Rap­tors still have much to do

Toronto still find­ing its foot­ing as in­juries have ham­pered de­vel­op­ment

Sentinel-Review (Woodstock) - - OPINION - SCOTT STIN­SON

TORONTO — There are prob­a­bly not that many lessons that can be learned from the Toronto Rap­tors’ com­i­cally ugly 104-101 win over the At­lanta Hawks on Wed­nes­day, a game that looked as though it had been played with a bas­ket­ball that was lightly greased — per­haps even mod­er­ately greased.

Still, there were mo­ments that un­der­scored the work that the Rap­tors have ahead of them. Barely a minute in, Kawhi Leonard picked off an er­rant At­lanta pass, then turned and fired a foot­ball pass the length of the court in the di­rec­tion of Kyle Lowry. The guard awk­wardly tried to set him­self to re­ceive the toss, but was taken out by At­lanta’s free safety — sorry, small for­ward — and ended up in a heap on the side­line. Just like that, there was a clear re­minder that Leonard and Lowry were still get­ting fa­mil­iar with each other — and also that plays that end up with the lat­ter player, just re­turn­ing from a back in­jury, splayed on the floor should def­i­nitely be avoided.

Less than a minute af­ter that, af­ter an­other Hawks turnover on a night when they had twen­tyfrickin-seven of them, Lowry and Leonard worked the ball back and forth be­tween them, which was good, ex­cept the passes kept com­ing and the shot clock ex­pired, which was bad. It was a Rap­tors turnover on a night when they had nine-bloody-teen of them.

If it felt a lit­tle like a pre­sea­son game, there was a rea­son for that: Wed­nes­day’s was the first game with both Lowry and Leonard in the lineup for a month, and only the 22nd of 43 games on the Toronto sched­ule in which the two All-Stars have shared the court. If this reg­u­lar sea­son was to be largely about the new-look Rap­tors get­ting com­fort­able with one an­other, then they re­main at the early stages. In dat­ing terms, they haven’t yet met each other’s par­ents.

Be­fore the game, I asked head coach Nick Nurse if he was wor­ried that the long stretch with­out his two best play­ers on the floor to­gether would set that learn­ing process back to square one. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I think there’s been a lot of growth in a lot of ar­eas. I’m not that con­cerned about it.” The coach said that Leonard was play­ing in the flow of Toronto’s of­fence more now, look­ing to pass when the de­fence col­lapses on him, and so he ex­pected him to be able to find Lowry in those sit­u­a­tions. Lowry, in space, with op­tions, usu­ally re­sults in Toronto points, as would un­fold a cou­ple of hours later for the game-win­ning bas­ket, a Serge Ibaka dunk that came from a Lowry pass and be­gan with a Leonard steal.

But, be­fore that mo­ment of bril­liance, when the 31-12 Rap­tors were strug­gling to put away a 12-win Hawks team, I re­al­ized that I had asked the wrong ques­tion of Nurse. It’s not about whether Lowry and Leonard can get com­fort­able to­gether over the se­cond half of the sea­son; they are each so smart on the court that they will fig­ure things out. The ques­tion is how much time it will take be­fore Nurse can get every­one else sorted out. And the an­swer is: prob­a­bly most of the re­main­ing 39 reg­u­lar-sea­son games. And maybe be­yond that.

With Danny Green rest­ing on Wed­nes­day night, the Rap­tors de­ployed their 14th dif­fer­ent start­ing lineup: Leonard, Lowry, Ibaka, Pas­cal Si­akam and Fred Van­Vleet. They used 12 dif­fer­ent start­ing com­bi­na­tions all of last sea­son.

Nurse has said all along that he planned to try dif­fer­ent starters to see what worked and what didn’t, part of his sea­son-long lab ex­per­i­ment. The un­ex­pected part is how much up­heaval has taken place in the rest of the lineup.

The team has still only been fully healthy for one game this sea­son, and won’t be again for weeks yet, with cen­tre Jonas Valan­ci­u­nas still work­ing his way back from thumb surgery. The in­juries have meant too many min­utes for backup big man Greg Mon­roe and a lot of time in the start­ing lineup for Van­Vleet, who was for­merly the ace of Toronto’s se­cond unit. OG Anunoby has strug­gled off the bench, although he was ex­cel­lent on Wed­nes­day night. Norm Pow­ell has shown flashes of his old self, although he was a mess on Wed­nes­day night. And C.J. Miles has con­tin­ued to be a shin­ing ex­am­ple of why the next Rap­tor to be of­fered the Go­Daddy spon­sor­ship should flee, scream­ing, from the room.

There is a lot for Nurse and his staff to de­ter­mine, is the point. If they can get con­sis­tent bench min­utes from Anunoby and Pow­ell at the wing spots, and a healthy Valan­ci­u­nas, then they can get by even if Miles can’t hit water from a boat.

Nurse said be­fore the Hawks con­test that he wanted to have Lowry and Leonard on the floor to work on late-game ex­e­cu­tions, and then his team obliged by be­ing so bad that they still needed to de­sign plays against At­lanta in the fi­nal min­utes. It worked, sort of. One re­sulted in a wide-open three at­tempt for Lowry, one an open three at­tempt for Leonard. Both missed. Good plays, though.

The Rap­tors ended up seal­ing the game on the Leonard steal and Ibaka dunk, be­cause that’s what good teams do.

Nurse said on the eve of the sea­son that he didn’t care how many games the Rap­tors won. The first 82 games would be a learn­ing process. Good for him, then, that there re­mains much to do on that front.


Toronto’s Serge Ibaka hits At­lanta’s Jeremy Lin dur­ing his game-win­ning dunk on Tues­day.

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