Plagued by injuries all year, the Toronto Raptors finally seemed to be getting fully healthy entering the final month of the regular season.
Marc Gasol was back in the lineup Sunday following a 15-game absence and Fred VanVleet seems to be on the precipice of rejoining the club after being sidelined by a shoulder issue. As they wrapped up their five-game road trip against the Utah Jazz on Monday, the Raptors could almost taste a return to full health.
It took less than two minutes of game action against the Jazz for that dream to start looking less and less like a reality. reigning Eastern Conference player of the week Norman Powell suffered a sprained left ankle after a brutal collision with teammate OG Anunoby and was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the contest.
With the deck seemingly stacked against them, the Raptors managed to overcome the early loss of Powell and grind out an impressive 101-92 win over the Jazz on the second night of a back-to-back. Here are four takeaways from the victory.
More than just a ticket
Nick Nurse had to fight before the ball was even tipped on Monday, with Utah security asking to see his ticket as he made his way to the court pre-game. Nurse’s work didn’t get any easier once the game was underway, as Powell’s early injury — and Anunoby heading to the locker room in the first quarter after losing a contact lens — forced him to adjust his rotations.
Once again missing Gasol, who sat out the tail end of the back-to-back for injury maintenance, and VanVleet, Nurse gave us another example of why he’s a serious contender for coach of the year honours by maximizing the talent available to him. Patrick McCaw logged over 42 minutes with Matt Thomas and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also contributing when called upon. With the game on the line in the second half, Nurse decided to roll out a seven-man rotation to secure a fourth consecutive win.
Toronto improved to 23-9 on the road and put some more breathing room between itself and the Boston Celtics in the race for the coveted second seed in the East. Now 3 1/2 games up on the slumping Celtics with 18 to play, Nurse’s Raptors are the heavy favourites to finish the year at No. 2.
Big dogs step up
With the team desperate for scoring options, it was the Big 3 of Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry that carried the load. Ibaka finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds, Siakam flirted with a triple-double with 27 of his own to go along with 11 rebounds and eight assists, and Lowry chipped in with 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds. The all-star point guard hit the biggest shot of the night on a deep three late in the clock to put the Raptors up by five points with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter.
Despite playing through foul trouble all night, Siakam had everything in his arsenal working as the 25-year-old knocked down two triples, attacked the basket effectively and even showed off his mid-range game. Perhaps most impressively, Siakam flashed his playmaking ability, which makes him nearly impossible to defend.
Matched up with the game’s best rim protector in Rudy Gobert, Ibaka was able to stretch the floor by connecting on five of his seven three-point attempts. He also seemed to come up with key plays whenever the Raptors were labouring offensively.
The minutes were heavy, especially for Lowry (42:40), but Toronto has until Saturday to rest up for a clash with the Detroit Pistons.
Reserve tank on empty
While the starters flourished, the Raptors’ bench once again turned in a brutal performance. Coming off a seven-point outing against the Sacramento Kings a night earlier, the reserves scored a collective 19 in Utah. Joe Ingles, the Jazz sixth man, outscored them on his own — and the host’s bench finished with 42 total.
Entering Monday, the Raptors were 24th in the league in bench scoring at 32.2 points per game — a number that will dip after Monday’s debacle. That lack of production won’t be sustainable going forward, and the Raptors will be banking on improved health to help restore the second unit.
Terence Davis and Chris Boucher were the two who particularly struggled, with each posting a minus-15 rating in just 5:33 of action. Neither saw the floor in the second half, with Thomas getting the nod over Davis. Thomas was a bit of a bright spot, finishing with nine points. The sharpshooter proved he can do more than just shoot threes by cutting to the basket and looking for his shot off the dribble.
All stars stymied
The Jazz boast a pair of all stars in Gobert and Donovan Mitchell but neither was a factor in this one. Mitchell tallied 11 points on 4-of-16 shooting and Gobert made just one field goal and finished with six points.
The latter was visibly frustrated all night and was eventually ejected from the game, along with Anunoby, after the two got mixed up with 40 seconds remaining.
Toronto’s creativity on the defensive end has caused headaches for some of the NBA’s biggest stars all season, and Utah’s dynamic duo were the latest victims.