Your favourite basketball team losing and you feeling joy are not mutually exclusive. Even when the score bug doesn’t line up the way you want it to, a team like the Raptors is constantly offering up wee jolts of energy, flourishes of elation, over the course of games and the season at large. It’s these little pops of fun that keep the fan experience from being binary and hollow.
Most games you can predict where Toronto’s happiness centers will be. Kyle Lowry is gonna do the thrilling and reckless on court things he does, sprinkling in the odd affectionate embrace of his kid on the baseline; Sunday night’s opening quarter reminded everyone just how breathless a Pascal Siakam heater can leave you. At full health, Toronto has seven very good players, all of whom were part of the championship team, and every one capable of making a game worth watching on his own.
Except it was those counted on rocks, in various combinations, who let the Raptors’ big fourth quarter lead over the Spurs slip away on Sunday, leading to a 105-104 loss. Saddled with noted offensive nothing and probable Nick Nurse blackmailer Patrick McCaw, it was a group featuring Lowry, Siakam, Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell that more or less pissed the game away over a three minute stretch of the fourth, going scoreless while giving up seven points before OG Anunoby reentered the game for McCaw to close. The presence of the three-time champ starved the Raptors of just enough space and shooting for the Spurs to roll out a zone, under which Ibaka couldn’t make the right reads and over which Lowry bricked some crucial triples.
Nurse seemed a little surprised after the game that the Raptors weren’t able to generate more against the Spurs’ zone. With Siakam and Powell making their returns, it figures there’d be enough shooting on the floor, even with McCaw out there, for the Raptors to bust up the defense with outside bombs. But it’s a make or miss league, Doug.
“I think there was a pretty decent three presenting itself pretty early in the offense, and we probably took a bunch of them. It felt like a lot of those were wide open threes,” said Nurse of his team’s offensive process against the zone. “We want guys to take open shots, whether they’re early or late. I bet we certainly could have attacked it (the zone) better, but we just don’t seem to make enough shots against it.”
Nurse also cited a defensive drop off in the latter stages of the game, one that aided DeMar DeRozan in his crowning of skinny Montrealers, among other things, en route to his efficient 25-8-4 evening.
“Our defense, we were doing everything perfectly for a long stretch and then we just totally, like, broke down,” Nurse said. “There was no help anywhere all of a sudden and that wasn’t the case for the most part of the game. Then it was just one after another, drive down the lane to the rim ... there was a little bit of disconnection there, but it was pretty good for a lot of the game.”
Combine poor shooting against the zone, those defensive miscues and a missed Siakam bunny in crunch time that might have sealed a win, and you have a blame pie that heavily skews towards the top guys on the team. It happens. Better days lie ahead to be sure.
Not at fault for the loss to the Spurs was the charming, energetic, utterly offensively inept all-bench lineup of Terence Davis, Patrick McCaw, Matt Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris Boucher (or Oshae Brissett, depending on which half you’re talking about). You don’t need to worry about defensive connection when it’s the only thing keeping a lineup on the floor.
While that version of the bench lineup featuring Boucher was actually never used before Sunday, desperation has seen Nurse toy with some zero-offense reserve groups a few times over the last week or so. The Spurs game is just where they shone — or perhaps more fittingly, “got noticed” — the most.
It seems folks don’t particularly vibe with this vein of lineup choices by Nurse, despite it offering up so many tasty morsels of low-stakes glee.
In its debut six minutes of action spanning the late first and early second quarters, the bizarro bench did exactly what you want a lineup with exactly zero primary creators to do — defend like maniacs and buy some time for the horses to rest. Over that stretch, the Raptors broke even at 8-8, shooting just 2-of-10 from the floor, but also holding the Spurs to 2-of-9; they’d finish the game with a sublime efficiency slash line of 61.5 / 57.1 / +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is just about the coolest stat line a lineup can hope to achieve.
