Morning Coffee

Morning Coffee – Fri, Feb 28

Norm’s return on the horizon, no timetable for Gasol.

Murphy Mailbag: Raptors playoff lineups, Anunoby’s future, collaborative coaching and more – The Athletic

What’s up with OG? I thought he might take a leap this year. Any chance he turns into an All-Star over the next tw0 years? I’ll even take MIP …

I figured this was something we’d have to revisit at some point. In my player development series this summer, I tried to warn that Pascal Siakam’s historic growth had unfairly shifted the expectation curve for OG Anunoby. Anunoby was also coming off a statistically confusing sophomore season wrought with a change in role, injury trouble and perceived stagnation (or, worse, decline). The combination of those factors, I think, has expectations for what a progress season for Anunoby looks like – some wanted a Siakam-like/Most Improved Player jump and others would have settled for a repeat of his rookie season.

The truth has been somewhere in the middle, but I think leans much more to the positive end than the negative. From a basic statistical standpoint, Anunoby has taken an important step by expanding a limited offensive role to more minutes more effectively. No, he’s not a high-usage or even average-usage weapon, but simply expanding “very good role player” from 20 to 29 minutes is a big deal. His true shooting percentage is back to where it was as a rookie and his rebound, assist, steal and block percentages are all at career-best marks. The scoring efficiency getting back to that level is particularly impressive because fewer of his attempts are coming from outside – he’s getting to the rim with drives and cuts at by far a career-best rate and finishing there at a 74th-percentile rate for forwards, per Cleaning the Glass.

This is also the most positive that more advanced metrics have been about Anunoby’s game, which speaks to him being better suited for a fifth-option role with better players rather than a fulcrum of a bench group. (That’s an area where reps would still be valuable. Anunoby is eventually going to need to use more than 14 or 15 percent of possessions to expand his offensive package. Projecting ahead to the playoffs, though, Anunoby as an effective low-usage fifth-piece is a luxury.)

Powell's pending return gives Raptors options in key March matchups – Sportsnet.ca

Judging by Nurse’s tone, though he’s not closing the door on Powell returning Friday, it seems more feasible he returns during the upcoming west coast trip.

Nevertheless, for Powell to be back practicing now and close to a return, is rather fortuitous for the Raptors.

In the nine games Powell’s been out for, Toronto has gone 7-2, facing mostly weak competition in the span – and three matchups with the Indiana Pacers, of course. But the schedule will take a steeper turn here in the final quarter before the playoffs, with two more encounters with the Milwaukee Bucks, the two annual matchups with the Denver Nuggets and games with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers highlighting the pack.

Getting Powell back will be a major boon in time for those contests.

Powell’s been enjoying the best, most consistent season of his NBA career thus far, averaging 15.3 points per game on spectacular 49.8 per cent shooting from the field and 40.1 per cent from three-point range.

Raptors' Norman Powell cleared for practice, nearing return from fractured finger | CBC Sports

Marc Gasol remains sidelined with a hamstring injury, but was able to do some light work at practice Thursday.

“So he’s making progress, but he’s still out,” Nurse said.

Meanwhile, centre Serge Ibaka has been ruled as questionable for Friday’s game with right knee soreness. Ibaka missed 10 games with an ankle injury earlier this season, and another with flu-like symptoms earlier this month.

Ibaka has been excellent this season but struggled in the loss to Milwaukee, shooting an abysmal 2-of-15.

The Raptors boast the third-best record in the league (42-16) despite missing several key player for large chunks of the season. And Powell will be a welcome addition ahead of a tough five-game road trip that begins Sunday in Denver. They’ll play at Phoenix, Golden State, Sacramento and Utah before returning home.

Powell, who’d been playing some of the most consistent basketball of his career before the injury, said he’d been pushing the Raptors’ medical staff to let him play virtually “since I got hurt.”

“Just to wrap it or whatever to get me back out there,” Powell said. “But they’ve always told me to calm down and trust them in what they do so I’m not gonna force their hand and try to get them to get me out there unless I’m ready to go.”

Terence Davis was drawn to Raptors' 'winning' culture as an undrafted rookie – Sportsnet.ca

No matter the stature of a player trying to make the leap from college basketball to the NBA, the transition can be challenging.

Expectations, both internal and external, skyrocket. Margins for error shrink. Obligations and temptations alike multiply.

It’s the transition from high school to university, except there are millions of people watching and life-changing sums of money hanging in the balance.

Belief in who one is and what one can accomplish are essential. Terence Davis, who rejected the idea of signing a two-way deal after being passed over at the NBA draft — opting instead to become a 22-year-old unrestricted free agent — had enough of both to spare.

“On draft night, I tweeted that I couldn’t take a two-way deal — that I was better than that,” Davis said during a phone interview on Tim and Sid Thursday. “Probably some people took it as arrogant, but it wasn’t. It was just, you know, something I really believed in.”

