After playing every Toronto Raptors starter at least 39 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night — including Pascal Siakam, in just his fourth game since returning from injury — coach Nick Nurse is hoping to get some reliable performance from his bench crew, who have been unable to do anything except earn the ire of their mild-mannered coach.
Capitalizing on an easy late-October, early-November schedule, the Raptors were able to string together a five game win streak to erase a sketchy start to the season. However, inefficient bench play, intermittent injuries to key players like Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes, and the reintroduction to key offensive piece Pascal Siakam has led to some strange effects over the recent skid.
Coach Nurse is rarely a guy to send a message as bluntly as he did to the entire bench squad Monday night. Other than a returning Khem Birch (21 minutes), only three other players saw action for a combined 18 total minutes. Those players — Svi Mykhailiuk, Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn — were -28 in the box score, and adding in Birch’s -10, well, you see the gist of what Nurse is playing with at the moment — and why he needs to continue adjusting.
Toronto needs size more than ever Thursday evening against the Utah Jazz, with Rudy Gobert on deck — arguably the most dominant offensive screen and roll centre, and the league’s preeminent defender, both in coverage and on the glass (averaging a league leading 15.4 rebounds). In what’s been a rolling story this season, the starting five will need a total team effort crashing the glass.
For what it’s worth, Fred VanVleet — listed at a generous 6-foot — is averaging a career high in rebounds at 5.1 per clip although he’s also playing a career (and league) high 38.7 minutes this season to get those boards. If the fans are to have a clear view about what this team is about in the 2021-22 season, Nurse needs to either trust his young players more, or start finding creative ways to win these close games.
Where to Watch
Sportsnet, 9 p.m. EST
Toronto — Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam
Utah — Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O’Neal, Bojan Bogdonavic, Rudy Gobert
Toronto — Precious Achiuwa (day-to-day), OG Anunoby (questionable), Chris Boucher (questionable), Yuta Watanabe (out)
Utah — None
A Man Amongst Boys
Rudy Gobert has consistently been the best defender in the league since receiving heavy minutes in 2014. Now in the prime of his career, Gobert continues to put up nightly 15/15’s. In addition, he simply doesn’t miss baskets. With a conversion rate near Drew Brees’ career completion percentage, Gobert’s 70.5 percent from the field is the best mark of his career.
In order for Toronto to have a chance in this game, they need to take away his gravity as a roll man. Gary Trent Jr. has shown incredible promise in this area so far this season, playing off his man perfectly more times than not in order to help in the pick and roll. If that first line of defense fails, expect Gobert to get to the line a lot. Shooting under .650 from the foul line (still good for a centre) will be a number Nurse might look to expose. It’s either that, or get him into early foul trouble — a viable strategy, still.
Turn up the 3-point heat
Toronto is finally hitting their threes — no surprise with the return of Pascal’s silky jumper — but they have yet to capitalize on the extra makes. Hitting 14, 15 and 15 respectively over their last three games, the barrage of Fred, OG, GTJ and Pascal are a tough cover — especially when you have a quasi-pivot-point-forward in Scottie Barnes with the vision of an eagle finding any open man he can.
The problem, however, has been on the other end: Detroit hit a bizarrely unconventional 50 percent of their field goals last Saturday and added 13 threes to that mix en route to a season high 127 points; and on Monday, the Raptors relaxed defensively after a tight first half, eventually allowing Portland to shoot almost 57 percent from the floor with 16 threes as a cherry on top.
So what’s the point of the seas-, er, lesson?
In both losses, you can argue extenuating circumstances: Dwane Casey being hell-bent on never losing against the Raptors again in his life is one, and the team losing steam late on Monday with all five starters rubbing shoulders with 40 minutes is another. With Anunoby on tonight’s injury report, it’ll take both triples out of the lineup, and critical defense on Donovan Mitchell if things get nitty-gritty.
Neither should be an excuse however. If the Raptors are playing to win, Nurse needs to find lineups that win. If the team is playing to develop, then he needs to let the guys learn the sting of a tough loss — not the sting of losing his confidence. There’s little room for doubt that Nurse is trying to light a fire under the asses of Achiuwa and Birch both. Scottie Barnes is 19 years old and looks the part of a seasoned vet more times than a hapless rookie.
If the point is to lead by example, something Barnes was oft-quoted this offseason that he enjoys about being viewed as a leader on a team, then Nurse needs to give the opportunities his young roster needs to work through mistakes under Barnes’ on court play. With Birch, Achiuwa and Banton supporting the starting five with consistent, competitive minutes, Toronto is a playoff matchup nightmare without a doubt.
And that’s what they are.