job done almost by himself. His combination of size, strength, skill and determination make him a one-man wrecking crew. He’s that elite talent the Raptors have never really had before.
VanVleet and Lowry rely more on ball movement for their success when they take over a game. It was in plain view Monday against an overmatched Knicks team that spent the better part of the evening chasing the basketball only to find it on the way to the bottom of the net after it had moved enough to provide a wide-open shot.
“Obviously, it was awesome pace, passing, paint touches, ball pressure, all the things we really wanted to do,” Nurse said. “It was great the way the ball was moving and the way we were flying around on defence the entire game, really.”
That was against the Knicks, a team far more interested in development at this point than actually winning basketball games, but the Lowry/VanVleet combo has done it against top-tier level competition as well.
That pair, with Marc Gasol, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam, put on a clinic in ball movement Monday night.
Nurse has seen it before and it’s why he is intent on finding minutes for that combo even with Leonard in the lineup.
The most likely scenario is a continuation of Nurse pulling his starting point guard Lowry off the floor with about five minutes left in the first quarter and then sending him back out there with VanVleet and the second unit when they take over either at the end of the first or to start the second quarter.
“We’re so dangerous like that with two points and two guys who can get in and out and attack the paint and find guys so I think that is something we can build on going forward,” VanVleet said after the game.
With the playoffs getting closer and the team likely locked into the No. 2 seed in the East, should Nick Nurse start managing the minutes for his star players more? TSN Raptors reporter Josh Lewenberg weighs in, and discusses how much of a concern is it that Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard haven’t been on the floor consistently with the postseason fast approaching.
This team hasn’t played enough with everyone together, but there’s no shortage of big-game playing experience. That’s why team president Masai Ujiri acquired Leonard and Green, who played on a championship team in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs. That’s why the move was made to pick up Gasol, he of the 59 career playoff games and a couple of Olympic silver medals. That’s why Ibaka is on board, veteran that he is of the NBA final and 109 playoff matches. With that much experience in the rotation, how much fine-tuning is really required?
“All we need is a couple games on the floor together, we’ll be all right,” Lowry said this week.
Still, with just 11 regular-season contests to go until the real stuff begins, the injuries and late-season additions will likely leave Nurse experimenting into the post-season’s first round.
“I’m okay with it now. I think we’re still searching. I just think it’s hard to call,” Nurse said Monday, speaking of the thinking that’s gone into this ultimate playoff rotation. “I think you’re probably thinking nine (players) once you get to the playoffs, but you just don’t know what happens. A big picks up a couple early fouls or a guard does, it just may throw somebody else into it.”
In other words, some coaches build cohesiveness slowly over seasons. Nurse has been put in a position to make it up as he goes along. That should make the Raptors’ most promising playoff run in history both exciting and surprising. As for whether it’ll be successful, a coach can only knock on wood.
For Gasol, things unfolded a bit differently. Though he was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007, he was still playing professionally in Spain when L.A. traded his rights to the Memphis Grizzlies in order to acquire his older brother, Pau, in 2008. In 11 years with the Grizzlies, Gasol was a three-time All-Star, a member of the 2014-15 All-NBA First Team and 2012-13 All-NBA Second Team and the 2012-13 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He’s also had a lengthy and decorated career with the Spanish national team, winning two Olympic silver medals and a FIBA World Cup title.
More than just past and present accolades, though, the Raptors added two players to their roster who bring experience and reputations for being great teammates. “They fit right in,” Danny Green said. “It’s like we didn’t miss a beat.”
Lin’s first game in Toronto came with a standing ovation when he was announced. It also had his mom sitting in the stands. “She was in New York so she wanted to come here,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, she had a blast, we got a win, so she was enjoying it. I thought it was great. “[I’m] thankful for the standing O.” While Lin’s mother was able to make the flight and see her son’s debut with the Raptors, Gasol was waiting on his family to be able to join him in their new city.
