Raptors clear Siakam, VanVleet, Flynn and McCaw to practice tonight ahead of tomorrow's game in Detroit, team says.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 16, 2021
Incumbent rotation pieces
Chris Boucher — Not getting the starting nod under the guise of providing a bench spark probably cost the Raptors a game or two, limiting the minutes they were able to play with Boucher — a multiplier, not a floor-raiser — alongside Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell. At the same time, Boucher may have also highlighted why his minutes have hung in the low 20s rather than low 30s. His defence outside of his shot-blocking remains inconsistent, and that’s more than just based on physicality inside. The 3-point shot and rim-running continue to be solid, but he needs creators to help him.
DeAndre’ Bembry — Always profiled as someone who adds to good lineups rather than carrying bad ones, and that was very evident here. Bembry has done enough good things as an eighth-man type to stay in Nurse’s good graces, and his energy, transition play and secondary playmaking are nice to have in eventual transitional units. He is not, though, a backup point guard or someone capable of carrying lineups with none of the usual starters. That’s not new.
Aron Baynes — The trio of Bembry, Baynes and Stanley Johnson was a disaster (minus-32 in 40 minutes), and that carried over to the two-man combinations between them (minus-42 in 63 more minutes). The Terence Davis-Bembry swap wasn’t going to resolve the issue. Baynes is what he is at this point — someone the Raptors can tag in for bench minutes so Boucher can play the four or against bulkier centres, not someone who should be starting every game and playing 20-plus minutes.
“I had it. I had symptoms, a few days of symptoms. It was pretty rough on a few of those days, but it didn’t last that long, got out of it, and at that point it became a waiting game … it’s a whirlwind, definitely an experience that I won’t forget, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but I’m here, I’m alive, I’m breathing,” VanVleet said.
“I know there are a lot of people that didn’t make it through COVID, so my thoughts and heart is with the families and people affected by this thing that weren’t as fortunate as I was, so I’m thoughtful with that, but I’m just happy to be with the team right now.”
Siakam has been out since the Raptors defeated the Houston Rockets on Feb. 26, while the other four players were sidelined in the five games. The Raptors had to postpone one game against the Chicago Bulls, and were severely shorthanded in the other five. A few of the losses were close, but for the most part the Raptors struggled badly on both ends of the floor without many of their core players.
“The weirdest thing is that everyone I talked to had a different experience. For me, tested positive, had symptoms pretty soon after that, back was sore, body aches, feel like I had just played three nights in a row, headache, my eyes were hurting. I didn’t have the shortness of breath or anything, I had a fever for a day-and-a-half, two days, but definitely nothing like anything I had ever had,” VanVleet said.
“I just felt a sickness, I could just feel it in me. I could feel it in my bones, in my blood, in my muscles, it was just something that was taking over my body for a short period of time. A lot of rest, a lot of Tylenol, and just waiting it out, and once it passed I felt perfectly fine again.”
The Raptors can only hope. The prospect of having some reinforcements — the five missing players represent three starters and two others who project to be part of the rotation — made for an uptick in the mood around a team that has been struggling uphill all season. They seemed to be finding firmer footing, fighting back over .500 after a 2-8 start before their recent slide saw them fall to 11th place with a 17-22 record, their streak of seven straight playoff appearances under threat for the first time.
“Guys [were] just showing up at the plane, mini-celebrations for each new guy that comes back, either coach or player,” said Nurse. “Just lotta ‘good to see you, man’ going on there and then obviously on the court… actually almost had the whole roster out there tonight. I was running some five-on-0 and I had to run three teams tonight, believe it or not. Big step forward there.”
But even if there’s room for optimism, how it will translate on the floor remains unknown, and not just because it’s not clear who will be available to play and when, or how effective they will be when they do step on the floor after an extended absence.
VanVleet is the only player or staff member to confirm that he did have the virus although given how long everyone has been out of action it’s reasonable to assume the others did too, given the NBA only requires a seven-day self-isolation period for individuals deemed to have been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case.
To hear VanVleet tell it, it’s hard to imagine those affected will be able to be up and running and mid-season speed right away.
“Definitely an experience that I won’t forget,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I’m here, I’m alive, I’m breathing. I know there are a lot of people that didn’t make it through COVID. My thoughts and heart are with the families and people that have been affected by this thing that weren’t as fortunate as I was, as I am. I’m thoughtful with that. I’m just happy to be back with the team right now.
“[But] it’s going to be a process. It’s gonna be a process, for sure. It’s gonna take time. I’m just taking baby steps. I’m just glad to be around the group. I just wanted to get my energy and confidence and swag around the group. I know it’s been a rough stretch for everybody, not just the guys that were locked up. The rest of the guys that were trying to put the pieces together, I feel for them. I just want to get back out there, hopefully sooner rather than later, and start putting the pieces back together.”
It remains to be seen who, or how many of those guys will return to the court – there are still hurdles to clear before the league can give them the green light for game action. But after an emotional stretch for the entire organization – particularly VanVleet and those who were away from the club – this was undoubtedly a positive step.
“I caught myself walking into the gym just smiling, man, just smiling,” said the 27-year-old point guard. “I forgot how much I love this s—. Like, I really love the game, I really love basketball, I really love being in the gym. I don’t always love everything that comes with it, but I really love the game and it’s just a blessing being back.”
“Having that taken away from me for that period of time, where you just go cold turkey – you’re just in the room by yourself, you don’t get to practice, you don’t get to shoot on your own, I couldn’t do a push-up – and to be back here, I’ve been giving out more hugs in the last 24 hours than I ever have in my life. So I’m happy to be back to say the least.”
Tuesday’s session was a light one, focused primarily on easing guys back following a long layoff. For the first time in nearly a month, Nick Nurse was able to run scrimmages with three teams of five, instead of struggling to piece together two squads. VanVleet spoke to the media afterwards, and even stuck around late to answer a few additional questions – that’s how much he missed the daily grind.
During a season in which these kinds of absences have become so common they almost seem routine – more than 100 of the league’s 500 or so players have already missed time due to COVID-19 or its protocols – VanVleet provided some much-needed context to what goes on behind the scenes.