TORONTO — If you want to find the point when the Toronto Raptors began preparing in earnest for the pugnacity, emotion, and sheer physicality of playoff basketball, the fourth quarter of last weekend’s NBA All-Star Game may just be it.
That was 10 of the best players on the planet competing full-bore with one another in the most intense, entertaining run of play ever seen in what is usually a tame, half-hearted exhibition. Nick Nurse got a pretty good taste of it as the head coach of one of the teams. Raptors anchors Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam did even better, as two of the 10 athletes on the floor.
“That was excellent. Those are the kind of situations we’re going to need Pascal to be able to score in. High leverage. High talent. Being guarded hard. Being switched on, doubled on. Tripled. Sometimes in the block,” Nurse said Thursday, back at the Raptors practice facility in Toronto, where he’s preparing his team for the final stretch of the regular season. “And I thought he held his own well. I thought if he would’ve gotten a little better whistle he really would’ve played well. I thought he made a couple great moves and got fouled on two of them and had nothing to show for them. They were solid moves with good rhythm and timing — and against really good players.”
Those are the kind of reps a player like Siakam will need over the next eight weeks as the Raptors prepare to defend their championship through what’s shaping up to be a grueling Eastern Conference gauntlet. At their best, Toronto’s sharing the ball and scoring quickly in transition. But when the Raptors desperately need a bucket out of their half-court offence, Siakam will be the guy with the ball in his hands more often than not.
It’s still a relatively new role for Siakam, whose ascendance to one of the NBA’s best players has been equal parts remarkable and unlikely. So, while it’s not wise to doubt the 25-year-old’s ability to fulfill the ask, there’s still plenty of reason for the Raptors to give Siakam as much runway as possible to continue growing into it.
That’s why Nurse will be feeding Siakam plenty of play calls over these final 27 games, upping his usage and giving him plenty of opportunities to test his game against premium defensive opposition. Just as he was late in that extraordinary fourth quarter last weekend.
“His teammates are going to have to be accepting of that. That we’re going to probably be more high volume on purpose with him than maybe we would if we were just letting the game flow out or playing to the rhythm of the game or playing to matchups,” Nurse said. “I just think we need to continue to polish his reps at bringing it up, facing double-teams in the post, certain scoring plays, situations, things like that.”
Siakam’s season has been a somewhat sporadic one, as he’s both thrived and waned in his expanded role within the Raptors offence. He’s struggled to find consistency at times, particularly following a groin injury that sidelined him for 11 games around the holidays. You will not be shocked to hear Siakam’s excited to get things back on track following a well-earned breather during the all-star break.
“I expect to continue to get better. With the injury and a lot of things that happened this season, I’m not finding any rhythm in what I’m doing and feeling like I’m not consistent,” Siakam said. “This is a new thing for me and I just continue to get excited about the process of knowing one day you might have 10 points and another you might have 30. And understanding what you need to do to keep it consistent where you have that high level of play every single game.
So expect to see a lot of Siakam when you’re watching the Raptors over the coming weeks, but don’t necessarily expect to see a lot of Marc Gasol. The 35-year-old centre won’t play Friday night when the Raptors host the Phoenix Suns, and he may not be in uniform for some time after that.
Gasol last played more than three weeks ago, when he reaggravated a hamstring strain that held him out for nearly a month in December and January. The Raptors originally indicated they were being cautious with Gasol considering the recurring nature of his injury, and many read that as suggesting he’d return after the all-star break. But now it seems unlikely that he’ll suit up until later in the season.
“We’re going to wait a little bit with him and give him a little bit more time,” Nurse said. “The main thing for me right now is that he’s fully, fully healed. We don’t want to go backwards again with this thing. The most important thing is he gets some games in before the playoffs. So, we’re just going to sit tight for a little bit.”