“Leaving my family was the hardest [part of the trade],” Gasol said. “The human aspect of the trade is the hardest part. For a few days you’re waking up and you don’t even know if it’s real or not. That was my 11th season in Memphis, so that was the only place I knew and leaving my family behind and doing it kind of alone in a way was probably the biggest thing for me to adjust to.”
Feeling comfortable with the destination you’re heading to certainly makes things easier. “The quality of the organization,” Gasol said. “That is the first thing that stood out to me. The quality of the organization, then the fan base, how passionate they are about the game and team. They are ready. It’s really good to see. You’re getting sellout crowds every game, since I’ve been here at least, and I’m sure before that too, It’s great to see and that gives you that extra push. Having the crowd behind you backing you up really helps.”
Now 15 games into his tenure with the Raptors, Gasol is already showing chemistry with his teammates, as well as showing off his ability to pick up new plays almost immediately. “He has plays down so fast,” Green said. “It shows how smart a player he is. I knew that before he got here. I’ve played against Marc so many times. You could tell he’s a high-IQ basketball player. Playing against him in Memphis, he would kill us. If you tell him a play, [he’s like], ‘Alright, cool.’ And he knows it already. There’s guys that have been here for two years that don’t know plays like that.”
In addition to knowing Green, Gasol also had history with Kyle Lowry. The two were teammates for half of Gasol’s rookie season, before Lowry was traded to the Houston Rockets. Immediately after arriving in Toronto, Gasol had a game plan in place to get brought up to speed quickly.“You go for the point guard,” Gasol said. “You go for the brains of the team and you do a lot of homework. You watch a lot of film, you ask Serge [Ibaka] how to play the position. Obviously [Kyle and I] played before and have great respect for one another and we want to win.”
A pessimist could groan over the Raptors’ bad luck with injuries this winter. The team just welcomed Fred VanVleet back after a 12-game absence with a torn thumb ligament. A team that has spoken openly about its frustrating search for continuity finally had all its key pieces back in place, and a chance to assemble them into a smooth-running unit before the playoffs begin in less than a month.
An optimist could point out that the Raptors would rather Lowry miss a little action now than in the playoffs, and that VanVleet returned just in time to fill the temporary vacancy Lowry’s injury might create. A slower-healing thumb would have left the Raptors in a more difficult situation.
“You can’t predict guys getting hurt … The next guy’s got to be ready to step in and fill in shoes,” centre Marc Gasol said told reporters Monday night. “If you’re playing the same way, playing unselfish, playing for one another … if we keep doing that over and over again, good things normally happen.”
While Kawhi Leonard is the team’s undisputed alpha, the Raptors have gone 15-5 in the 20 games he has missed this year, but they have won just nine of their 14 starts without Lowry. The Raptors enter Wednesday with a .704 winning percentage overall, but that figure jumps to .750 in games without Leonard. When Lowry sits out, the Raptors’ winning percentage slumps to .643 with Lowry sidelined.
Those numbers don’t mean Lowry is the single most important factor in the Raptors’ success, or that we overestimate Leonard’s contributions. The team factors Leonard’s load management days in to game strategy, but it can’t plan for Lowry’s injuries.
And head coach Nick Nurse said he’ll face the rest of this week looking to balance patience with the team’s need to keep Lowry on the court.
“Hopefully it’ll be not too serious” Nurse told reporters Monday night. “At least maybe (Lowry can play) Friday.”
Paul George vs. Pascal Siakam
Normally this would be a Westbrook/Kyle Lowry deal but with Lowry’s status questionable we’ll go with two we definitely expect to play. George has been over 30 points in two of the past three games and 29 in the other, so his game isn’t slipping. He has averaged almost five threes a night over that span. Siakam continues to make his case for most improved player in the NBA in his third season. He has scored 20 or more points in 20 games this year. Over his first two season in the NBA he did that just one time.
Westbrook vs. The Raptor Assigned To Him
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook enters Wednesday averaging a triple-double for the season — for the third straight year. His scoring is down — 22.9 points per game this year compared with 25.4 in 2018 — but he still does a lot of things very well, and can drain the energy of any one player tasked with stopping him.
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