Injuries, oddly enough, have indirectly spawned a lot of the joy this season’s produced. Without all the team’s good players missing time, we may still be hypothesizing where exactly Chris Boucher fits in the pros. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson escaped the dog house because injuries left the door ever so slightly ajar. That incredible comeback win against Dallas in December was pulled off by Kyle Lowry and a crew of dudes who would all normally be second, third or even fourth string closers. I doubt anyone would trade the first 50-something games as they happened for what they could have been with a fully healthy roster.
That having been said, Friday’s 99-96 loss to Charlotte brought with it the realization that the whole undermanned and scrappy motif ain’t really cute or fun anymore. If you were to rank each of the Raptors’ 17 losses this season, Friday’s might be the least inspiring yet. Offensively the Raptors scarcely established the easy, read-and-react flow that’s earned them such league-wide renown. They were even crummy on the run, turning 17 forced turnovers into and uncharacteristic six points. Free-throws comprised too healthy a chunk of the team’s scoring output. One good thing almost never led to another. There was a lot of falling down.
“We made some really good defensive plays that didn’t turn out very well for us,” said a frustrated Nurse after the game, moments after sneakily proclaiming that the game was “one for the books.”
Toronto’s hopes of winning on Friday hinged entirely on math. With some exceptionally mean defense and some special attention to protecting the ball, the Raptors were able to tip the shot attempt scales just enough to give themselves a chance; they won the turnover battle 17-5, and 16 more shot attempts than the Hornets. At the rate they shot the ball, they needed the difference to be 19 or more.
Of all the available Raptors, it’s Lowry who seems the most over this short-handed shit. His always endearing ref-barking has had a more ferocious bite in the last couple games; he looks tired of mind, and it’s inconceivable that his body isn’t worn down, too. Although as you might expect, not a single one of those realities kept him from stringing together a quintessential Lowry stretch to just about push the game into overtime. A pair of catch-and-shoot threes came on the heels of a dastardly shutting down of Bismack Biyombo, hopelessly thrust into trying to back Lowry down on a late-clock post-up with a few minutes to go.
He’d follow that up with a driving lefty finish, and nearly won the damn thing with an offensive rebound and pull-up three from the corner before the Hornets recovered the ball and hell broke loose. With just a couple ticks to go, the Raptors committed their second, game-deciding, pre-inbound foul in the last 10 seconds of a close game against these very Hornets this season. This time around it was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson carelessly bumping Terry Rozier, with Rozier picking up a couple style points on the way down. Two shots, the ball, and a 1-of-2 trip to the line for the Hornets left the Raptors down 99-96 with 1.2 seconds to go, and Powell couldn’t connect on an overtime-forcing triple.
Before that miss, Powell was one of the best options available to Nick Nurse, who admitted after the game that he would have probably preferred not to run Powell for quite as long as he ultimately did. Over 36 surely tiring minutes, Powell canned 22 points on 8-of-19 shooting, and accounted for 40% of the Raptors’ made threes as a team on the night.
“I didn’t think those guys on the bench were what they needed to be tonight,” said Nurse of the bench, whose collective performance forced Nurse into heavy usage of his starters.
“There was nothing from Terence and Matt ... I ran a lot of those guys a lot of minutes. I would like to have balanced that out a bit but I just didn’t think that we could.”
Among those hard-ridden starters, OG Anunoby was probably the most consistently impressive. He scored 16 points, dished a few slick assists, and was a board and four steals shy of an extremely cool triple-double. Lowry chipped in 21, while the Raptors’ leading scorer, Pascal Siakam (24) may have had the strangest game of anyone. Between close-quarters battles with Bismack Biyombo on the glass, Siakam was kind of all or nothing on Friday. His offense oscillated between butter-fingered ugliness and brutishly decisive bully-ball. He, like most of the Raptors, seemed a little too pooched to keep up high octane anything for more than fleeting stretches.
Help is mercifully on its way... probably. After the game Nurse noted that VanVleet and Ibaka would travel and likely get back on the floor at some point. Even Marc Gasol will be on the trip. Nurse didn’t rule out the idea of him playing, though he did call it “optimistic.”
Optimism as it pertains to Raptors injuries is a foreign concept this season. It may be naive to latch onto it at this moment given how snake-bitten Toronto’s been all year. But in these blustery, dark days, it might be the glimmer of a less rag-tag future that gets these Raptors through to better days.