The Raptors are routinely cagey when publicly discussing injury timelines, which is understandable from a competitive standpoint but makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly when Gasol might return. Nurse estimated the “minimum” amount of regular season games he’d want to give Gasol to regain his sea legs ahead of the playoffs as “8 to 12.” The Raptors will have 12 games remaining on March 25.
But that really doesn’t indicate anything. Gasol could return sooner, could return later. All we know is the Raptors will be without a central piece of their rotation for the time being, as has been the case for this team essentially all season.
There are a couple ways to look at that. It’s certainly a disadvantage that the players the Raptors will rely on most come the playoffs have lacked on-court time together to develop chemistry, cohesion, and familiarity. But all these man games lost have been man games gained for down-roster players, who have enjoyed expanded opportunities to gain experience and prove they can be relied upon if needed in the playoffs.
Serge Ibaka’s playing as well as he has in his career, thriving in Gasol’s starting centre role. Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson have both impressed, demonstrating they can be front-court options when Nurse is searching for a spark. Even two-way rookie Oshae Brissett has had his moments when called upon.
A healthy Gasol whipping the ball around on offence and shutting down the opposition’s centre underneath Toronto’s basket is obviously the preferred scenario. But in his absence, Nurse and the Raptors have at least learned more about what else they have.
“Serge is getting tremendous growth here. His minutes, his reps, the situations that he’s having to play in night in and night out — he’s having a great season and he’s becoming a better player,” Nurse said. “That really excites me. Take a disadvantage and turn it into a huge advantage. It gives us a chance to get Boucher and Rondae out there. Both probably a smidgeon out of position. But at least it gives them a chance to improve and see if we can possibly use them in the playoffs, as well. So, we’ll look at it from the bright side. And it’ll rest Marc in general, which I think is much to our advantage, as well.”
So the Raptors will sacrifice some regular season roster utility to hopefully be in a better position come the playoffs. It’s an easy trade-off to make considering how well the Raptors have played without key pieces to this point in the season. But they’ll have to be careful down the stretch, especially if the Eastern Conference standings constrict even further than they already have.
The Raptors come out of the break second in the conference, 1.5 games ahead of the Boston Celtics, and 4.5 games above the fourth-place Miami Heat. Finishing second is obviously the optimal outcome. That would set up a first-round series with likely the Brooklyn Nets or Orlando Magic — two sub-.500 teams the Raptors could presumably overcome quickly. From there, Toronto would be looking at a second-round series with home-court advantage against a tough opponent. But that opponent would not be the first-place Milwaukee Bucks, which is what matters most.
Now, a third-place finish in the conference wouldn’t be a particularly awful outcome, either. That would mean a tougher first-round matchup, sure, but it would likely still be an opponent the Raptors have proven they can beat reliably. Currently, it would be the Indiana Pacers, a team the Raptors defeated in consecutive games earlier this month. It could also potentially be the Philadelphia 76ers, whom the Raptors have topped in two of three encounters so far this season.
A fall to fourth or fifth in the table are the scenarios that would be particularly unideal. That would give the Raptors not only a challenging first-round opponent that would presumably force a longer series, but then a likely encounter with the Bucks in the second round.
Fortunately for ever-anxious fans, it would take an abrupt and uncharacteristic run of poor play for the Raptors to plummet that far in the standings. Toronto has lost consecutive games only twice this season — a three-game skid in December and back-to-back losses later that month. And FiveThirtyEight currently projects the Raptors for a 56-26 record, one win behind the Boston Celtics for second in the conference. Basketball-Reference, meanwhile, has the Raptors edging the Celtics for second place by more than a win.
Of course, obsessing over these scenarios and possibilities is much more common among fans and observers than team personnel. Players and coaches are doing everything they can to win each game as it comes. We all roll our eyes at clichés about taking things one game at a time and the desire to not get ahead of oneself. But clichés are cliché for a reason. They simplify things, just as a game-by-game approach to winning does.
“We’re going to go out there and play our best basketball,” Lowry said. “We want to be the best team we can possibly be. That’s all that really matters. And we fall where we fall.”