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3 Lessons: On life with a centre, the tank impasse, and Nurse’s depth

Centres help a basketball team, the Raptors’ direction remains unclear, and Nick Nurse is still getting a handle on Toronto’s depth. These are some of the biggest lessons from last week.

Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Season eight of Game of Thrones. Season two of Friday Night Lights. Season six of Lost. Season four of Community. The Toronto Raptors’ 2020-21 season. A grouping of terrible seasons amidst otherwise excellent runs. But all of these disappointing seasons were not without redeeming qualities. There were still moments that reminded us why we watch in the first place.

For the Raptors, some aspect suggest that the season is still not written, and others, more importantly, set up the future. In three lessons, we learned about that.

1) Adequate centre play just makes life easier

We did not need to see the Raptors with a solid centre to understand that they would be a better team if their five-man could be relied upon. We figured that one out about three games into this hell season. What has struck me since the additions of Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie, both of whom have brought their hard hat and lunch pails to the Toronto Raptors, is how much easier things have felt for the team.

Easy buckets felt like a rarity for Toronto this year. Defensive stops were almost solely the product of frenetic hustle and players pushing themselves possession after possession. Defensive rebounds were a relief, not an expectation. Screw dunks and three-pointers, the only highlight reel that I want to see from the Raptors is of big men maintaining sound positioning, boxing out, and pulling down minimally difficult rebounds.

Isn’t it beautiful?

Though Birch and Gillespie only accounted for fourteen of the team’s 54 boards, you’d be foolish to suggest their presence was not an enormous driving force of the team rebounding. The Raptors collected 56 percent of the game’s rebounds, their third best mark, behind only games in which Toronto drubbed the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors. Those teams clearly took their foot off the gas pedal in those ones too, so the numbers are a bit skewed.

The rebounding was great, and just by being smart, standing near the rim, and being ready both big men were able to impact the game on offense and defense. They snagged an extra two points in doing so and prevented them on the other end in a like manner.

Now, I maintain that the team’s ceiling is achieved by trotting out their trademarked small linuep (with Gary Trent Jr. in the place of Norman Powell). But it can’t be relied upon so heavily. The addition of centre play is an immense floor raiser, and it just makes everything a little smoother, a little easier, for all parties on the Raptors.

2) The tank doesn’t jive with the situation

I wrote after Tuesday’s game that though the front office’s actions may suggest a tank, the rest that they had been giving their players did make sense independent of purposely losing games. The ambiguity faded a bit when it was announced yesterday that Toronto would rest Kyle Lowry (for the third game in a row) in addition to OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. I don’t really know how else you could spin that one.

But the tank stars just don’t seem to be aligning. The Chicago Bulls, the team the Raptors would theoretically be chasing for the play-in game, just saw their beating heart, Zach LaVine, enter the NBA’s health and safety protocols, which portends some losses for his squad. As previously noted, Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie have given a spine to a team that was previously without that structure. What’s more, the players that do play have not shown any signs of putting it on cruise control.

Any time the Raptors have had a direction this season, a giant wrench has been thrown smack dab in the middle of it and forced the team to come up with a plan B. And C. And D. And E. I think we’re probably on plan F at this point. As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until a global pandemic forces you to move to Tampa and your team gets hammered by injuries and the very disease that’s causing it all, and then you lean into it and try to start losing but then it seems like you might fall ass-backwards into the play-in game.” It’s a quote about boxing, of course, but it’s weirdly applicable to the Raptors this season.

It’s a rapidly changing situation, so check back with JD Quirante here at Raptors HQ for everything tank-related as we will no doubt have an evolved view of the everything by mid-week next week. But it feels like there was a swing yesterday with the LaVine injury. And it feels like the Raptors might be able to win a little bit if they don’t sit absolutely everyone.

3) Nick Nurse is learning too

If nothing else, this past month and a half has shown how many worthy contributors there are on the Toronto Raptors. Though we as fans have learned how deep this team could be next season, I think it may be even more important that Nurse has done the same.

For the past couple years, he has kept his rotation as tight as the high E string on his guitar, usually turning to the end of the bench out of desperation instead of trust in those guys. You could see the stress of the situation in the bench guys when they got a chance. They had a hard time playing loose when they were given minutes. Guys like Malachi Flynn and Paul Watson would be more concerned with making the best out of their time than just getting out there and playing basketball.

Now, with the extra time afforded to them, and some of the other depth guys, you can see the effect of a longer leash for those guys. They are more confident, more willing to take risks, and just better. Nurse, for all his accomplishments so far, is still figuring some aspects out with this iteration of the team. I hope his experience in seeing guys show out a little more when they are empowered and able to play through mistakes carries over into next season and the Raptors can go back to being a team that can extend leads with a bench. It would do wonders for the top dogs, as well, who have been overextended at points throughout this season and the last.

Those are the lessons three for this week, I’m certain our season will look entirely different by the time next Friday rolls around, so check back in!