Morning Coffee – Fri, Mar 24

905 miss playoffs for the first time in a while | Injuries and personnel are both an issue | Need more from Siakam

Stream of youth once lifted Raptors, but recent failures leave current club shallow – Sportsnet

And the book isn’t entirely closed. Dalano Banton (46th in 2021) has fans in the organization and the 6-foot-9 point guard is a player talent evaluators from other organizations remain intrigued about. He’s had a tough run of injuries in his second professional season, so we’ll see. Similarly, Christian Koloko (33rd in 2022) has shown promise as a rookie. He’s impressed with his intelligence and work ethic and has the length and quickness to be a big man who can survive when switched to the perimeter but also serviceably protect the paint. But he doesn’t shoot well, has a narrow frame that hurts him as a rebounder and finisher and doesn’t have the kind of hops that make him a lob threat.

No organization is perfect, and the same people running the Raptors now were in charge when they mined gold from unexpected places in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

But it’s been pretty dusty since. Even ignoring that instead of drafting Flynn 29th in 2020 they could have had Desmond Bane who was taken 30th and is an emerging two-way star at shooting guard for the Memphis Grizzlies – so could have 28 other teams – it’s become clear that the decision last year to trade down in the 2022 draft in the deal that brought Thad Young at the trade deadline was an error.

The logic at the time — flipping draft positions with the Spurs wouldn’t materially impact the quality of player Toronto could choose from — has been proven wrong. Young has been a good soldier for the Raptors, but he has contributed marginally and given he didn’t get off the bench when Toronto was down both Barnes and Achiuwa it seems safe to presume he’s unlikely to be a vital part of the rotation any time soon.

Moving down 13 draft spots for a veteran player who doesn’t play is bad business.

Toronto could have picked 20th overall, and just waiting for them there was rookie centre Walker Kessler (22nd overall, Utah) who is averaging a double-double with nearly three blocks a game since being made a starter at mid-season — and has the best advanced stats of any rookie in the league. He’s a bigger, stronger, better version of the player the Raptors hope Koloko might be one day, but he’s been doing it all season and has more upside.

Or they could have picked Nembhard. Passport aside, he’s a tough-minded combo guard with good size, plus character who oozes basketball IQ. He’s proven himself a multiple-position defender and has shown flashes of being a significant offensive player, his double-double Wednesday showed, or the 31 and 13 night he had against the Golden State Warriors earlier this season or the 24 points and five assists he had against the Milwaukee Bucks just last week. If Nembhard was a Raptor instead of Pacer last night, Toronto wins. If Nembhard had been part of the Raptors guard rotation all season, there would have likely been a few more wins on top of it.

At the time it would have been a reach to take the Gonzaga star as high as 20th. He wasn’t getting a ton of traction as a first-round prospect, but isn’t that what strong talent evaluators do?

Nembhard was well-known to the organization, having played for Nurse in the national team program and sharing representation with Siakam. He had an excellent pre-draft workout for Toronto, and who knows what choice the Raptors might have made had he been available at No.33.

But the Pacers took him 31st overall and look prescient for it.

Raptors Insider: Roster issues and a need for more than a tweak | The Star

The possibility exists that the Raptors will be without Barnes, Trent Jr. and Achuiwa again Friday since all sat out Thursday’s practice with injuries and are questionable to face the Detroit Pistons.

There are all kinds of eyes trained on Nick Nurse to see who he calls on to fill any vacancies.

He started Will Barton against Indiana and that was an abysmal failure — Barton missed all five three-pointers he took, was carved by Canadian Andrew Nembhard in the first quarter and was benched for the last 19 minutes of the game.

Malachi Flynn played about 15 straight minutes, made two of Toronto’s seven three-pointers and generally acquitted himself well. Jeff Dowtin Jr. was okay in a brief six-minute stint that was his first NBA action in about a month.

Who Nurse goes to Friday likely won’t determine the outcome of the game but the fact there is no clear cut option is a huge indictment of roster and rotation management.

Because neither Flynn nor Dowtin were ever given an extended run there are questions about how suitable they are and now is not the time to be finding out.

Barton’s basically been a bust but that can’t be a surprise to anyone. Buyout guys seldom, if ever, have a significant impact.

The other players notice it. They see an important role being ignored and changed almost monthly. And it’s impossible that Ujiri and Webster haven’t noticed as well.

Backup point guards — or emergency third guards when injuries hit — don’t often win games but they can keep a team in the odd one. That the Raptors don’t have a consistent body to step up 71 games into the season is an issue.

That’s got to fall on Nurse as well anyone in the organization who thought Barnes was fully prepared for a backup point guard role.

RAPTORS UPDATE: Siakam needs to step up | Toronto Sun

Postmedia‘s Rob Wong chats with Toronto Sun basketball writer Ryan Wolstat about the influx of Canadian talent in the NBA and why Pascal Siakam has to be at his best for the Raptors to play postseason basketball.

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Josh Lewenberg: Raptors jockeying for position in tight East play-in race | TSN

The goal over these final nine games is to climb the standings as much as possible, and with less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Eastern Conference play-in race is very tight. That these are average teams who have been hovering around the .500 mark all year explains why nobody has separated themselves from the pack.

Brooklyn has predictably fallen off since moving Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant at the trade deadline and is barely hanging onto sixth. Miami, currently occupying the seventh seed, has the worst point differential of the East’s top-10 clubs. Eighth-place Atlanta has been within one game of .500 for 27 straight contests. Chicago is right behind Toronto for ninth and lost to Philadelphia by 25 points at home on Wednesday.

