Morning Coffee – Wed, Mar 22

Ben Taylor takes an L for messing with VanVleet | OG Questionable | The play-in is important

Raptors Notebook: Why getting into play-in tournament matters – Sportsnet

More is better. More chances, more games, more experiences and then?

Who knows?

That’s how the Raptors are approaching the most critical homestand of their season. With 10 games to play Toronto is in ninth place, a half-game behind Atlanta — before the Hawks host last-place Detroit Tuesday night — and a half-game up on 10th-place Chicago. The Raptors are four-and-a-half games behind sixth-place Brooklyn and three-and-a-half games behind seventh-place Miami.

Teams that are seventh and eighth place at the end of the regular season get two chances to win one game to advance out of the play-in tournament and will play their do-or-die game at home, while teams that finish ninth or 10th have to win two games to advance, the second one on the road. Advancing out of the play-in tournament means a best-of-seven first-round series against the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the East.

Toronto is ready and willing for any and all of it. They just want to be playing games after the regular season schedule ends on April 9 and the more the better.

“I look at it from this way: this team needs playoff experience, right?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after practice at OVO Centre on Tuesday. “So getting in a (playoff) series is really what we’re after, so obviously (the sixth seed) is the goal. Anything close to six is better as well all know. (So) we just gotta keep playing them. We gotta keep playing them (but) we are gonna have to get something done here in these last 10 (games).”

The reward is a puncher’s chance against a top seed, but the Raptors — revitalized since the all-star break — don’t mind those odds.

“I know that playoff basketball experience is really valuable,” said Nurse. “…And I also would say that we feel that if we get in a playoff series that we are not afraid of anybody, and I think that we are a hard out. I think that we’ll put some defensive issues in front of people and things like that. So I think that I always say we need playoff experience but once you get in it obviously the goal is to figure out a way to get out of the series and keep advancing.”

Breaking down the Raptors, East teams’ remaining NBA schedule | The Star

The end of the NBA regular season is fast approaching and the playoff picture is becoming clearer in the Eastern Conference.

Three teams (Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers) have solidified their positions at the top of the pack with three weeks left in the regular season. Six teams — including the Toronto Raptors — are battling for four spots in the play-in tournament to determine the final two berths in the post-season.

Positioning is important — the seventh- and eighth-place team gets two chances to win a playoff spot. The higher seed hosts the game between the seventh and eighth seed.

The winner of that game advances, while the loser hosts whoever wins the contest between the ninth- and 10th-place team.

Here’s a look at the teams in the running for the play-in competition, how their records stacked up before Monday’s games and the road ahead.

Raptors Discuss Precious Achiuwa’s Role Moving Forward – Sports Illustrated Toronto Raptors News, Analysis and More

This season hasn’t gone as anyone would have hoped for the 23-year-old forward. After a breakout second half of last season, Achiuwa has battled inconsistent play and injuries for virtually the entire year. It all came to a head last week when Raptors coach Nick Nurse decided he’d seen enough. After cutting Achiuwa’s minutes down to nearly single digits, Nurse opted to bench Achiuwa, taking him out of the rotation for two straight games.

But even with the growing pains for Achiuwa this season, the Raptors know he’s a crucial part of both their team identity and everything the organization wants to do going forward.

“When we’ve been our best or maybe when he’s been important to us – maybe those things are maybe related – he’s been one of our big, athletic defensive wings,” Nurse said following Tuesday’s practice. “We talk about being able to do so much because of having those guys and he needs to be a part of that.”

Toronto isn’t asking a lot from Achiuwa. It’s a “limited role,” Nurse said, but an important one. He needs to hold his own defensively and grab defensive boards. For a player who has prided himself on his defensive game, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

On Sunday, Achiuwa found his way back into the rotation against the Milwaukee Bucks and showed a lot of what the Raptors have been looking for. He forced Giannis Antetokounmpo into two turnovers, using his speed to beat Antetokounmpo down the court in transition on the first one before showing his strength to stand up the Bucks’ superstar as Antetokounmpo tried to beat Achiuwa with a post-move that ended in a steal for Toronto.

On the other end, Achiuwa’s offense role is even smaller. He took just three shot attempts against the Bucks, twice connecting on the pick-and-roll with Fred VanVleet before missing a catch-and-shoot three-pointer in the corner.

While Toronto hasn’t drawn up a ton of pick-and-roll plays for Achiuwa, he’s actually been pretty effective in his limited opportunities, scoring 62 points on 53 possessions, per NBA Stats. On a per-possession basis, that’s the second-best on the team trailing only Scottie Barnes on similarly few opportunities.

Raptors’ Scottie Barnes is ‘day-to-day’ with wrist injury | The Star

“(Monday’s) MRI was clear that he had,” Nurse said of Barnes, who left a loss in Milwaukee just before halftime on Sunday night with left wrist pain. “He is still pretty sore. I think he’s day-to-day.”

That would put Gary Trent Jr. back in the starting lineup — not an unfamiliar spot for him — which will surely cut into Toronto’s bench production.

Trent has filled a huge role as the team’s most potent backup scorer. In his last four games as a reserve, when he tends to get more shots in the flow of the offence than he does playing with starters, Trent is averaging 17.5 points and shooting 45.8 per cent from three-point range.

Given the talent of Toronto’s backups, that production will be impossible to match and will force Nurse to manage his starting group differently.

“Maybe (Trent) starts and gets out and rejoins that (backup) group, or something like that,” Nurse said. “Or Fred (VanVleet) or Pascal (Siakam) or O.G. (Anunoby) does.”

If Barnes can’t go — he’s shown the ability to recover quickly from injuries in the past — it’s likely that Precious Achiuwa will rejoin the regular rotation.

