Raptors focusing in on Magic; don’t be scared…
Nurse expects more from Playoff Kawhi
On top of All-NBA level production, Leonard has also ushered in a culture shift in terms of mentality. The franchise has borrowed Leonard’s resume to mask their own postseason failures, and there is good reason to be confident. Not only is Leonard a former Finals MVP, but he holds the third-highest true-shooting percentage in NBA playoff history.
Leonard has always been muted, but he’s consistent about one thing – the regular season was “82 practices” to him. The franchise followed suit by giving Leonard “load management” for roughly a quarter of the games to keep him fresh, and in doing so they forfeited the No. 1 seed to Milwaukee. Eventually it comes time to deliver, and Nurse expects the best of Leonard.
“I think he’s been a long ways in the playoffs a number of times. I think we know he’s able to handle it. We’re looking for even more leadership and steadiness of demeanour and leadership of the other younger guys that maybe haven’t been in these situations before. But I’m also looking forward to watching him play in these playoffs. I think he’s really feeling good about his body and his mindset is really good, too. I think there may be another gear we see here. That’s what we’re looking for,” Nurse said.
“I think there are three areas I would expect. First of all defensively, I would imagine he is going to get to a place and find some opportunities to make plays. I have always said he is a rare guy who can make a play at the defensive end where he just decides ‘I’m going to figure out how to take the ball from somebody or jump in a passing lane.’ He can do that. Then I think offensively as well he is going to do his thing. He is going to look to score. But I also think in crunch time and late game would be another area where we would see him shine,” Nurse added.
The consistent knock on Casey, by far the most successful coach in Raptors history, was that he was slow to make in-game adjustments. Give him a game or two, and he would figure things out. However, as the Raptors made a habit of dropping Game 1s, there was a cry that Casey was keeping useful weapons on the bench. Remember the Landry Fields and James Johnson controversies?
The Raptors’ failure to prepare for the possibility of the Cavaliers inbounding the ball from underneath their own basket as opposed to at half court of Game 3 last year was likely the final straw for Casey’s tenure here. Nurse was brought in for a number of reasons, the most noteworthy of which was to upgrade that quality.
“There’s more. I don’t put a percentage on it or quantify it. There’s a lot more,” Nurse said when asked how many more in-game decisions there are in a playoff series compared to the regular season. “I think it’s like if a guy makes a bucket or two … in the next (after-timeout play) or next timeout, you’re gonna have to make it (about) one thing. What are you gonna do? Either you’re going to say, ‘The coverage is right. We’ve got to do it better.’ Or, ‘The matchup is wrong, we’ve got to switch the matchup.’ Or, ‘The coverage is wrong, we’ve got to switch the coverage.’ There are lots of things to consider, and I think those decisions come at you a lot faster. You probably go ahead and make those in the playoffs.”
In the regular season, the Raptors did not particularly chase victories, especially in the last quarter of the season, when they were more or less locked into second place in the Eastern Conference. It was a season about experimentation in order to make the Raptors as versatile for this time of year as possible. Other than the Raptors relying a little bit too much on isolation plays — another criticism of Casey, which should extend to Nurse, too, since he had so much say in the offence during the previous five seasons — it was hard to get a read on Nurse’s strategic chops this year. (If you have any diehard Birmingham Bullets or Rio Grande Valley Vipers fans in your life, they might have more to say on the topic.)
Nurse has, however, put his own stamp on the atmosphere that surrounds the Raptors. In one way, Casey and Nurse are similar: They try to keep the mood of their teams very stable. Even if that goal is accomplished at different frequencies — Casey is all about seriousness and professionalism, while Nurse is more concerned with openness and creativity — the reasoning is the same: Regardless of the context of the moment, they want their teams’ approach serve as a constant.
