Jeremy gets a ring | Positive news on Powell | Siakam getting stronger.
With Norman Powell (partial dislocation of his shoulder) set to return to action on Sunday after missing 11 games, and Pascal Siakam (strained groin) and Marc Gasol (strained hamstring) believed not to be too far behind him, this is usually where Blake or I would write an explainer about what will change now that so many of the injured are on their way back.
Hammond’s answer pretty much covers it, though. Whenever it is the Raptors return to full health, they will have at least three new starters, re-institute some more aggressive defensive coverages and some players who are currently logging major minutes will probably fall out of the rotation entirely. About the only thing that won’t change is Nick Nurse’s collection of suits. You cannot add your highest-usage player, your most important defender/most gifted passer and your only experienced shooting guard and have it occur seamlessly. The Raptors would not want it to be seamless — their ability to survive, not thrive, has been the most amazing part of the 6-5 stretch. That the Raptors have played well-adjacent is the minor miracle here.
Narrowing things down within the broad category of “everything” is tough, but Nurse already hit on what was on his mind on Tuesday.
“You probably feel that effect late in a close game, when you really need a couple of baskets that that guy can just get you on his own, or create one or you go to some of your trustworthy sets or whatever, and he’s used to ticking those over,” Nurse said on Tuesday when asked about the team playing without Siakam, its leading scorer. “And you feel it every now and then, like in Miami when you can’t score the ball and you’re looking around for some freebies or some easy ones or whatever and those guys seem to get those or get to the foul line or whatever.”
And Nurse said that before Tuesday’s loss to Portland and Wednesday’s overtime win over Charlotte, which were both offensive slogs in which Kyle Lowry was asked to create crunch-time offence almost by himself. It is not as if Lowry was some massive failure in this regard. The Raptors scored just nine points over 13 possessions in the final five minutes against Portland, but Lowry was a part of creating some very good looks for himself and others, and nearly got a decent look to fall as the buzzer went. Most of the offence’s failure fell to some out-of-control attempts in the face of shot-blocker Hassan Whiteside, which Lowry was guilty of, but certainly not as the only offender.
In this week’s episode of Open Gym, Kyle Lowry and Matt Thomas make guest appearances in the Nutcracker. Just days after suffering a shoulder injury, Norman Powell surprises a group of families displaced by a fire, with presents for the holidays. And the team gifts their fans the greatest comeback in franchise history.
The clothes. Pascal Siakam hates the clothes.
Oh, he detests not being able to play for the Raptors because of a groin injury — the first significant medical issue of his career — but the clothes thing is for the birds.
“The worst part was dressing up to sit on the bench,” Siakam joked Friday in his first meeting with the media since he went down with the groin injury Dec. 18 in Detroit.
“I know Serge (Ibaka, the team’s director of fashion) probably enjoys that stuff, but for me it was painful to find an outfit every game. I usually wear sweats. That’s the hardest part for me right there.”
Thankfully, the Raptors forward is edging closer every day to a return to playing. Siakam ramped up his work Friday— “some action basketball, semi-live action basketball,” was how Raptors coach Nick Nurse described it — and it was the most serious work he has done since the end of the Pistons game.
No one is saying for sure when he or centre Marc Gasol will be back — the Raptors play San Antonio on Sunday and “that’s probably a bit ambitious,” Nurse said — but guard Norm Powell has been cleared to play against the Spurs. The Raptors play again Wednesday in Oklahoma City.
As much as Siakam wants to play, the decision isn’t entirely his.
“The most important thing for me was being able to see if I can be explosive and move laterally,” he said of the Friday session. “I can definitely run straight on the floor, but the problem is figuring out if you can move and be explosive.
damn did serge make OG wear a shirt with a graphic of bron’s game winner on his avec classe fashion show pic.twitter.com/eIBTJ6EZyY
— alex (@steven_lebron) January 11, 2020
Yes, Milwaukee is a regular-season monster. Giannis is even better than he was when the Raptors were forced to unleash Kawhi on him to save their season. The Bucks protect the rim like nobody else, and they could have beaten Toronto last year.
But Giannis’s jump shot isn’t sturdy, not yet. And they still don’t have a true second star.
And if you could imagine getting through a round, then two, then somehow pulling out an upset, and in the Finals … well, the Clippers have Kawhi and George and defend like demons, but they’re short on size. And the Lakers have LeBron and Davis, but their third-best player is … uh … well, whoever their third-best player is, he’s not someone you worry about.
Now, all this is theoretical, but what’s real is that there’s no four-Hall of Famer team lording over the NBA. Seasons like this are rare. And the Raptors front office knows it.
Now, they’re operating in a straitjacket. The Raptors won’t take on any salary that stretches past the summer of 2021, because the summer of 2021 is when every team in the league hopes for Giannis, and some teams have a little more reason to hope than others.
Toronto can defend at an elite level. But to go up a notch they either need OG Anunoby to take the leap he seems reticent to take, or more likely, they need another big-time shot creator to slot in among Siakam, Lowry and VanVleet.