With that level of self-belief comes decisions, though. When draft night ended, Davis had to begin the process of finding an NBA home. As he did, the Toronto Raptors‘ history of turning players in his position into NBA-calibre talent wasn’t lost on him.

“I actually came by the tweet where Fred [VanVleet talked about having] to do the same thing,” Davis said. “I did the same thing he did, stand in front of my family and tell them that I wasn’t getting drafted. …I definitely knew that guys would come through Toronto and have pretty big careers.”

Like Norman Powell before him, Terence Davis II is a Bucks Killer in the making for the Raptors – Raptors HQ

The Raptors already employ one fabled Bucks killer. I mean, accurately speaking, they have like a half dozen, and that’s before counting Eric Bledsoe’s oh-so reliable bed-wettings in the name of Toronto whenever called upon.

But of course, it’s Norman Powell’s history of punking Milwaukee that stands out from all the rest. From his series-saving Game 3 performance last May, to his hero turn as a starter in the back half of the 2017 first round, and all the way back to the very day the Bucks owned themselves by dealing the picks that’d become Norm and OG Anunoby for Greivis Vasquez, Powell’s career has been built on the tears of various folks in the Bucks’ organization. Not having him for Tuesday’s 108-97 loss was a real hit to their chances at taking down the defending Eastern Conference runners-up.

As it turns out, a broken finger couldn’t entirely stop Powell from infusing his Bucks-flummoxing arts into the game. In fact, it seems he’s hard at work crafting a protégé in Bucks torment: Terence Davis.

“Throughout the game … he just pulled me to the side and was just giving me pointers,” said Davis of Powell after his 10-point, four-rebound, two-assist evening. “I remember watching a series where he did actually kill the Bucks a lot so I kept that in the back of my mind.”

Imagine for a moment a world with two Norms. A pair of 6’4”, driving, finishing, 40-percent three-point shooters with little to no conscience, both tailored to shred the Bucks? Sounds to me like a recipe to make certain Freaks pause at the thought of signing a super max contract. On Tuesday, Davis showed he can make that world a reality once Powell returns; one that may offer the optimal conditions for a repeat of 2019 this coming May.

Matt Thomas establishing himself as Toronto Raptors’ secret weapon – TSN.ca

If you’re game planning for Toronto, you’re almost certainly starting with the team’s budding superstar Pascal Siakam. From there, you’re worrying about Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka, and so on – they’re one of the deepest clubs in the NBA.

But Thomas? The 25-year-old rookie is averaging just 10.3 minutes per contest and has sat out of more games than he’s played in this season. His role has fluctuated, he’s bounced in and out of Nick Nurse’s rotation, and he missed significant time with a fractured finger.

You can understand how he would have evaded the Bucks’ radar, but his name is one they’re unlikely to forget after his brief, but impactful, stint in the first half of Milwaukee’s 108-97 victory in Toronto.

Thomas checked in to begin the second quarter. After picking up a couple quick fouls, the Raptors’ sharpshooter came off a good screen set by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to drill his first jumper, a three-pointer from the elbow. On the next possession, Lowry found Thomas open in transition and he hit another, forcing Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to call a timeout.

Clearly a topic of conversation in the huddle, the Bucks had a defender draped all over Thomas, but after using a screen from Chris Boucher a minute later, he drilled his third consecutive three. Toronto’s lead, which was two points when Thomas entered the game, grew to nine after that bucket and was as large as 12 in the quarter before Milwaukee seized momentum going into the halftime break.

“I think my minutes have been so up and down that I probably miss [coming up on] the scouting reports of some of the teams we’re playing,” said Thomas, following Toronto’s Thursday morning practice. “But as games go on, especially against Milwaukee, they defend me differently in the second half than they did in the first half. I’m sure that may continue to ramp up as the season goes on and obviously in the playoffs.”

Undrafted out of Iowa State in 2017, Thomas spent a couple seasons playing in Spain, where he became known as one of the best shooters outside of the NBA. He finally got his opportunity in the league when the Raptors signed him over the summer, and his most lauded skill has certainly translated.

Sharpshooter Matt Thomas slowly earning more minutes with Raptors | Toronto Sun

Thomas, 25 and in his first year in the NBA after making his bones in Europe, hasn’t always been high in Nick Nurse’s rotation. The minutes have been up and down, which is normal for a first-year NBA player.  He’s not now, nor has he ever been, about to crack the starting lineup unless injuries force Nurse’s hand. But Thomas  has clearly made enough of an impact that Nurse now pauses when asked if his play of late has earned him increased playing time.

“Yeah, probably …. I’ve, yeah, probably,” Nurse said, wrestling with how much to actualy reveal. “I’m just trying to think of, you know, what to say. I think we get into these rotations, I get into these rotations, and the games seem to be going pretty well a lot, you know, when you’re winning, what’d we win, 13 in a row or something like that? (It was actually 15).

“You don’t see a need to go outside that,” he said. “But then you end up having to, or finding a situation where you do, and you say, well, maybe we ought to, maybe this will make us better anyway. So yeah, probably. Probably.”