Then there are the 35-38 Raptors, who haven’t been at .500 since they were 13-13 on December 9 and have squandered five opportunities to even their record over that span.

Just when it seemed like they were starting to build some late-season momentum, coming off three straight wins and a hard-fought loss to the NBA’s best team in Milwaukee, they dropped Wednesday’s contest to the short-handed Pacers. Granted, Toronto was without Barnes, Gary Trent Jr. and Precious Achiuwa, and for a team that lacks depth at the best of times, the absence of three rotation players was glaring. Still, at home – where they had won seven games in a row – and against an Indiana team missing its best player in all-star guard Tyrese Haliburton, the 118-114 loss felt like another missed opportunity in a season that’s been full of them.

While it’s not mathematically impossible, climbing to sixth and avoiding the play-in altogether is highly unlikely. Going into Thursday’s contest against Cleveland, the Nets are holding onto a slim lead on Miami for the final guaranteed playoff spot and have a four and a half game cushion on Toronto, as well as the tiebreaker. The Heat will also be hard to catch. They’re four and a half games up on Toronto as well, and even though the Raptors can take the season series, Miami would hold the tiebreaker as a likely division winner. Barring a late-season collapse from the Heat, who’ve won seven of the last 10 games and have a manageable schedule the rest of the way, seventh seems out of reach.

Eighth place should be the realistic target. Finishing eighth would give them a couple shots at the playoffs – only having to win one of two play-in games, as opposed to finishing ninth or 10th and needing to win twice in order to advance. Most importantly, that second game – if they were unable to beat the seventh-place team (likely Miami or Brooklyn) on the road – would come at home, where they’re 23-14.

The Hawks also lost on Wednesday, courtesy of Karl-Anthony Towns’ go-ahead free throws, and maintain a one-game lead on Toronto for the eight seed. They also own the tiebreaker, having won the season series 2-1, so the Raptors would need to make up a couple games in order to pass them.

Both teams have difficult schedules to close out the season. While six of Atlanta’s nine games come at home, they’ll face four of the league’s top-six teams. Their remaining opponents have a .554 winning percentage, compared to .511 for Toronto’s final nine opponents.

Dial 905: Ron Harper Jr. puts the Raptors 905 on his back to power past College Park Skyhawks, 111-104 – Raptors HQ

With their playoff hopes fading, the Raptors 905 finally played like their backs were against the wall. Ron Harper Jr. came up big, putting his team on his back to stun the College Park Skyhawks, 111-104.

The Raptors 905 played without Dalano Banton (thumb), Christian Koloko (Nurse’s dog house), Jeff Dowtin Jr. (ankle), Joe Wieskamp (hamstring), and starting big Jeremiah Tillmon (illness). The injury report and how Sterling Brown and David Johnson struggled felt like this team was ready to raise the white flag and call it a season, but this ragtag crew played together and competed for every possession.

Ron Harper Jr. had the best game of his professional career with 30 points, 11 assists, ten boards, and two steals. He was head and shoulders better than anyone on the floor as he channelled his vintage Rutgers Scarlet Knights self, carrying the offense the entire game.

It’s good to see Harper Jr. on a high-usage rate, as he was able to showcase his complete game. He was not reliant on settling for perimeter shots, despite hitting 2-for-5 from the perimeter tonight. He was getting it done off the ball, in transition, and going old-school, bullying his way to the basket. With David Johnson and Sterling Brown struggling mightily, Harper Jr. provided coach Eric Khoury an engine for their anemic offense, and he delivered. Most of their best possessions in this game happened when it’s all about “give Harper Jr. the ball and get out of his way” possessions.

Harper Jr.’s contribution wasn’t limited to scoring, as he was able to break down the Skyhawks’ defense, and find his teammates inside and out, with Kylor Kelley as his main recipient, with lob after lob. Kelley finished with 14 points, nine boards, and three blocks, providing the much-needed two-way production needed at the centre position. Our buddy Joseph Strauss was in attendance, and got to ask Harper Jr. about Kelley’s impact:

Sterling Brown toughed out a bum ankle, which he aggravated at the end of the first half, leading to him missing the start of the second half. He struggled for most of the game but turned it up late in the fourth period, helping Harper Jr. seal the game.

The Raptors 905’s third stringers came up big for coach Khoury, as the seldom-used new-ish 905ers Tra-Deon Hollins, Keith Williams, and Koby McEwen combined for 27 points, with quite a few of them coming in when the team needed to fend off the Skyhawks’ rally.

Scottie Barnes Looking Unlikely for Raptors – Sports Illustrated

Barnes was seen wearing a brace on his wrist and did not appear to be using the hand much during the open portion of Thursday’s Toronto Raptors practice. He was dribbling almost exclusively with his right hand while practicing mid-range jumpers without contact while media looked on.

As of Wednesday, it sounded like there was no structural damage in the wrist but Barnes was dealing with pain, Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. 

None of Barnes, Gary Trent Jr., or Precious Achiuwa practiced Thursday after missing Wednesday night’s game against the Indiana Pacers. All three players are expected to be listed as questionable, Nurse said.

Toronto elected to start Will Barton on Wednesday with the others sidelined. Barton struggled at both ends and was eventually replaced by Malachi Flynn. Barton may start against Friday but expect a short leash for the 32-year-old guard.

Chris Boucher should see increased playing time again if the three remain sidelined.

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