There aren’t many candidates. DeMar DeRozan was traded because he didn’t defend and wasn’t efficient enough, and neither has changed. Washington may not want to move super-shooter Davis Bertans.
The thought of this Raptors team being able to put a full product – or close to it – on the court is exciting, not only because of how snake bitten they’ve been, but also because of how well they’ve played in spite of it. They haven’t just survived the injury bug. They’ve somehow managed to thrive.
Toronto was 8-2 without Lowry and Ibaka – who missed a month with a fractured thumb and sprained ankle, respectively – earlier this season and just went 6-5 in the absence of Siakam, Gasol and Powell, with VanVleet also sidelined for a couple of those games. At 25-13, the Raptors sit fourth in a tight Eastern Conference race and are in the mix for second place, with Milwaukee holding a comfortable lead atop the standings.
They’ve done it on the strength of their second-ranked defence, hard play, innovative coaching, and with contributions from just about everybody on the roster.
Naturally, the question is: if they’re this good without their best players on the floor, how good can they be once they get them back?
“I think this team is really good,” Nurse said. “We’ve had ’em this year, and we’ve been outstanding. I think there are some battle-tested, special guys on this team. We’re gonna be around. We need to get healthy and stay healthy. I think we’re ready to line up with anybody.”
Remember way back at the beginning of the season, when coach Nick Nurse refused to give minutes to basically anybody who wasn’t returning from last season? Through the first seven games he doled out roughly 114 minutes total to anyone past his top seven.
Then? The bench was considered, far and away, the Raptors’ biggest weak spot. (In fact some idiot wrote that this might be their worst bench in recent memory.)
Now? Nick Nurse has more players than floor time.
It’s not just that the injuries have allowed pretty much every member of the Raptors an opportunity to play, it’s when they have played that’s really important.
Every single Raptor, with the exception of Shamorie Ponds and Dewan Hernandez, has either been entrusted with a start or a share of fourth quarter minutes in non blow-out situations. Aside from perhaps Malcolm Miller and Stanley Johnson, they’ve all had multiple moments where they’ve justified those opportunities.
Good teams finding out whether a player can play hard minutes, even if it might cost you a game, has always been a big thing for me. G.O.A.T. contender Gregg Popovich has done this for years. A fringe piece checks into a tightly contested game in the third quarter, and Pop let’s him get some run with the starters in the fourth. How does the kid handle playing time that matters? How does he respond to failing?
Playing 160 minutes of garbage time in a season tells you a hell of a lot less than playing 50 in situations where the game is still in the balance.
“The circumstances are we have a lot of new guys, we have a lot injuries and lot of starting lineups,” said Nurse after the Raptors practised Friday at the OVO Athletic Centre. “There’s been all kinds of stuff [this year]. The roller-coaster has been a little bumpier, right? But it was still a roller-coaster last year and you know it’s coming and you ride the ups and downs and try to have fun.”
So far so good as the Raptors remain on pace for a 54-win regular season even as they lead the NBA in Win Shares lost to injury, according to mangameslost.com and are third in total man games lost to injury.
The news Friday is that Nurse and the Raptors are on the verge of getting some of their most important players back to full health, which – barring another nearly unprecedented wave of injuries hitting the team – could mark the first time this season the defending champion Raptors operate at anything approaching full health.
Nurse confirmed that Norman Powell (shoulder) will be back in the lineup Sunday against the visiting San Antonio Spurs after missing 11 games with a partially dislocated shoulder.
Both Pascal Siakam (groin) and Marc Gasol (hamstring) did ‘semi-live’ work at practice Friday. There is a possibility — after another day of practice scheduled for Saturday — that they might be available for Sunday although Nurse cautioned that timeline “might be a bit ambitious.”
Also Fred VanVleet (hamstring) remains out with no projected return date, so there’s always something.
Nurse revealed, as had been anticipated, that Powell will be cleared to play Sunday barring any further setbacks when the Raptors host the surging San Antonio Spurs.
And while there have been published reports of Pascal Siakam — and less so Marc Gasol — mending quickly and on the cusp of a return, Friday marked their most extensive on-court work to date as the rest of the team practised at one end while that trio engaged in what Nurse called “semi-active live basketball” at the other end.
“Sunday may be a bit soon,” Nurse said of a realistic return for all three. “But I’m under the direction and guidance of the silver one (director of sport science) Alex McKechnie, and if he clears ’em to play, we’ll play ’em and if he doesn’t, we won’t. But I think (Sunday’s) probably a bit ambitious.”
Still, the injury pendulum seems to be swinging in Toronto’s favour for a change.
It was as recently as Saturday in Brooklyn, before the Raptors went out and defeated the Nets, that Nurse seemed to be preparing the public for a longer absence for both Siakam and Gasol than initially thought.
He called their return a “ways away.”
The first reports of a Siakam return being closer than that started to filter out Wednesday with the team in Charlotte, courtesy of the Sun’s Ryan Wolstat.
Friday morning before the Raptors took the court, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN took to Twitter and suggested Siakam would practice. That turned out to be premature. As Nurse pointed out, it wasn’t a full practice, but it was certainly more than he has done in the past.