With Boucher forced into a shameful retirement by DeRozan’s dunk, Brissett got the call to join the other four oddball bench dudes to close the third quarter. While that group was a little less successful in stemming the tide, it still only got outscored 6-3 over three minutes to close the third, a section of the game that saw the Raptors’ lead dwindle from 16 down to 13. They bear little to no responsibility for the end result.
The nine or so minutes the Raptors played without Lowry or Siakam or even a different starter on the floor didn’t actively help the Raptors win, nor did they bring on the loss. They were just minutes, wherein a few fun things took place. And that should be celebrated. What other set of non-preseason conditions is ever going to lead to Matt Thomas tossing bullet entry passes to a cutting Brissett, or an emboldened Boucher taking over as the number-one option?
Nurse is not a dummy. You’ll never see the bricklayers union called to action in a game that actually matters. As it happens, such games aren’t on the slate for another three months. Nurse loves to throw around the term “the guts of the game.” The last few minutes of the first and third quarter while the other team has reserve humps out there, too, does not qualify as the guts of anything.
Rotations are hard enough to manage in a video game franchise mode. Nurse has the flow of the game to contend with — fouls, tricky match-ups, the need to get back-bench guys whatever run they’ve earned during the injury-riddled part of the schedule, and in the case of Sunday night, minutes restrictions for Siakam and Powell.
“That’s the second unit group right now,” Nurse said after the game when asked about his usage of groups chock full of reserves. “They’re gonna have to play some extended minutes until these guys get off the minutes the restrictions.”
There’s also the reality, however heinous you might think it is, that you maybe don’t need to maximize your lineups for every damn minute of every damn game. It’s part of a coach’s job to like... teach, which often requires handing guys playing time and rope with which they can screw up a little.
“I think they have their moments, right? We need to see if they can get two halves put together. They seem to always either a really good first and a poor second or a poor first, (and good) second stint. Need to see if we can level that out a bit.”
Throwing all five of Davis, McCaw, Thomas, Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher/Brissett onto the floor forces each of them into not so familiar roles. Davis gets to be a lead ball-handler and mess around running some pick and rolls — a thing he did quite nicely in his first stint on Sunday in one instance, though it ended with a missed three on a sly relocation to the corner. Hollis-Jefferson is granted the keys to the middle of the floor to roam as a play-making short-roll guy — and let me tell you, if he’s to get run in the post-season, it ain’t gonna be as a floor spacer. Thomas gets to screw around with some things that aren’t just catching and shooting, while Boucher gets to see if blind chucking can be a viable strategy outside the confines of garbage time. McCaw still does his usual move lots / do little thing, because change is hard I guess.
All the while, Nurse knows he’s got a defensive crew out there that can hang, milking the clock 18 to 22 seconds at a time. On Sunday the reserves even experimented with a bit of a switch-everything look, which surrendered just eight points over six minutes. Nothing these sorts of lineups do is ever very pretty. There is a lot of artistic falling down. If the bench misfits do win their shifts together it’s likely to be by a hockey game ass score. Same goes for when they lose, though.
This reserve unit’s dullness is in a way refreshing. Any fragments of success this version of the bench strings together will come in micro-bursts. This isn’t the 2017-18 Bench Mob, nor does anyone profess it to be. No one is getting talked into the zero-offense weirdos being a viable option in the postseason, and Nurse won’t be caught dead with even three of those five guys on the floor together in anything resembling an important game.
That doesn’t mean they can’t serve up a little off-beat lunatic fun in mini-doses for the time being. What’s the NBA regular season even worth if you can’t learn to enjoy the small oddities your favourite team produces night to night regardless of the end result. Kawhi Leonard’s “82 practices” ethos holds a lot of water if a team is good enough to not fret the standings, as the Raptors are. As a fan, when you tell the big picture implications to piss off for just a second, thrilling details — like the joy of a group of guys with no scoring chops making shit happen anyway — have a way of revealing themselves.