Injuries. What injuries?
With two minutes remaining, the most seasoned Raptor on the floor, Kyle Lowry, burst the Wizards’ comeback bid with a three-pointer to give his team a six-point lead. Just before Lowry’s clinching shot, Bradley Beal missed badly on his attempt from three-point territory. Beal anchored Washington’s rally with a game-high 37 points but wanted more.
“I felt like we should have won,” Beal said. “We had enough flow and juice to win. Down the stretch we kind of got away from ourselves. We weren’t defending, and they made some tough shots down the stretch.”
The Wizards were down 17 after a quarter (40-23) and 16 at intermission, but Beal scored 23 in the second half to bring his team back.
He had help. The Wizards’ bench unit outscored its Toronto counterparts 46-26, thanks primarily to a perfect night from Ish Smith (a season-high 26 points on 9-for-9 shooting). Smith’s floater in the lane tied the game at 109 with 3:43 remaining.
“There’s no moral victories. This is something that maybe you think about when you’re freakin’ 40 years old and you’re in the rocking chair with your wife and your kids,” Smith said. “But right now it’s turn the page and try to figure out what we can do and how we can get better moving forward with Philly [Saturday night].”
“Some duct tape,” the Raptors coach said as he spotted a role on the podium he uses for his pre-game media session. “We could use some of that.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Now down three key members of his team’s rotation — with Pascal Siakam (groin), Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Norm Powell (shoulder) all out indefinitely — Nurse got a bit philosophical figuring out where his gutted team goes from here.
Now it’s going to be the likes of Chris Boucher, Terence Davis II, Pat McCaw and Matt Thomas, when he’s back from a broken thumb in a couple of weeks, who will have to prove themselves.
“Maybe we’ll learn something and find something new out about some of these guys,” Nurse said. “One thing is we’ve got to go play the games. Nobody’s going to hold up and wait on us, so we’ve got to go play ’em, and I expect us to play ’em with great energy and confidence, and play really, really hard, because we’re gonna have to.”
The decimation of the roster comes just before the Raptors enter one of the toughest stretches of the schedule so far. They play powerful Dallas and Indiana in back-to-back games starting Sunday, have a home-and-home set with the Boston Celtics starting on Christmas Day and play in Miami on Jan. 2.
Toronto enters the weekend treading water among the top teams in the East — in fourth place in the conference going into Friday night’s play with one game separating second place from sixth. Milwaukee, Boston, Miami, Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana were jumbled within 5 1/2 games of each other.
Even amid a tumultuous 2016-17 that saw, for the first time, significant trade deadline change, the Raptors leaned on the Lowry blueprint, posting a plus-4.7 net rating in 403 minutes of Lowry-and-bench time. Again in 2017-18, those lineups were excellent, albeit in a much smaller, 129-minute sample. That was due to The Bench Mob thriving, a rare five-man second unit that didn’t need a starter buoying it in the regular season. (In the interest of full disclosure, Lowry-and-bench units struggled in a small sample that postseason.)
It’s harder to get an accurate feel for what lineups qualified last year since the Raptors used 22 different starting lineups. Isolating out the most common starters at the two, three and four, as well as Marc Gasol (who started the bulk of his appearances), we can get something of a snapshot. (The swing factor there is Serge Ibaka, who started 51 games but was a key component of many Lowry-and-bench groups.) The results weren’t as friendly as usual, with the Raptors being slightly outscored across 179 minutes. They then abandoned it altogether in the playoffs, smartly keeping two or more starters on most of the time with a tightened rotation.
Noise of last season aside, Lowry lifting bench groups has been a longtime staple of how the Raptors managed their rotations as a high-floor outfit.
3. Serge Ibaka steps up – again
The first quarter belonged to Lowry and McCaw, but Ibaka was Toronto’s best player for a large portion of the game.
Starting in place of the injured Gasol at centre, Ibaka scored 23 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked a game-high three shots. He shot 7-for-10 from the field, 2-for-3 from the 3-point line and 7-for-10 from the free throw line.
Ibaka had a couple of highlight-reel plays and seemed to have an answer whenever the Wizards started to chip away at the lead in the third quarter.
Ibaka struggled when he first returned from injury, but he appears to be back to normal. Prior to this game, he scored a season-high 25 points against the Detroit Pistons.
Each of their top-eight rotation players has missed at least one game. Seven of them have already sustained a significant injury and have either missed extended time or are about to. Ironically, their healthiest player to this point, OG Anunoby, was their most snake-bitten a year ago.
Alas, it’s part of the game. Injuries happen and no matter how bad it seems, it can almost always be worse. To put things in perspective, the NBA’s other reigning finalist, Golden State, has lost a league-most 158 man-games to injury. Nobody is going to feel bad for the Raptors, especially coming off of a championship season.
There’s reason to believe they can withstand a stretch as daunting as this, though.
The Raptors went 9-2 while Lowry was out with a fractured thumb earlier this season. They went 8-2 without him and Ibaka, who suffered a badly sprained ankle in New Orleans on Nov. 8 – the same night Lowry was injured.
They do have some reinforcements on the way. VanVleet has been ramping up his work of late and is nearing a return from the knee bruise that’s kept him out of five straight games. He could be back as early as Friday against Washington. Thomas, who has been out for nearly a month with a broken finger, isn’t far behind.
Filling the void left by Siakam, Gasol and Powell will be a challenge, to be sure.
After a slow start offensively, Gasol has come around over the last couple of weeks and was playing his best basketball of the season. But even when he’s not scoring or shooting the ball especially well, he serves as the anchor and most important cog of Toronto’s third-ranked defence. His passing, screen setting and high basketball IQ also helps the offence flow.
