After Kyle Lowry returned from his ankle injury on Sunday, all seems to be well in Toronto. (Even if we had to wait for OG Anunoby to pass his initial concussion test to be sure.) For these last seven games, the Raptors are finally healthy and can focus on building chemistry for what could be a long playoff run. Fortunately, their competition over these next several games isn’t something to sweat about. And that’s where the HQ Roundtable comes in.
Welcome to the latest edition of the HQ Roundtable. I am Sully Akbari — your host for this weekly series. Here to discuss the team’s preparations for the playoffs, Kyle Lowry’s birthday, March Madness, as well as other topics, are Thomas Mooney and Mitch Orsatti.
Let’s get right to it!
On the Raptors:
1) How should coach Nurse manage the team’s minutes during the last seven games?
Sully Akbari: Last night’s game against the Bulls was a prime example of how coach Nick Nurse should manage the team’s minutes. The starters in Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol individually played 15 to 22 minutes, which is perfect — they got some final runs in to improve their chemistry, and they had an opportunity to rest during the game. Not every team is the Bulls, but Nurse should keep this minute split in mind to manage his starters’ workload. Still, if the players want to rest, especially the starters, they have to build a big lead early, much like last night’s game. This opens up minutes for the bench to finish off the game, which could potentially help solidify their play as well.
Luckily for the Raptors, the remaining seven games are against sub-par teams, so this gives them exactly this opportunity. Now they just have to avoid injury!
Thomas Mooney: This is the problem that I could go either way on. We’ve only seen four games with a fully healthy roster this year, so that’s one reason to say that Nurse should get into a playoff rotation as soon as possible and get into the best rhythm they can. At the same time, that’s a reason they could use to keep resting guys so they can actually be healthy come playoff time. I’m of the mindset though, that they need to do all they can to head into the playoffs on all cylinders. They only play one team with a winning record in the last seven games (Nets), and if the eventual playoff rotation is as good as we expect it will be, they should be able to build big enough leads to kill two birds with one stone, and rest their stars for most of these fourth quarters.
Mitch Orsatti: I’m a bit torn about this one because of the Raptors remaining opponents. The Raptors have the Knicks and Bulls up next and then four straight potential playoff opponents in Orlando, Brooklyn, Charlotte and Miami before finishing the season off against the Timberwolves. Where I’m torn is: do the Raptors run out playoff rotations against these possible opponents in order to see how they fare and get some reps in, or, do they rest guys, not wanting to show the opposing team everything that’s coming at them in the 1st round?
Ultimately, scouting exists for a reason and whichever team settles into their matchup with the Raptors will have done extensive research already. Coach Nurse probably has a bunch of stuff he’s kept on the back burner for the playoffs, so, as long as you leave some element of surprise for the first round, I think the Raptors should rest individual guys for the Knicks and Bulls (Kyle + Serge followed by Kawhi + Danny) and then get playoff rotation minutes against any of the next four matchups depending on how potential seeding looks when each team rolls in.
2) Coach Nurse said he’s confident with where the Raps are at if the playoffs started today. Regardless of who they play in the playoffs, how confident are you in the team?
Nurse is confident with where the Raptors are at if the playoffs started today. In the interim, sounds like they'll continue to trial/tweak coverages and keep rotation a little deeper to see if someone can establish 9th-man role.— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) March 25, 2019
Sully: I am very confident in the team. So much so that I don’t see the first round going more than five games. Now, with the team finally healthy, I think these final seven games will have all the players locked in together for the playoffs. These games will be used somewhat like practice to iron out small wrinkles in their game and iron out the offensive and defensive sets/schemes. The only thing Nurse has to work on is the playoff rotation, which should be all but decided. We’ll see exactly how this will play out in the final seven games.
Also, given how the team has entered the post-season in previous years (Lowry not being healthy in 2017, Fred VanVleet not being a 100 percent last year, etc.), this is by the most prepared team since the 2016 post-season. This juices my confidence even more, knowing that the team is destined for a big run.
Thomas: On a scale of one to ten, I’m a nine. This is the first time in this era of Raptors basketball where they can legitimately say they have the best player in a given series now that they have Kawhi Leonard, it’s the healthiest (knock on wood) version of Kyle Lowry we’ve seen going into the playoffs, and the growth of Pascal Siakam unlocks so many things for the team with his skill and versatility. I can also safely assume that coach Nurse won’t be playing any all-bench lineups in the playoffs, so two or even three starters will be on the court at all times. I’m also of the belief that they have the best eight-man rotation in the conference, so I’m extremely confident that they end up making the conference finals at a minimum.
Mitch: I, for one, am very confident in this Raptors team and what it all boils down to is that they’re finally healthy (knock on a million pieces of wood). Yes, there are issues, but what playoff-bound team in the East doesn’t have them? Milwaukee is banged up. The Celtics are the basketball equivalent of a landfill (tons of trash, naturally) and the Sixers have the East’s closest version to the Warriors’ starting bench but have one of the weakest benches in the entire league. Yes, the Pacers exist, but I’m not worried about a team whose best player is Bojan Bogdonavic; the dude is nice, but let’s be real.
At the end of the day, I would really just love to see the Raptors make a concerted effort to limit their turnovers and keep focusing on integrating Gasol into the offence to the point where Big Spanish feels comfortable hunting out some shots for himself every once and a while.