“I think he’s just easygoing. … I don’t know if that’s just his personality or if that’s the style of coaching he’s chosen to adopt,” Fred VanVleet said. “He’s been pretty easygoing, and he picks his spots when he wants to flip out on us. It’s been few and far between. For the most part, he’s been even-keeled and not getting too high during the wins and not getting too low. Sometimes we catch ourselves looking around waiting to get yelled at or waiting for some guidance, and it’s not always there. He lets us figure it out. It’s been good for us. I think going into the postseason, obviously we’ll tighten up. Things get a little tighter in terms of scouting and game plan, and just attention to details. But I think, overall, the mood has been pretty balanced.”
“I think we’ve got a mature team,” said 25-year-old Fred VanVleet, the fourth-youngest of the 16 players the Raptors currently roster. “A lot of us have kids.”
In Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard, and Patrick McCaw, the Raptors feature a half-dozen players who have played in conference finals. And four of them have gone beyond. If the Raptors fail this spring, experience will not be the culprit.
That’s got to be worth something. Just how much, we’ll find out. But if it helps the Raptors start the playoffs on the right foot, dispatching a vastly inferior team like the Magic quickly instead of getting dragged into a six- or seven-game slugfest, it can only help keep Toronto focused and fresh going forward.
“You add Jodie Meeks to the end of the roster, too,” VanVleet said. “It just gives you some more experience, some more level-headedness, and that professionalism. Just being able to come in, take care of your business, get prepared, and go out there and put together some good performances.”
Maybe the last thing for Nurse to figure out is just how he’ll use players like VanVleet off the bench. His rotations will shrink starting Saturday, as he leans more heavily on his starting group of Lowry, Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Gasol. Beyond that, VanVleet will have an important role to play, whether running the floor on his own or sharing ball-handling responsibilities with Lowry in two-guard lineups, as will Ibaka, who will work in tandem with Gasol.
But beyond that? Does OG Anunoby draw in frequently to counter Orlando’s length with his versatile, athletic defence? Is Norman Powell turned to for a source of energy if the Raptors look stale? Does the struggling Jeremy Lin have a role to play? Will Meeks enter if Toronto’s shooters are cold? Will McCaw get off the end of the bench if the Raptors are desperate for a spark?
“Some nights, it’s not a guy’s night. Or some series — certain series don’t fit guys or whatever. So, we’ve got to wait and see how it all filters out,” Nurse said. “That’s what makes these playoffs great. You know there’s somebody out there that is going to get the pinch hit double in the bottom of the eighth that you weren’t expecting. Or bang in a couple threes. Or make the big steal. Or get the big blocked shot.
“Somebody asked me this yesterday: ‘Who off the bench, or which one of the role guys, do you think will break out?’ And I said, ‘Geez, it could be any of them.’”
Lowry, being the player he is, will always do anything he can to help the team win. And he has produced 30-point playoff games when this team has needed them from him. But not having to do that, it’s in Lowry’s DNA to find another way to impact the game and he has done that all year.
Nurse knows only too well what that can mean for his team as it prepares to take on the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of its Eastern Conference quarterfinal Saturday evening at Scotiabank Arena.
“Here’s what I think about Kyle,” Nurse began on Thursday. “I think his natural instincts are to play tough and lead. Maybe in the past, we needed him to do that and also get 20. I think the biggest difference is he’s going to play tough and lead because that’s who he is. He is competitive and I think this team can win if he gets four or 34.
“I think he’s going into this knowing he’s got to play like an all-star player because he can impact the game in so many ways … but I also don’t think he feels the entire weight of having to do everything for us,” Nurse added. “I think he feels almost more comfortable, moving the pieces around, looking for the open man, hitting high numbers of assists, running the team and, again, making those huge plays.
“I still say I’ve never seen any guy who can make five huge plays in a row, steal a ball, hit a pull-up three, go down and take a charge, come down, drive in and throw one in — change a whole game in 90 seconds sometimes … I think he’s comfortable with this team, he likes this team, he’s comfortable in his role with this team.”
Lowry can be this way now because it’s no longer just him or DeRozan being counted on to provide the scoring. The scoring can come from Kawhi, it can come from Green, it can come from Gasol and yes, it can definitely come from Siakam.
