The bench is a bit thin | Lowry playing a lot | OG finding his rhythm
— Kyle Lowry (@Klow7) November 7, 2019
This, in short, is what the Raptors need from Thomas when he gets an opportunity. The Raptors have started the year hot from long range, and when that ultimately regresses, Thomas can provide additional juice — and spacing — for the second unit. There will be bumps with the other aspects of his game, particularly on defence. With the number of plus-defenders the Raptors play regularly, that may be fine if Thomas can punish defences in this manner.
The Raptors are about to get a longer look at those ifs. On Wednesday, the team announced that Patrick McCaw underwent arthroscopic surgery to determine the cause of his lingering left knee pain. A benign mass on the back of his knee was removed, a procedure that will put him on the shelf for upwards of a month. (He’ll be reevaluated in four weeks.) Toronto were already running thin to start the year, to the extent that we’ve barely discussed that the seventh man is struggling mightily, because replacing him would be a non-starter at this point. The loss of McCaw, their eighth-man when healthy, will necessitate head coach Nick Nurse leaning on his depth a little ahead of schedule.
“Well, (I’m) gonna have to insert somebody else in there,” Nurse said before the game. “I’m gonna have to probably step up the pace here a little bit and get another body in there. He’s such a versatile guy, too, that can guard multiple positions. I love his IQ and all those things, and he kind of always makes things happen. So we’re gonna have to get somebody else to fill in for him here for a while.”
Nurse’s pregame comments highlighted a few key points to keep in mind this next month. Most notably, the speeding up of the timeline he mentioned suggests that he was well aware the seven-man rotation was too thin but was using the additional rest built into the early-season schedule to bring depth pieces along in practice before trialing them in larger in-game samples. (The players vying for those minutes have been getting extra work in almost daily, with multiple players confirming the post-practice sessions have been intense with something so tangible on the line.) He also mentioned living through the mistakes of the younger players, which, yeah, he’s not going to have much choice. Finally, he talked about trying to keep two starters on the floor at all times, which is a smart way to stagger the rotation so that the game is simplified for the bench (although he did use a four-man bench unit in the first half).
Who takes McCaw’s minutes could be, as we love to say, fluid. Against the Kings, the Raptors played 10 different players, each of whom received at least five minutes. That may be the piecemeal approach to the eighth- and ninth-man spots each night. There are also three other candidates who didn’t receive a chance Wednesday and could conceivably in the future.
What was encouraging about Thomas was the defensive effort, even if the results weren’t great each time. His biggest mistake in the first half came off a semi-transition push by the Kings, where Cory Joseph caught Harrison Barnes in stride at the left elbow extended. Thomas had Bogdan Bogdanovic in the left corner, but couldn’t resist the temptation to fill the lane Barnes was about to occupy, even though Serge Ibaka was waiting in the paint. Barnes swiftly kicked the ball out to Bogdanovic, and the Serb calmly drained the open triple. A likely contested paint two going up against one of the best shot blockers in the league or an open three? Thomas should learn to make the right choice with more reps.
On another play, he showed the upside. Thomas was forced into a switch on Barnes, denied him receiving the ball back after a pass to Richaun Holmes, then perfectly showed on a Hield drive before recovering quickly enough to get a hand on a kick-out back to Barnes and force a turnover. The reward was a three-point play the old-fashioned way for OG Anunoby (who continued his stellar season). Let them play through some of the bad, and perhaps they can play a bit more carefree and surprise you.
Nurse expected plug-and-play to be the norm from his non-championship core before the season began, but Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it would appear, can’t even be trusted with that. Boucher, who somehow got beat to board by Joseph, may be looking for a bit more room in the dog house.
But Davis and Thomas have shown they can carve a niche for themselves, the former as an off-ball guard who is as athletic as they come and the latter as a floor spacer who could potentially work his way to be consistently passable on the defensive end.
The four teams after the Pelicans Friday have a combined 19-10 record in the early season and will surely expose the flaws in those two players, but if the Raptors and Nurse are going to give themselves a chance of keeping their best players fresh for the post-season, some sacrifices have to be made in the here and now.
On this episode, host William Lou is joined by Harrison Sanford, host of Inside the Green Room, to discuss the Toronto Raptors’ upcoming West Coast trip through Los Angeles.