Because the coaching staff sees him as more of a wing than a centre, Achiuwa has seen his playing time evaporate. Jakob Poeltl handles the starting job, and Nurse has been using rookie Christian Koloko as the backup centre. It’s frozen Achiuwa out a bit, but he would seem to be the next man up if Barnes is a no-go.

“Maybe when we’ve been our best, or maybe when he’s been important to us — those things are maybe related — he’s been one of our big, athletic defensive wings,” Nurse said of Achiuwa. “We talk about being able to do so much because of having those guys, and he needs to be a part of that.

“It’s a fairly limited role, but it’s super important. It kind of gives our team a little edge on some of the coverages and some of the things we can do. It ends up being a factor in games.”

Achiuwa, while hardly happy with seeing his playing time cut, knows the best way to get more minutes is to have a more consistent impact.

“Things happen and you’ve just got to be professional, trust what the coaching staff is doing and just go out there and play,” he said Tuesday. “I’m comfortable guarding all positions; I’ve shown it in the past. I’ve guarded ones through fives, so for me it doesn’t matter. But like I said, just trusting the coaching staff. They’re trying to do what’s best for us to win games and that’s the most important thing right now.”

Dial 905: Lakeland Magic pushes Raptors 905 to the brink of playoff elimination – Raptors HQ

The Raptors 905 entered the Lakeland Magic series knowing the weight of this series. They were in the 6th and final playoff spot, with five games remaining. The Magic are one of the teams that the Raptors 905 are trying to fend off, and with how close the teams are in the middle of the pack, a bad showing can kick them out of the playoff picture.

The Raptors 905 responded, but not what we were hoping for.

The Lakeland Magic came to town with no reinforcements, as Raptors 905 alum Kevon Harris is doing well with the Orlando Magic. Oh, and they were also missing their top scorer, Jay Scrubb.

Did the Raptors 905 take the Magic lightly? Perhaps not, as they missed key players in Christian Koloko, David Johnson, and Ron Harper Jr. in their first matchup. However, it’s still a formidable team with Sterling Brown, Jeff Dowtin Jr., and Joe Wieskamp in the fold. A 124-102 thrashing does not reflect the talent discrepancy between the two teams. If anything, the Raptors 905 had the upper hand in top-level talent.

However, basketball is a team sport, and when a team has enough talent and plays hungrier, and executes better than their opponent, plays disciplined defense, they can slowly chip away and wait for their opportunity to steal the game, which is what happened in the second game, as Zavier Simpson hit a game-winner over Harper Jr., sweeping the Raptors 905 112-111.

The loss bumps the Raptors 905 to 11th place, with two games separating them and the 5th and 6th seeds. With seven teams, all within two games of each other and around 2-3 games remaining for most of them, there’s a lot of math involved and prayers to be answered even if the Raptors 905 goes 4-0 to finish the season. We’ll look into that if they win tonight against the College Park Skyhawks.

Sterling Brown continues to be the Raptors 905’s best player, with his all-around play of 22 points, 5 boards, 5.5 dimes, and 3.5 steals in this series. He also converted 38.5% of his perimeter shots. If not for a bum ankle, perhaps these numbers would be even better. Darryl Morsell had an interesting series against the Magic, as his aggressiveness became a double-edged sword for him. He netted his career-high (21 points) in the first game and showed his two-way game the next as he helped slow down Zavier Simpson, which the Raptors 905 learned to be too difficult.

Joe Wieskamp had a steady 15.5 points on 46.7% from the perimeter, but he disappeared several times in both games. It also didn’t help that the Magic targeted him several times defensively. Ron Harper Jr. played on the backend of the series, posting 11 points, seven boards, and six assists, but his streakiness from the perimeter can’t have worse timing, as he shot 1-for-6 from the perimeter.

Jeff Dowtin Jr. had a decent first game of the series with 21 points on 4-for-6 perimeter shooting but was a non-factor in the second game with four points and seven assists. Perhaps his former team and coach did a better job game planning for him in the second game, but watching the game, it felt like Dowtin Jr. had the long two/middy area available for him if he wanted to. Of course, he had Joel Ayayi shadowing him sometimes, and Ayayi’s one of the better defenders at the NBA G League level. His lack of aggression was uncharacteristic, especially in the fourth on a crucial game. Anyway, off to the games.

Canada Basketball, Sun Life team up ahead of summer sizzle | The Star

A long-term deal with Sun Life, worth seven figures per year, was announced Tuesday and brings a heavyweight corporate partner on board ahead of the men’s FIBA World Cup and women’s qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“Over the course of the next several years, we’re excited to work with Sun Life to continue developing a complimentary, 365-day basketball strategy which encourages health and wellness for all Canadians,” Canada Basketball chief executive officer Michael Bartlett said.

Sun Life, which is also heavily involved with the Raptors, will have its logo splashed across the front of the jersey when the women’s and men’s teams take part in two of the biggest events of the summer.

The men will be chasing a World Cup medal as well as a berth in the Paris Games, while the women will try to qualify for their fourth straight Olympics at the FIBA AmeriCup tournament in July in Mexico.

The financial backing will help Canada Basketball run top-shelf training camps and exhibition tours as well as ease day-to-day financial concerns.

“We’re trying to build this thing exactly how we feel it needs to be built, which is with commitment and continuity and some philosophies that go from window to window, year after year,” men’s coach Nick Nurse said. “I think we’re making some progress. We’ve been given a lot of resources continually. Resources are needed to do the right way.”

Sun Life is a major player in the health and wellness industry in Indonesia, where the Canadian men will play their opening rounds at the World Cup starting in late August. But they are also a major Canadian corporation that’s now thrown in with basketball at a time when the national team programs are seemingly on the verge of international significance, and the publicity can’t hurt.

That’s going to be significant if the men fulfil their promise and qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2000.

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