3) Kyle Lowry celebrated his 33rd birthday on Monday. During his seven-year tenure with the franchise, what is your favourite moment?
Sully: My favourite Kyle Lowry moment is when he announced his decision to re-sign with Toronto in the Players’ Tribune back in 2017. After an ugly sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 post-season, Lowry could have left Toronto to sign with the Spurs or the Timberwolves, who were at least modestly interested in him. Instead, he followed DeMar DeRozan’s footsteps from the year before and returned to Toronto. For a city that has watched all its top players leave, this was something special to see. It signified that Lowry not only wanted to change the idea of what Toronto was as a basketball city, but also to build something special here.
Then came Lowry’s article on The Players’ Tribune where he highlighted his journey in Toronto along with the stories that came with it. Reading his story made me appreciate Kyle more than ever. Now, with the team setting their sights on a long playoff run, Lowry has a chance to fulfill his final message:
Thomas: So many moments to choose from, but I’ll always love the bromance he has and will continue to have with DeMar DeRozan. The joy he had for DeMar’s success, and the playful banter on and off the court, it’s something I’ve missed from this season. Here’s hoping he gets anywhere close to that with Kawhi in the future (because he’s staying).
Mitch: Kyle Lowry’s career as a Raptor has been quite a ride and I’ve loved every damn stop of it. I loved the Miami shot. I loved the celebration in Detroit when DeRozan yammed Anthony Tolliver into the core of the Earth. I love all of these photos of this 33-year-old man, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting and I’m happy to celebrate his eventual championship here in Toronto.
Around the NBA:
1) It’s March Madness, which means it’s Upset Season. Which lower-seeded playoff team do you think could pull off a first-round upset?
Sully: My bet would be the Los Angeles Clippers being the fifth seed and upsetting the Portland Trail Blazers as the fourth seed. With the Blazers losing Jusuf Nurkic, who was having a career year, to a gruesome leg injury, I think they’re in a very vulnerable position now unfortunately. The loss of Nurkic thins Portland’s frontcourt, where I can now see the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell feasting in the paint.
The Clippers’ backcourt is solid but not to the Blazers’ level — even if we don’t know if C.J. McCollum, who is out with a leg injury as well, will be fully healthy come playoff time. This could lead to Damian Lillard becoming a one-man show, and that rarely results in wins for a full playoff series. So, with an underdog and skilled team under Lou Williams, Harrell, Danilo Gallinari, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, I can see the Clippers upsetting the Blazers in six games.
Thomas: I think it’s the Oklahoma City Thunder, given that they don’t face the Warriors in the first round. If they can get out of their recent slide and get themselves in a matchup against the Blazers, I’d definitely consider them the favourite. They’d go in with the top two players in the series, and we’ve seen that they’re a scary team on both ends of the floor when they’re on their game. The Blazers have Damian Lillard, but C.J. McCollum will be coming back from a knee injury and Jusuf Nurkic is out for the season with a broken leg. It would likely be too much of a load for Lillard to carry by himself against a Thunder squad that’s already swept the regular season series.
Mitch: I think regardless of which team finishes in the 4-5 seed in the East, it’s going to be an upset when the Pacers beat the Celtics in 5. More importantly, it’s going to upset Boston Celtics fans and Bill Simmons and Kyrie Irving who will absolutely leave and Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge, who will be the least upset when he collects more draft picks to waste.
2) With Zion Williamson destined for the NBA, which team do you most want to win the lottery to draft him?
Sully: I may be the in the minority here but I want Zion on the Knicks. With New York being a top-class destination for free agents this off-season, this will most likely be the last wave of bad Knicks teams in a while. (Assuming the team actually gets some big name 2019 free agents to sign.) This gives Zion All-Star or superstar teammates to work with, in what would be his first year in the league. If that ends up being the case, he’d be able to reach his full potential with superstar guidance while building a dynasty in New York. Don’t laugh, it’s possible!
But for now, this is essentially how the Knicks have played as one of the worst teams over the past several years:
Thomas: I’m rooting for the Atlanta Hawks to win the lottery. Trae Young has been great the second half of the season, John Collins had a fringe all-star case after coming back from an injury to start the year, and Kevin Huerter has shown flashes of being a knockdown shooter at this level. Adding Zion Williamson to that mix would make them a must-watch league pass team, and with another leap from Young and Collins, plus the $25-million+ cap room they have this summer, I could see the Hawks being in the mix for the eight-seed.
John Collins elevates and decimates the lob from Trae Young pic.twitter.com/2M0rum5a4s— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 27, 2019
Mitch: I very, very badly want the Dallas Mavericks to win the lottery. They currently have a 9 percent chance to land the number one pick and if you, like other people who somehow are paid money to say words about basketball on television don’t think Zion is going first overall, then please, log off of basketball forever.
Could you imagine Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and Zion on the same squad? On top of simply existing on the same roster, two of those guys are going to be on rookie contracts! The Mavericks, once a hotbed for being the coldest bed in free agency would immediately be at the top of every big free agent’s list, especially when you consider that there is no state tax in Texas.
Luka Doncic recorded his 7th triple-double of the season tonight….— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 27, 2019
He has tied Magic Johnson for the third-most triple-doubles by a rookie in NBA historypic.twitter.com/l7gWreeY6i