- Danny Green’s fit with the Lakers
- Dwight Howard’s redemption
- Backlash to Kawhi Leonard’s load management
- Pascal Siakam’s emergence as a No. 1 option
- OG Anunoby taking the next step
- Kyle Lowry’s unsustainable workload
One of the most interesting things to watch during this road trip will be how Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby handle the increased attention they’re going to receive from clubs, particularly in the last four games of the trip.
Looking at Anunoby first, the Raptors’ newest breakout third-year player will likely be tasked with defending James, Leonard, Lillard, McCollum and Doncic during this trip. So far Anunoby has been a veritable bank safe on defence this season, smothering and locking up just about all of his assignments. But can he really do that against the game’s super elite on the road? We’re about to find out.
And in regards to Siakam, for him it’ll be kind of the exact opposite of Anunoby. Can he get himself uncorked when he’ll have tough defenders such as James – or even Anthony – from the Lakers and Leonard on the Clippers? Can he keep his composure in Staples Center when calls will inevitably not go his way because of the titans he’s matching up against offensively?
Again, we’re going to find answers – or at least the start of some answers – during this trip.
Siakam and Anunoby have both been excellent this season and there’s no reason to believe on this trip their play will fall off the face of the earth. But as – particularly in Siakam’s case – primetime guys, just keeping the status quo in big games like they’re about to see might not be enough. Seeing if they can rise to the occasion looks like the true test.
For any coach in the NBA, this is the governing ethos. You play to win the game, as they say. It’s understandable then for Nurse to take this approach too, especially when he knows his team’s core — coming off winning a championship, no less — can snap together and win most any game. But Nurse was also around in those aformentioned past years, the seasons when the Raptors leaned too hard on Lowry, or found themselves surviving — or not — by injury luck alone. (Remember when Dwane Casey had to trot out Lucas Nogueira as a power forward in early 2017 because of a downed Patrick Patterson?) Fortunately, Nurse has acknowledged where this route will take him if he overplays the mainstays of his team’s rotation. Adjustments are presuambly to come.
“But now I’m gonna have to try to long-play within a game just a little bit more,” Nurse said. “I’m gonna have to try to hold water or tread water a little bit in that first half a little bit, just to make sure the minutes are down for the regulars and up for the second unit guys a little bit so we can have a little bit more room to play with it in the second half.”
In Wednesday’s Kings game, this holding and treading water led to the following minutes distribution beyond Ibaka (superlative in 23 minutes) and Norman Powell (maddeningly inconsistent for 19 minutes): 11 minutes for Matt Thomas, seven minutes for Terence Davis, and five minutes for Chris Boucher. Nurse’s bid to mix in his bench came in fits and starts, and while his stated ideal was to keep two starters out there at all times, that didn’t quite go as planned either. A Lowry-plus-bench lineup still appeared in over five minutes of (struggling) game action for the Raptors. Toronto was a minus-3 during that run and the Kings were able to hang around.
In their combined 23 minutes, it was possible to squint and see the roles for Davis, Thomas, and Boucher. In the absence of Patrick McCaw, who’s down for at least a month, Davis is to come in, act as a secondary ball-handler, and create the same plays Powell produces — drives and 3s, and active hands on defense. In last night’s run however, Davis was very much the rookie, drawing five fouls in seven minutes. (At one point he actually fouled out before the foul was re-assigned from him to Norm; not that it really mattered at that point.) Davis’ mentor VanVleet could only offer three pieces of advice: “stop hacking … don’t talk to the refs,” and perhaps most importantly, “there’s games like that.” (He added a bonus fourth bit: “don’t do it again on Friday.”)
Anunoby set a career high with five assists,—the second straight game he notched a new high — hit 3-of-4 three-point attempts, grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots. On defence, he guarded four positions at times and was especially good against forwards Bogdan Bogdanovic — who had been going off against the Raptors, nailing six three-pointers — and Harrison Barnes, who scored a game-high 26 points. Bogdanovic couldn’t even get a shot attempt off in the 3:31 he was guarded by Anunoby, per NBA.com, while Barnes only attempted one shot in the 2:25 Anunoby was on him. The Kings simply were looking elsewhere, despite how well the players he was guarding had been doing. That’s a testament to his burgeoning defensive reputation.
