Philly tonight on national TV
This Toronto team fully Healthy is really Dangerous and is right behind the Bucks in the East for as Depth!!! Most of their Roster is battled tested too!
— Kendrick Perkins (@KendrickPerkins) January 20, 2020
If Nurse truly believes he has seven potential starters each game and rotates them as such, nothing is ever really an all-bench group in his mind. Those groups sound a little better if Powell and Ibaka are thought of as starters, even if they aren’t, and wouldn’t be the natural staggering options. If VanVleet comes off the bench one game, those units look a lot more functional on paper because he can either orchestrate the offence — not a major strength when he’s with bench units but preferable to a non-point guard doing it — or work off the ball to provide those groups some necessary spacing. Gasol’s multiplier skill set is best used with high-end teammates but can make life easier for younger ballhandlers, cutters and shooters. Lowry won’t come off the bench, but we know how Lowry-and-bench groups perform. If the starters are rotating to some degree, those all-bench groups could see their utility rotate in kind.
“It’s probably more of my temptation right now would be really versatile in the starting lineup which, again, will naturally change second units each night,” Nurse said prior to the game Monday. “That’s probably more at the forefront of my mind and hoping that the second unit can, whoever they are — whether it’s a combination of Kyle coming back or Fred coming back or Marc or whoever ends up being that one or two stabilizing force or whatever they are in that unit — that they’ll be OK. But, I think that there may be a little bit here in the not-too-distant future that we try to get a second unit that’s more locked in.”
I’m in favour of rotating starters as Nurse sees fit. Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia, for example, offers a potential opportunity to try the larger starting lineup they used last week against a bigger squad (even sans Embiid). The Heat and Pacers similarly pose some matchup challenges that might offer chances to experiment. The Knicks are a fun opportunity to start me at power forward and see what happens.
Having said all of that, part of the thinking in rotating starters should also be to test different transitional lineups that might be used in a meaningful situation. Even with “seven starters,” an all-bench look probably shouldn’t see much run in a playoff series, The Bench Mob be damned. More information about what combinations can and can’t work together is valuable, even if flexibility is the core of the tactic.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri was asked if the Raptors can win another title this year and he says they’re going to die trying. He also says he’s glad they were able to get past their recent ‘injury bug’ without falling behind at all.
Things can change. There’s plenty of runway left. But given the 71/2-game gap that stood between the sixth-place Pacers and seventh-place Magic heading into Tuesday, there’s plenty of reason to believe the holders of the East’s top two seeds will face a less-than-menacing opponent that’ll ease them into the post-season pressure cooker. As for the holders of seeds three through six — they’re in for something considerably more intense. The Heat and Pacers are dogged and expertly coached. The Celtics are top six in the league in both offensive and defensive rating. The Sixers, who arrive in Toronto for a Wednesday night date against the Raptors, are 5-2 during their recent stretch without centre Joel Embiid, which either speaks to Embiid’s poor fit alongside fellow star Ben Simmons or to their overall resilience.
The hassle of a first-round tangle with any of those teams is something the Raptors have the talent and experience to avoid. Not that there aren’t red flags surrounding Toronto’s success; their 6-12 record against teams .500 or better is by far the worst among the East’s top six. And it’s up to Masai Ujiri, as he approaches the Feb. 6 trade deadline with a measured eye on potentially adding a piece or two, to figure out how much of that dismal mark is based on bad injury luck, and how much of it’s based on 40 per cent of last year’s starting lineup now playing in Los Angeles.
That, though, is what makes this eternal NBA January seem different than most. For the Raptors, only recently replenished after so many injuries, this isn’t the usual dog-days holding pattern, it’s a rare moment of health-related wholeness. And as for slogging through the remaining 39 practices until the real basketball begins — without Mr. Load Management in the fold, Toronto’s best hope at ending up as the NBA’s No. 1 hinges on securing the East’s No. 2.
Another positive is that the returning players look fresh and ready to go. In four games since returning to the lineup, Norman Powell is averaging 22.8 points on 61 percent shooting, including 48 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Pascal Siakam has also been back for four games, making his return the same time as Powell. In those four games, Siakam has averaged 15.5 points, but he has been able to ease back into things, averaging 10 fewer minutes per game as he works his way back.
“Fresh legs are golden,” Nurse said. “It’s been really nice for us to have a couple of games here where we can keep the minutes for everybody down.”
Powell agrees with Nurse that the first half of the season has passed quickly. “I didn’t know it was [the halfway mark of] the season,” Powell said after Friday’s victory against the Wizards. “I think that’s part of just being out a couple games, but it still feels early. I think this team has done a great job of taking it to the chin, adjusting to it with the injuries, taking advantage of the opportunities, playing together, playing hard and trusting the coaches and trusting one another. That’s what you need as a team, going through an 82-game season.”
Marc Gasol made his return in Friday’s victory against the Wizards. Despite missing 13 games and being sidelined for a month, Gasol scored 20 points in his return. He shot 7-for-9 from the floor and matched a career-high with six three-pointers, making 6-of-7.
While Powell is surprised at how quickly the halfway point of the season has arrived, Gasol doesn’t give much attention to where the team is with respect to the calendar. “I try not to think about it,” Gasol said. “I go game by game, week by week, and try to invest as much as possible into taking care of my body and putting [myself] in the best position to help the team.”
Sometimes, Anunoby will play shooting guard with the true “jumbo” group and the third-year player, who has mostly been a forward, has actually played some of his best basketball against smaller opponents. Anunoby is bigger and stronger, but just as athletic as any shooting guard and he has been more eager to bully players at that position.
More often, though, Lowry and VanVleet will remain the backcourt combination, whether Ibaka and Gasol are pairing up or not.
It’s nice to have options, and after so many long injury layoffs to deal with, Nurse can tinker away to his heart’s content.
The side benefit is that Lowry and VanVleet, who have been the NBA leaders in minutes per games at separate points this season (James Harden finally passed Lowry on Monday for the top spot at 37.3 per game, VanVleet ranks sixth) can now be rested more, which should help quite a bit by the time the playoffs roll around.
Plagued by injuries throughout, the Raptors have battled to sit third in the East through the first half of the season. We go By the Numbers to show you just how impressive the first 43 games have been.
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
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