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How the Raptors Can Stay Afloat Despite Injuries

Today’s column was supposed to be about how the Raptors are a threat to come out the East — asking people to stop calling this a transition season — but things change quickly in the NBA, so that column will have to wait.

On Thursday evening, the Raptors announced that Marc Gasol (strained hamstring), Norman Powell (subluxation of left shoulder), and Pascal Siakam (stretched groin) are all out indefinitely with injuries. Those, in addition to injuries to Fred VanVleet (knee), Matt Thomas (finger), and Stanley Johnson (groin) leave the Raptors thinner than they have been in a very long time. 

Their updated depth chart looks something like this:

PG: Kyle Lowry, Shamorie Ponds*
SG: Patrick McCaw, Terence Davis
SF: OG Anunoby, Malcolm Miller
PF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Oshae Brissett*
C: Serge Ibaka, Chris Boucher, Dewan Hernandez
* — not yet recalled

The good news is VanVleet is day-to-day and could be back as soon as Friday’s matchup against the Washington Wizards. The other good news is that the Raptors play the Wizards and the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks next, two winnable games despite being so shorthanded. The bad news is it gets worse after that, playing the Indiana Pacers followed by a back-to-back against the Boston Celtics. With only one game separating the teams ranked second through sixth in the East, staying in the mix will not be easy for this version of the Raptors in the coming weeks.

But I like to bring some optimism to the table, so let’s take a look at how the Raptors have to play if they hope to stay in the mix. 

Play fast, limit turnovers

Since the start of the season, the offense has been structured around the Raptors No. 1 option, Pascal Siakam. With Siakam out, that is going to change.

Welcome to the Kyle Lowry show.

We know how this works. Just as Lowry plays when it’s him and four bench players, the offense is going to be structured around Lowry. That doesn’t necessarily mean his usage rate is going to skyrocket, but it does mean the team is going to play the way Lowry likes to play: fast. 

Expect the Raptors to run after stops or made buckets. Even with Lowry off the floor, the Raptors need to score in transition because of their lack of half-court playmaking with Gasol, Powell, and Siakam missing. It won’t be easy without Powell and Siakam, two of their best transition scorers, but Lowry, VanVleet, Anunoby are all really effective in transition, and McCaw, Davis, Hollis-Jefferson, and Boucher are all fast and athletic enough to do damage there as well. 

The Raptors currently rank 14th in the league in pace at 101.5, but if they are going to succeed with this shorthanded roster, that number will need to go up. They just don’t have the personnel to run out the clock and get a good shot off consistently in the half-court.

Playing fast often leads to turnovers. However, splitting up Lowry and VanVleet’s minutes could mitigate some of those problems because they are two smart playmakers who rarely turn the ball over. Secondary playmakers like McCaw, Anunoby, and Davis will need to prioritize making smart decisions with the ball.

The Raptors will give themselves a chance if they rachet up the pace, score effectively in transition, and limit turnovers.

Aggressive defense

The easiest way to play fast and score in transition is to get defensive stops. That’s not going to be easy without Gasol, who has been the Raptors best defender this season, and as people on Twitter like to say when something is actually very close, it’s not even close. 

According to The Athletic’s Eric Koreen, “The Raptors allow 99.2 points per 100 possessions when Gasol is playing compared with 106.0 when he is not, the biggest single difference for any player on the team.”

Anunoby will be asked to do even more against the oppositions’ best wing players, and Ibaka will need to prove he can hang with starting centers. All-in-all, though, the Raptors will need to play defense by committee, because no one is going to cover for the ground Gasol, Siakam, and, to a lesser extent, Powell cover.

Expect more zone defense, as Blake Murphy outlines here, as the Raptors have been really effective playing zone this season, ranking second in the league at 0.88 points per zone possession allowed.

Also, expect an even more aggressive defense, in zone or man-to-man. If the Raptors want to play fast, they will need to force turnovers, and the best way to do that is by playing aggressive and double-teaming ball-handlers. We have seen a fair bit of that already this season, but with less talented defenders on the floor, expect Nick Nurse to draw up aggressive defensive schemes with regular double-teams being thrown at opposing stars, forcing the ball out of their hands and ideally causing turnovers.

Threes, Anunoby, and crashing the glass

How do the Raptors score in the half-court without a high-impact playmaker, their highest-usage scorer, and their most efficient secondary scorer to date? Like a night out following a breakup, it’s not always going to look pretty. 

The Raptors best bet is to play similar to how the Portland Trail Blazers play, running the offense through two guards, Lowry and VanVleet, who can take turns facilitating or creating mismatches to take big men off the dribble (VanVleet is especially lethal at this). 

With the two of them running the offense, Nurse will look to space out the floor as much as possible to leave the paint unclogged with shooters spotting up. Expect the ball to move side-to-side and expect an increase in three-point shots, one of the most efficient shots to take in the half-court.

The Lowry and Ibaka pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game will be in full force, but Ibaka is an inconsistent scorer, and some nights his shot just isn’t going to fall. Beyond Ibaka, who’s usage rate of 25.3 is second-highest on the Raptors behind only Siakam, I would look to Anunoby, whose usage rate is just 15.2, for secondary scoring.

Anunoby has been a lot more aggressive as of late, not just looking for his shot but also putting the ball on the floor and driving to the basket whenever he sees an opportunity. He will have to continue doing that despite a bigger defensive workload AND more playmaking responsibility since he will be the third-best playmaker in the starting lineup. It’s going to be one of the biggest tests in Anunoby’s young career, but it’s also an opportunity to show Nurse and the coaching staff that he can thrive in a bigger role going forward. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly when it comes to half-court offense, the Raptors need to crash the boards. Nurse likely knows how much his team is going to struggle to generate good looks in the half-court, so he should encourage his big men to crash the offensive glass whenever they see an opportunity. In Ibaka, Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson, and Boucher, he has four forwards who are capable of getting up there and generating second-chance opportunities. 

According to Blake Murphy, the trio of Davis, Hollis-Jefferson, and Boucher have an offensive rebounding rate of 43.1 percent over 139 minutes, one of the hallmarks of the offense when Lowry and Ibaka were out with injuries.  

It looks like the grinch stole Christmas from the Raptors, but like Cindy-Lou Who and the citizens of Whoville, the Raptors won’t give up without a good fight.

Happy holidays everyone!

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