“I just think he’s looking like more of a complete player now,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said after the game.
“There’s good cutting, there’s a little bit of driving, there’s usually one a game where he gets in the lane and steals it and he’s off the other way. He’s growing and doing a lot of things. He’s blocking a shot here and there, getting his hand in off a drive here and there. He’s had some good ones here this year,” Nurse said.
Anunoby’s cutting and passing makes a dangerous offence even better. He’s a good outlet for Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet or Kyle Lowry, but now he can also find teammates who get themselves open.
“He can do a little bit of everything,” VanVleet said. “He’s growing each game and he’s blossoming. He’s having a great year so far. We need him to be pretty consistent. And he’s been doing that for us. So, we’ll lean on him quite a bit this year and hopefully he can answer the call.”
There’s no evidence yet that Anunoby isn’t ready to meet that challenge. There’s a case to be made that he has been the best overall player in three of Toronto’s first seven games.
“He’s putting in the work,” VanVleet said. “He’s really taken a step just being a professional this year. And I’ve noticed him working more. I’ll say I’ve seen him in the gym working on his game and you see it pay off.”
Anunoby’s only weakness so far remains at the free-throw line. He shot 63% from there as a rookie, 58% in his truncated second season and just 2-for-6 so far, with five of those attempts coming over the past two games.
Still, the Raptors can probably live with that issue if Anunoby continues to do everything else at such a high level.
Thirty-nine minutes a night might not be sustainable for an entire season, but Lowry has shown no signs of slippage. He is averaging a career-best 24 points per game and making three-pointers at an all-time clip (42.9 per cent) while still dishing out 6.7 assists per game and playing his usual irascible defence.
He played the last 5:14 of Wednesday’s 124-120 win over Sacramento with five fouls and still hit a three-pointer, dished out an assist and drew two fouls on Sacramento defenders.
“I think I’m going to let him play that out most of the time, we’ve done that before,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “Last year in the playoffs was similar: We lost him with about six minutes to go (to fouls). We’ll probably let him play that out and most of the time he’s going to make it to the end, probably. And if he doesn’t, we make our move then.”
The Raptors can’t seem to make a move that doesn’t involve Lowry if they want to close out a close game. The team isn’t blessed with an abundance of backcourt depth, so riding the veteran is the best move. Lowry knows how to conserve energy while on the floor and he can usually balance aggressive defence with not committing a crucial foul.
With the Raptors embarking on a five-game, 10-day road trip that will tax their bodies and minds, Lowry is looking forward to the more relaxing aspects of the journey.
“It’ll give us a good opportunity to be on the road as a group and hang out with each other and kind of get some camaraderie together and be in some warm weather,” he said.
Nurse shared a story from his coaching days with the Birmingham Bullets in the mid-1990s. After a lost game, Nurse overheard someone in the U.K. organization describe it as typical Birmingham Bullets basketball. When Nurse went back to his hotel room that night, he decided he needed to change the organization’s mindset.
“I wrote on a piece of paper ‘expect to win’ followed by two good-size paragraphs about how everybody in the organization – when they come to the arena on game night or when they get on the bus to go for a road game – would need to have their mindset set to ‘we are going to win’. Whatever the circumstances, however many guys are in or out, regardless of whether we’re losing or not, we were going to be going for the win,” said Nurse.
The Bullets went on to win the British Basketball League championship in 1996. On day one of training camp with the Raptors last year, the players all got wristbands that said “expect to win.”
Nurse told the crowd he wasn’t transfixed on becoming an NBA championship coach, but he always knew he loved basketball and winning. So, he was surprised when he took on a coaching position in the NBA D-League (now G League) that he wasn’t winning more, despite having nine championships from Europe under his belt. Nurse and his assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren spent hours every day trying to figure out how to win more games. They decided that they would focus on four things: getting the best players; building offensive and defensive systems that were simple and effective; and preparing for the ends of each game.
“Games in the NBA are really close. A lot of them come down to those last three or four minutes. I put up huge dry erase boards on the walls of my basement and I’d write at the top of one of them: ‘It’s a tie, with 38 seconds left.’ Then we’d jot down ideas – like put my best offensive players out, consider going two for one, run player number four … We’d go through hundreds of scenarios and solutions because we wanted to be totally prepared.”
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