That’s about as definitive as a weather man predicting the long-range forecast, but the takeaway should be that Thomas is now viewed as a realistic possibility for steady rotation minutes.

If that is in fact the case, there are a number of reasons for this, beginning with the strongest part of his game, the outside shooting.

All the young man has done is shoot a ridiculous 51.5% from behind the arc in limited minutes to date. He hasn’t played enough to qualify among the league leaders, but that number over even half a season would put him right with the very best long-range shooters in the game.

Thomas’ first year in the NBA hasn’t been issue-free. Playing time was already at a premium for Thomas when a break in his left middle finger forced him to the injured list for a month and 10 days.

Raptors coach prepping for music performance in Toronto

While many of Raptors nation know him as the man helping coach the bench to their first NBA Championship, he is also a talented musician.

He’s often pictured traveling around with his guitar case and you may have even seen the video of him rocking out with Juno Award-winning band The Arkells at Budweiser Stage in Toronto last summer.

Now, the coach is combining his love of sports and music and putting it towards a cause close to his heart.

“I am getting ready to have a performance on March 11,” Nurse told CityNews. “We are having a kick-off for the Nick Nurse Foundation.”

Nurse’s foundation will support music programs for kids around the Toronto area. The Raptors coach already has a long list of fans in the music industry so get ready for a collaboration or two during the night.

“I’ve been working on four songs right now for the performance,” but Nurse remained mum about whether they were cover songs or original music. “But, we have a lot of bands coming in and I’m going to sit in with at least one of them,” he added.

But how much has he been able to practice though given the Raptors intense game and practice schedule?

“I’ve been traveling around with it most days and I am able to get a practice in between those moments on a good day,” said Nurse

Raptors rookie Matt Thomas says he thought he heard his coach practicing in his office earlier this week.

“The other day I thought I heard him playing the piano before the game in his office but apparently it was just a recording,” Thomas said with a smile. “But I haven’t been able to see him perform yet.”

The Raptors next game is Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets at the Scotiabank Arena and details about the Nurse’s kick-off concert are expected to be released soon.

Slim and shady: NBA buyout season ends this weekend — the Raptors’ prime target went to L.A. | The Star

The NBA’s silly season — and many would say the most sketchy part of the regular season — ends this weekend.

The period between the Feb. 6 trade deadline and March 1 is what’s come to be known as “buyout season,” when players engineer departures from teams going nowhere so that they can sign on with playoff-bound teams and have something legitimate to play for in the final 25 or so games.

The timing rub is that players have to be free of their former teams and signed with their new ones by March 1 to be playoff eligible, if they’ve been in the NBA at all this season. So there is just one weekend left for any moves to be made.

It feels like it’s been a bit more eventful — impact players joining good teams — this year than in the past, and it’s a bit of unsavoury business that the league could probably do without.

It works, generally, like this:

A disgruntled or underused veteran on a bad team, looking to re-energize his season and himself, negotiates what amounts to a separation agreement with one team so that he can sign with a better one and perhaps play a bigger role on a playoff-bound club.
The teams that let players go benefit because they save a bit of money and have more of a chance to look at younger players who might factor into the future far more than a veteran at the end of his run.
Teams acquiring these players get someone with experience who can fill an easily identifiable hole in the roster, as insurance or depth.

Open gym — Raptor Matt Thomas aims higher with assist from assistant coach | The Star

Thomas didn’t know where basketball would take him, but even at nine years old he realized he had a skill that some of his peers didn’t possess. And as he honed that talent by himself in the gym, shot after shot after shot, he discovered a refuge that would mean as much to him as the points he piled up when those buckets fell come game time.

“For me, being alone in the gym is incredible,” Thomas said after practice Thursday, as the Raptors prepared to host the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night. “I love it. It’s peaceful for me. The basketball court and shooting, all growing up, I just did it by myself. It was almost therapeutic for me. Whatever I had going on in my life, I knew I could go on the basketball court and mentally kind of check out for a while. It’s like my sanctuary.”

It can be lonely work in the gym. In Toronto, though, Thomas has had a helping hand.

First-year assistant coach Brittni Donaldson has worked with the rookie shooting guard on improvements, on both sides of the ball.

What stands out most to head coach Nick Nurse is Thomas’ ability to take a high volume of shots in limited minutes — 10.3 per game heading into Friday — despite the fact that opponents know exactly what he’s out there to do when he comes off the bench.

Scoring in transition, on set plays and finding good looks in other ways is the product of diligent shot preparation: footwork, speed, misdirection, coming off screens in proper ways. Thomas has also extended his range — by five to seven feet, he says — by working on ways to create more separation.

Donaldson gets all that. An elite shooter herself in university, she still holds the record for three-pointers in a game (eight) at her alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa. A knee injury derailed dreams of playing professionally, but that doesn’t mean Donaldson has lost the mindset for it.

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