The best part of this role change — if you want to call it that, and perhaps the reason it has played out so seamlessly for a player such as Lowry who is known to be as stubborn as they come — is that it came about organically. No one forced it. If anything, Lowry saw it for himself and then just went with it.
3. The Raptors have a clear pecking order and get along.
There are have been no real hints of internal dissension in Toronto, despite the roster upheaval and the dismissal of a popular head coach last summer. Lowry came off as grumpy about the way DeRozan was traded, but that seemed more focused on the front office than new teammates. He’s since had the epitome of a Good Teammate Season, with a career high in assists.
The Raptors get along, and they seem to know who should be getting the ball at any given moment. Leonard is the star, Pascal Siakam and Lowry are the second options, Ibaka or Gasol provide pressure relief, and Green is the designated sniper. Fred VanVleet is the clear back-up to Lowry, and the other bench players fit in where they can. The roster makes sense.
Not all of the East contenders can say that.
Who are the Necessary Players beyond Toronto’s First Seven?
The consensus on the playoff rotation surrounds seven players right now — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka will all see big minutes. VanVleet obviously works extremely well in closing lineups, and Serge Ibaka provides, among other things, a critical piece in pick-and-roll defense if things get sticky.
With seven players, however, minutes will be high for everyone on board. The team need will need eight or nine to stay fresh for 16 wins and as many as 28 games. OG Anunoby is the next pick to get minutes based on his natural abilities as a defender, his small-ball four utility, and his periphery shooting ability — something that’s dropped off enough recently to warrant concern. Aside from shooting, OG has proven to be great as a cutter when sharing the floor with Gasol as well. But not to the extent of the next guy — and possibly the most important bench player after VanVleet — on the roster, Norman Powell.
If OG provides defense, Powell will need to provide offense, and it’s exactly what he’s been doing brilliantly since the All-Star break. In 23 games since the late February return, Powell has been a lightning rod for offensive efficiency. Posting a field goal percentage of .497, he’s drilled 31 of 64 three pointers — good for nearly 49 percent. The most encouraging sign of Norm’s potential post-season success hasn’t been what he’s doing on the court however; it’s what he’s not doing — or more specifically, what he isn’t forcing.
Powell struggled mightily last season in attempting to emulate DeMar DeRozan as the bench’s version of a high-usage ISO scorer. This wasn’t his natural game, and his play suffered all season long because of it. This year, Powell’s been dialling back that desire and instead is funnelling his energy into taking his offense in stride. Just based on a simple eye test, the difference is monumental. Norm’s decision making has made a full 180-turn and he’s now helping the bench in ways that were markedly absent earlier this season.
4. Quicker adjustments
One lesson the Raptors definitely appear to have learned from their last post-season run is: Don’t wait until the playoffs to introduce new lineups.
That tendency was, in fairness, largely tied to Dwane Casey’s brand of basketball, as last year Toronto sported the same starting five in 52 of 82 games and struggled deeply when teams figured out their rotation in the playoffs.
As the Raptors scrambled to find chemistry with new combinations in the middle of October, the Cleveland Cavaliers feasted on the holes left by the Raptors on both ends of the floor, racing in transition and making Toronto pay for turnovers.
Who would have thought that calling on an incongruous, out of form Lucas Nogueira in an elimination game wouldn’t work?
“We’ve been forced into go off-script a lot,” Nurse told reporters the week before the playoffs. “We’ve been looking at different lineups, different second units, different starting lineups, different combinations, small, big, super big. And I guess the whole point of that was we get some type of familiarity with things not just being perfect all the time. And I feel good about that.”
Ten months later, the Raptors’ projected post-season starting five has seen just nine games together from tip-off so far, as the coaching staff keeps experimenting and dealing with injuries or load management.
This year’s team has seen 22 different starting fives, compared to 12 last season.
It’s tough to predict how a team will mesh together on a nightly basis – the most important nights of the season — based on such a small sample size. On paper, Lowry, Leonard, Gasol, Danny Green and Pascal Siakam are the best available players and a good fit. But they might encounter a new version of an old problem.
