The Toronto Raptors, healthy for the first time in forever, spent most of last night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets experimenting with lineups, and played hard for about, oh, nine minutes. Apparently they thought that would be enough against the Hornets, coming in on the second night of a back-to-back and missing several players.
But the Basketball Gods occasionally frown on teams that try to flip the switch, and they decided to reward the Hornets and Jeremy Lamb at the buzzer and sent the Raptors to their second straight loss.
Full Lineup? Playoff Rotation?
There is an argument to be made that, with nine games to go and the Raptors having their full lineup for the first time, Nick Nurse should roll with his expected playoff rotation and get everyone locked in for the postseason.
But there’s an argument to be made as well that, with all of his guys available, Nick Nurse should run ‘em all out and see what they can do.
Nurse chose the latter!
This is the first time the Raptors have had their whole roster since Lin joined. They have 11 playable guys. Of course he’s trying out different looks in this game!— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) March 25, 2019
I suppose I can’t blame him. Sure, I want the win, and I want to see what the team is going to look like in the postseason. I don’t really want to see Jeremy Lin or Patrick McCaw anymore. But if I’m a head coach, and the game doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot, standings-wise, I’m probably gonna do the same thing Nurse did last night.
And Yet: The Closing Lineup?
Is it possible we did, in fact, get a bit of a playoff preview in the final three minutes? Here’s the group the Raptors closed with: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam.
Yep, your basic Siakam-at-the-five lineup! Siakam, in fact, was the de facto centre over the final seven minutes, from the moment Serge Ibaka checked out (and Mar Gasol didn’t play in the fourth at all).
Siakam was a defensive monster the entire game (he had approximately 47 blocks in the fourth, and nearly blew up Charlotte’s final possession, where he deflected the inbounds and forced Lamb beyond half court), and it’s not like the Hornets are an especially large team, so it’s a look that can work here... and very nearly did! The Raptors were able to switch screens fluidly down the stretch, and it gave them a number of defensive stops that helped turn the game around.
You could argue the Raptors missed Gasol down the stretch — he had a an awesome game, with 17 points (on 7-of-9) shooting, four boards, six assists and three blocks. But again — if Nick Nurse thinks Siakam-at-centre is a look he’ll need in the playoffs, best to get the unit some run here in these games.
Defend the Three... Please.
While it’s fine to see different lineups and different looks, you still have to use these games to work on things that are falling short, and one of those things right now is the Raptors’ defense on the perimeter. The Raptors have been susceptible to guard penetration all year, and now they’ve apparently added another weakness — defending the three.
Now this is a small sample, and hot shooting is a variable you can’t predict. But, the Thunder and Hornets shot 38-for-84 (45.2%) over these past two games, and neither team is in the top half of the league’s best three-point shooting teams.
Naturally, with Siakam at the five and the Raptors switching everything, the Hornets had a tougher time from deep in the final few minutes (the Frank Kaminsky airball was a real chef’s kiss moment), but you’re going to be in trouble, giving up that many open threes in the first 45 minutes of a game.
So while I’m fine with lineup tinkering and figuring out what you’re gonna get from the second unit, I hope Nick Nurse is also looking at the schemes and figuring out what is and isn’t working, regardless of personnel.
Call for Time?
I didn’t intend for this whole column to be a Nick Nurse discussion, and as noted, I’m fine with the lineup decisions in what is a fairly meaningless game.
One thing I can’t understand and have a harder time forgiving, though, is leaving two timeouts unused in such a close game. Sure, the Raptors were essentially gifted one before Kawhi Leonard’s final bucket, when the refs reviewed an out-of-bounds play, but why not call for time when the Raptors got a stop and the ball back with 30 seconds to go?
The argument against calling for time in the final minute is that you don’t want to give the defense time to set up... but typically, that’s when the score is tied or you’re trailing. As you saw, when you have the lead, as the Raptors did, you’re pulling the ball out and waiting anyway, to use up time on the clock. So why not call for time and draw up a play? The Raptors were probably going to go iso Kawhi regardless, but the other four guys — notably VanVleet and Lowry — didn't look like they knew what to do on that play. Could a timeout have helped them generate a better look?
We’ll never know, but I sure would have preferred that the clock not read zero and the losing team still have two timeouts left to use.
The Rare Double Block/Charge Non-Call!
Lamb’s half-court desperation winner wasn’t the only rarity on the night.
With about 8:20 to go Norman Powell — who had an excellent fourth quarter — drove the lane from the right side against Devonte Graham. Some contact occurred, Graham went down, and the baseline official (Brian Forte) called Powell for the offensive foul... while the sideline official, Ken Mauer, called Graham for the block!
The ensuing gathering of the officials was unable to decide the outcome, so we had a jump ball at centre court. I can’t really blame them; even with the benefit of replay, it was a tough call. Graham didn’t have any sort of position, but Powell still threw up his off arm. So the jump ball seemed the fairest way to decide it!
The wife and I have been re-watching Game of Thrones lately, and the play reminded me of the various instances of trial by combat on the show, where when a character is accused of a crime, rather than enter a plea and go through a trial, trusting their fate to the court, they can demand a trial by combat to decide their fate, and, essentially, put their lives in the hands of the gods. Isn’t that kind of what the jump ball is? At least no one got their head squished in (RIP, Red Viper).
I’m sure you, like me, are more than ready for the regular season to be over. Here’s some good news: No one got hurt in this one! Let’s hope we’re saying the same thing after every game from here on out.