They led by as many as 18 points and surrendered 66 second-half points thanks to eight three-point jumpers by the Wizards. But it was an essential win, considering they lost three key players to injury in Detroit on Wednesday. Leading scorer Pascal Siakam (stretched groin), Marc Gasol (left hamstring strain) and Norm Powell (partially separated left shoulder) each are listed as out.
As a result, VanVleet felt the time was right for his return. He was rusty at time, but good enough for 18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in 33:38 on the court.
“It was very important,” he said. “I was turning the corner anyway. But to have what three of our top six guys, it’s not very fortunate for our ball club. I tried to get back out there and give our guys a better chance to win. I’d like to think I increased our chances of winning tonight regardless of how ugly it was.
“There’s no magic pill for those guys to get better. We want them to take their time. We have got to band together and do our best given the circumstance.”
On Wednesday, Powell partially dislocated a shoulder when he went around a screen set by Detroit’s Blake Griffin. He will be out indefinitely, along with Marc Gasol (hamstring) and Pascal Siakam (groin). With that in mind, he was asked whether he would be playing on Friday night if Wednesday night hadn’t doubled as a sledgehammer to the Raptors’ rotation.
“I’m gonna say … no,” VanVleet said.
The pause betrayed his effort at subterfuge. His annoyance was in jest, as VanVleet has the rare habit of erring on the side of honesty when it comes to things players and teams like to keep discreet such as injuries. Also, VanVleet has a history of playing through injuries, although he was quick to say after the Raptors’ 122-118 win over Washington that he is no longer injured. (He said “injured” as if the phrase “per se” should have followed it.)
After his shoulder injury — hold that thought — in the last game of the regular season two seasons ago, he tried to get back on the floor in Game 2 of the Raptors’ first-round series against Washington. He played just three minutes that night, and did not play for another three games after that, his foolhardiness of trying to compete at a playoff level with one arm having been exposed. He still returned before the series was out to help close out the Wizards in Washington.
Whether VanVleet could have used a little more time to heal before returning remains in question, but he was back in the lineup Friday. The point guard had missed the previous four games after suffering a knee contusion on Dec. 9.
“I’m not really injured anymore, so to speak. Just trying to manage the discomfort,” said VanVleet. “Luckily it’s nothing serious. Keep working through it. It will be a work in progress.”
The Raps were forced to use their fifth starting lineup of the season and rely on the positional versatility of several players. VanVleet and Lowry comprised the backcourt, Patrick McCaw started at small forward, Anunoby switched to the power forward position and Ibaka began at centre.
Toronto’s bench remained depleted, too – with Matt Thomas (finger) and Stanley Johnson (groin) still out. So the Raps had just 11 healthy bodies Friday, including G-League call-ups Dewan Hernandez and Oshae Brissett. The Raps were pushed to lean on bench players Chris Boucher (four points, five rebounds), Terrence Davis II (eight points), Malcolm Miller (without a point) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (14 points and four assists)
The Raps had to make up for the points typically provided by their leading scorer, Siakam, who appeared headed for his first all-star game before the injury. They had to cope without Gasol’s rebounds and containment of opposing big men. They were suddenly without their December steals leader Powell, who was a beast of late in the fast break while playing the best basketball of his five-year NBA career.
The Raptors needed 26 points and nine assists and – most significantly – 40 minutes from Kyle Lowry to finish off the otherwise non-threatening Washington Wizards. Some shaky bench minutes from the Raptors suddenly razor-thin reserves allowed the Wizards to come back from down 12 in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 3:43 to play.
A five-point Lowry flourish in the final two minutes and four key free throws by Fred VanVleet (18 points, nine rebounds and eight assists) in the final 9.9 seconds were enough to hold the Wizards off despite 37 points from Washington’s Bradley Beal.
They will have to get used figuring things out on the fly as none of the missing regulars are expected back sooner than two weeks at least, with Siakam thought to be the closest to returning. Gasol and Powell could be out significantly longer. Meanwhile the Raptors have a heavy holiday schedule to plow through.
It was not for nothing that Toronto head coach Nick Nurse grabbed a random roll of duct tape left on the lectern before the game and joked: “just what I needed.”
Taping together a starting lineup wasn’t all that difficult. Serge Ibaka was in for Gasol – reprising the role he’d before the big Spaniard was acquired by trade last season. Fred VanVleet was thinking he might get another game to heal a bruised knee that had kept him out of the past four, but no such luck. He returned to the starting spot that Powell had looked so comfortable filling in for Lowry and lately VanVleet.
The Raptors collectively stepped up when Lowry missed 11 games earlier this season and now it’s his time to return the favour.
Although Fred VanVleet could return to the lineup on Friday after missing the last five games with a knee injury, the onus will be on Lowry to pick up the slack. An All-Star each of the last five seasons, the 33-year-old has a chance to make it six straight should he deliver the goods and carry the Raptors over the coming weeks.
For that to happen, he needs a return to playing at the high level he was to start the season when he averaged 24.0 points and 6.7 assists per game over the first seven games of the season. Although he’s coming off back-to-back games with 20 points and 10 assists, he has not been the same player since returning from injury as he’s shooting just 31.8 percent from the floor to the tune of 16.4 points per game. Even if you throw out the 2-18 clunker in his first game back, Lowry is still only shooting 36.0 percent over his last seven games.
That’s not going to cut it with Siakam now out as the Raptors will likely lean on Lowry to serve as the team’s number one scoring option and there’s some evidence to suggest that he’s up to the task. In 157 minutes this season in which he’s played without Siakam on the floor, Lowry has averaged 24.8 points and 9.9 assists per 36 minutes.