Masai Ujiri went to work in the offseason and shipped out some household names for some new faces in the hopes that the fresh blood would bolster the Raptors chances in the playoffs. The NBA panel looks at what players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will bring to the postseason.
Jack Armstrong and Leo Rautins look at which players from last year’s playoff team will be leaned on to lead the way this year, headlined by Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka.
Fred VanVleet sits down with Josh Lewenberg to discuss how good it feels to be going into the playoffs healthy, unlike last year, how excited he is to see Kawhi Leonard fully unleashed in the postseason, whether the season would be a disappointment if the team doesn’t reach the NBA Finals, and much more.
With so many contenders loaded with fragile big-name free agents and other concerns that are tied to the uncertainty of their finishes, there is more at stake than just winning. There’s also the future and, in these times, that’s always on the mind.
This applies across the board in the Eastern Conference, where it’s accentuated because you could make a legitimate case that any of the top four seeds could/should reach the NBA Finals. And all of them have ancillary issues that bubble under the surface.
The Toronto Raptors have lived all season with the Kawhi Leonard cloud on the horizon. Leonard hasn’t articulated, well, almost anything. But certainly not what will be most important to him when he has the option to become a free agent this summer. But it’s a safe bet that an early exit would not bode well for the Raptors’ chances at re-signing him, especially after they changed coaches and retooled the roster to try to bury past playoff disappointments.
And so, here we are. A little less than nine months from DeRozan’s shipment to San Antonio bringing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Toronto, and a little more than two months since Valanciunas was jettisoned to Memphis in the package that returned Marc Gasol, Lowry and the Raptors find themselves preparing for the club’s most promising post-season run ever. It’s Toronto’s sixth straight playoff berth. But to use a phrase possibly trademarked by the folks in Augusta, the Raptors are hoping it starts a franchise tradition unlike any other.
To put it another way: goodbye to modest ambition. And goodbye to getting run over by LeBron, who’s out of the post-season picture for the first time in 13 years.
The clear goal, beginning with Saturday’s first-round opener against the Orlando Magic at Scotiabank Arena, is a franchise-first NBA final, or maybe an out-of-left-field championship ring should the superior teams in the Western Conference helpfully grind each other into a pre-final pulp. And one of the beautiful things about the impending run goes like this: Lowry, after being proven perennially incapable of carrying a championship contender, suddenly isn’t required to do such heavy lifting.
“I think his natural instincts are to play tough and lead. Maybe in the past we needed him to do that and also get 20 (points),” Nick Nurse, the first-year head coach and sixth-year staff member, was saying on Thursday. “I think the biggest difference is, he’s going to play tough and lead because that’s who he is, he’s competitive and I think this team can win if he gets four (points) or 34.”
Translation: We all need a boss like Ujiri. Sure, Ujiri traded away his best friend. But for the 33-year-old Lowry, DeRozan’s ouster has meant considerably less responsibility and way more potential glory. Which is not to take away from the fact that Lowry remains essential to Toronto’s hopes. There’s no replacement on the roster for Lowry’s skill set, which is why the status of his occasionally wonky back and ever-sensitive ankles will undoubtedly pop up as storylines so long as Toronto’s run proceeds.
But there’s also a perceptible weight that’s been lifted from Lowry’s shoulders, which ought to help with the health issues.
“I think he’s going into this knowing he’s got to play like an all-star player,” Nurse said. “But I also don’t think he feels the entire weight of having to do everything for us.”
Translation: We all need a backer like Nurse, who’ll explain away our diminishing abilities as a positive trait. We all know Lowry’s not the player he used to be. We all know he hasn’t had 34 points in a playoff game since 2016. In the two playoff runs since, he clearly tempered his aggressiveness to avoid exposing his limitations. And while his efficiency has improved as a result — and while he’s attempting to rewrite his personal narrative by pointing this out — the wins and losses speak louder than Lowry’s pleadings.