Nurse, Raptors chasing right combinations ahead of playoff run

NBA.com Global on Apr 02, 2019 07:42 AM
Nurse, Raptors chasing right combinations ahead of playoffs
PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 5: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors passes the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers on February 5, 2019 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

In like a lamb, out like a lamb. That’s where the month of March appeared to be headed for the Toronto Raptors, anyway, until the NBA schedule makers gifted them near the end with even more docile sheep to be shorn.

The Raptors were bumping along at a decidedly ordinary 6-6 in March, and 8-7 post-All Star break, before closing out the month against Chicago, New York and the Bulls again. Toronto won those games Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (last Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, PHL time) by an average of 19 points, calming some in their fan base and restoring order to their late season. With a handful of games remaining, the Raptors seem securely slotted into the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference’s playoff bracket, behind Milwaukee yet beyond the reach of Philadelphia.

What came before wasn’t impressive but, to hear Raptors coach Nick Nurse and his players tell it, neither was it cause for alarm. There were multiple factors at work, from injury absences and the residue of some that had come before, to games that slipped away (think Jeremy Lamb’s halfcourt stunner for Charlotte), to tinkering with lineups and defensive tactics that had Nurse’s team adapting on the fly.

Guard Fred VanVleet was candid.

“Yeah, we didn’t play so well,” he said. “The last week-and-a-half we’ve been better. We lost some games we shouldn’t have dropped. Jeremy Lamb’s shot. We lost to OKC pretty much in a back-to-back, right? We played those guys two times in about 38 hours. We’ve just got to play better.”

Gasol, 34, had played the first 769 games of his NBA career with the Grizzlies. But with the trade, he’s headed back to the playoffs after missing twice in the past three seasons.

“I never imagined this [move], but once it happens, you embrace it and you put everything you’ve got into it,” Gasol said. “You try not to chew too much at a time. It always works out, if you come in with the right mindset. If you make the right plays, if you play unselfish on both ends of the floor, it normally works out.”

The Raptors want to run with that thought. Perhaps because they’ve been in the Bucks’ shadow much of this season, or maybe because they’ve lacked some of the hiccups, drama and impatience in Boston or Philadelphia, they haven’t generated much chatter of late. Has overlooking Toronto, in a LeBron-less East, become a thing?

“Hope so,” VanVleet said. “That’s always a great thing, to be under the radar. Go in and handle our business. It doesn’t matter, the hoopla and ‘respect,’ you can never win that battle. You just continue to go out there and do your job.

“Only one team can win the Finals. For that to be us? If we get to that point, we’ll get all the respect and love we could ever want.”

Said Nurse before Saturday's (Sunday, PHL time) 124-101 victory over the Bulls: “I just think – I’ve said this for a few weeks now – the league gets strange after the trade deadline. A lot of bottom teams out of the playoffs have been beating the best teams. Scores have been strange all over the place. Different motivations for guys playing, guys in and out of the lineup.

“We’ve had a lot of injuries, guys in and out, and that affects your rhythm once in a while. And there was a game or two that got away from us near the end.”

Nurse has gone a little mad-scientist with his personnel too. At United Center this weekend, he decided to give high-energy forward Pascal Siakam a “load management” night, only the second missed game all season for arguably the favorite for the KIA NBA Most Improved Player award. Siakam was active merely as insurance had Toronto’s G League cavalry – Jordan Loyd and Chris Boucher – not completed a New York-to-Chicago trek in time, following the Raptors 905 game on Long Island.

Sitting Siakam gave Nurse the opportunity to start Marc Gasol alongside Serge Ibaka, a jumbo pairing that might come in handy if the Raptors face Detroit (Andre Drummond-Blake Griffin) or Boston (Aron Baynes-Al Horford) in the playoffs. Add Siakam to that mix and Toronto would be posting a defensive “No Trespassing” sign at the rim.

Nurse was happy with the results: 23 points and 12 rebounds from Ibaka in 28 minutes; 17 points, eight boards and six assists from Gasol in 29.

And as often happens when Leonard doesn’t play – he did not travel to Chicago, excused for personal reasons – the offense was more equitable, as well as more crisp. Thirty-four assists to 11 turnovers.

Leonard, the franchise-altering free agent to be who thus gets favored-nation status from Toronto’s brass, now has missed 22 games this season: six for injuries, one for personal and 15 as a healthy scratch. The team has gone 37-18 with him, 17-5 without him.

When Leonard skips, Nurse typically slides Danny Green to forward and starts both VanVleet and Kyle Lowry in the backcourt. That leads to a faster pace, more penetration and more assists, along with the All-Star wing’s 19 shots on average to divvy up among teammates. Without the “calculating, halfcourt” player, as Nurse calls Leonard, and the iso possessions at which he excels, Toronto moves the ball and moves its guys more.

Nurse used his 22nd different starting lineup Saturday (Sunday, PHL time). The Raptors are 13-1 when both point guards start.

“It’s more about committee,” VanVleet said. “Kawhi is a guy who can just bail you out with his individual skills. We use him as a primary scorer, and put him in a lot of ball screens and pin-down actions to get a bucket by himself. When he’s not there, I think it’s more opportunity for everybody else. Obviously we lean on him a lot in the fourth. Just got to find a way – guys have done a good job of spacing and stepping up and making plays.”

That includes Gasol, who has been his effective self (per-36 stats that nearly mirror his career numbers) while logging fewer minutes. Toronto is 14-7 since acquiring the 11th-year veteran.

“It’s really interesting, right, because he’s been great and not really scoring much,” Nurse said. “[Against Boston in February] he had one point – and eight assists. Obviously he’s a great passer and it’s enabled [us] to get downhill via the pass for maybe the first time in my six years there. We’re getting a lot of back-door baskets. Seems like we have a lot more cutting going on. Guys are more motivated to cut harder because they’ll get it back at the end a little bit.”

Gasol, 34, had played the first 769 games of his NBA career with the Grizzlies. But with the trade, he’s headed back to the playoffs after missing twice in the past three seasons.

“I never imagined this [move], but once it happens, you embrace it and you put everything you’ve got into it,” Gasol said. “You try not to chew too much at a time. It always works out, if you come in with the right mindset. If you make the right plays, if you play unselfish on both ends of the floor, it normally works out.”

The Raptors want to run with that thought. Perhaps because they’ve been in the Bucks’ shadow much of this season, or maybe because they’ve lacked some of the hiccups, drama and impatience in Boston or Philadelphia, they haven’t generated much chatter of late. Has overlooking Toronto, in a LeBron-less East, become a thing?

“Hope so,” VanVleet said. “That’s always a great thing, to be under the radar. Go in and handle our business. It doesn’t matter, the hoopla and ‘respect,’ you can never win that battle. You just continue to go out there and do your job.

“Only one team can win the Finals. For that to be us? If we get to that point, we’ll get all the respect and love we could ever want.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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