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TORONTO – You may want to knock on wood before reading this, but the Toronto Raptors appear to be getting healthy.
After missing more than three weeks with a partially dislocated left shoulder, Norman Powell is expected to make his return against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday. Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol – who sustained their groin and hamstring injuries the same night as Powell went down – aren’t far behind and could be back in the lineup next week.
All three players participated in practice – albeit in a limited capacity – on Friday. Fred VanVleet was absent, however, and remains out indefinitely with a strained hamstring. Still, this is a significant development for one of the NBA’s most banged up teams.
The Raptors have lost 138 man games to injury this season, third-most in the league and 25 more than they lost all of last season. Six of their top-seven players have missed at least seven games and five have missed at least 10.
They’ve played 21 of their 38 games without at least two of Siakam, Kyle Lowry, VanVleet, Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Powell and OG Anunoby. They’ve played 12 games without at least three of those guys and their last two games without four of them. They’ve only had their full roster available twice all season, and not since Oct. 30 – the second game of the campaign.
“I’m just glad they’re coming back,” said head coach Nick Nurse. “They wanna play. They wanna be on the court. The sooner we can get them back and start working them back in, the better off we’re gonna be. We know what the best version of our team is and that’s with healthy guys, all of them.”
The thought of this Raptors team being able to put a full product – or close to it – on the court is exciting, not only because of how snake bitten they’ve been, but also because of how well they’ve played in spite of it. They haven’t just survived the injury bug. They’ve somehow managed to thrive.
Toronto was 8-2 without Lowry and Ibaka – who missed a month with a fractured thumb and sprained ankle, respectively – earlier this season and just went 6-5 in the absence of Siakam, Gasol and Powell, with VanVleet also sidelined for a couple of those games. At 25-13, the Raptors sit fourth in a tight Eastern Conference race and are in the mix for second place, with Milwaukee holding a comfortable lead atop the standings.
They’ve done it on the strength of their second-ranked defence, hard play, innovative coaching, and with contributions from just about everybody on the roster.
Naturally, the question is: if they’re this good without their best players on the floor, how good can they be once they get them back?
“I think this team is really good,” Nurse said. “We’ve had ’em this year, and we’ve been outstanding. I think there are some battle-tested, special guys on this team. We’re gonna be around. We need to get healthy and stay healthy. I think we’re ready to line up with anybody.”
You can envision what this might look like if everything comes together, and it’s intriguing.
What if the injured players pick up where they left off before getting hurt? Siakam was blossoming into a superstar before our eyes. Gasol had shaken off some early-season rust and was playing his best basketball of the year. Powell was playing the best ball of his career.
What if Lowry continues the torrid stretch he’s been on, ideally in fewer minutes? What if some of the younger guys, who gained some valuable experience filling in – Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher, among others – can have the same or similar impact in smaller, more situational roles?
To Nurse’s point, that’s a team that should be able to compete with anybody in the East, and maybe even push the Bucks. But, as the head coach also knows, it would be wise to temper expectations, at least initially. Even though they’re on the mend, it may take some time before we get a clearer picture of what the Raptors’ ceiling actually looks like.
As you’ll recall, Toronto lost three straight games – and four of five – immediately after getting Ibaka and Lowry back last month. It was the team’s worst stretch of the season despite being its healthiest since early November. It wasn’t a coincidence, but it also didn’t mean they were a better team without those players. There were a few factors in play.
Firstly, Lowry and Ibaka needed to get their rhythm and conditioning back after long layoffs – neither player looked like themselves for at least a couple weeks. Second of all, the guys that were playing so well in expanded roles while they were out had to readjust, which also took some time. Finally, the team simply wasn’t playing hard enough, which would explain the defensive slippage.
Without much room for error while Lowry and Ibaka were out, everybody else took their games to another level. That’s why they had success. Even if they were at a nightly disadvantage from a talent standpoint, they outworked teams, they played harder than them. As the season’s progressed and the casualties have continued to pile up, that’s become their calling card, it’s what they pride themselves on: effort. Although it was probably a subconscious thing, they seemed to take their foot off the gas a little bit the last time guys started returning to the lineup. That can’t happen again.
Once Powell returns on Sunday, followed by Siakam and Gasol soon after, there will almost certainly be an adjustment period. That’s inevitable, but even if they have to take a small step back in the short-term in order to take a big step forward in the coming months, that’s OK. What they can’t do is forget how they’ve had to play to withstand the barrage of injuries. It’s also the key to their continued success.
“I think the one thing we can take [from Lowry and Ibaka’s return] for sure is that we know it won’t just be seamless, that we maybe can go into it with the expectations that we’re going to have to massage it a little bit or just be a little bit more vigilant,” Nurse said. “This isn’t going to be, snap your fingers and everything’s hunky-dory. We’ll have to work ’em back in and see how it looks, see how they feel and see how it affects the rest of the rest of the guys.”
“I think we have to fight through it,” said Siakam. “It’s unfortunate. I mean, we have four starters not playing or something like that. That’s definitely tough. I think it’s something we have to adjust to, so when we come back there’s going to be a period of adjustment and understanding our roles and what we are supposed to do. But it helps us to have guys [that can] step up when they are asked to. It shows that we have a really good team, a deep team and we know that we have guys capable of stepping in and playing hard.”