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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Generally, Nick Nurse likes to wait until the 20-game mark before making any overarching conclusions about his team and what it’s capable of, but you can understand if he needs a bit more evaluation time this season.

Over the 10-game stretch that followed Pascal Siakam’s groin strain earlier this month, 10 different Raptors players – or two-thirds of their regular roster – missed at least one contest due to injury, illness, or both.

Toronto played seven straight games without at least two rotation players, six straight games without at least three rotation players, five straight games without at least four rotation players, and three straight games without at least five rotation players.

Monday was notable, not just because it denoted the quarter point of the season, but because it was the first time they had their five-best players available since October 28 – the sixth game of the 2022-23 NBA campaign. With Siakam returning from his three-week absence and Scottie Barnes back after a knee injury cost him a couple games, the Raptors finally looked whole again, or closer to it than they’ve been in a while.

They still have a lot to learn about themselves over the remaining 62 games, but Nurse has seen enough to feel encouraged about who they are and what they can become, provided good health.

“We’ve looked like we can be pretty good,” Nurse said just before his club improved to 11-9 with a decisive 100-88 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. “We need to get these health issues behind us so we can grow a little bit from where we [are]… That’s what I look forward to. Your team needs to improve during the season to get to where it can go. We haven’t really been able to get that part of the train rolling yet.”

“It felt like the first game of the season all over again, it was a little déjà vu there,” said Fred VanVleet, noting that they also opened the campaign at home against the Cavs nearly six weeks prior. “It was good to have some familiar faces back. It’s always a learning process, just trying to figure out who you’re going to be as a team.”

Keeping with the opening-night vibes, Nurse was in full mad scientist mode, tinkering with his rotation, seeing what might work and what may not. The most notable and surprising change came in the starting lineup, where Juancho Hernangomez and Thad Young replaced Barnes and the struggling Gary Trent Jr.

Using their 11th different starting unit of the season, tied with the Lakers for most in the league, the Raptors took an early lead thanks in large part to Siakam, who picked up where he left off.

The All-NBA forward scored his team’s first two buckets, the first of which came on a spin move and floater in the lane. All night long, he got to his spots with ease and made plays for teammates, thwarting Cleveland’s ill-conceived plan to guard him straight up with the athletically inferior Dean Wade.

After knocking down a corner-three early in the second quarter Siakam posted up Cedi Osman, waited for the double to come, passed out of it, got the ball back from VanVleet and then patiently drilled a step-back jumper. In the third, he waited for the double again, this time skipping a bounce pass along the baseline and finding Young, who converted the layup and drew a foul.

He put on a clinic, and not to oversimplify things, but the Raptors are a different team when their best player and leading scorer is on the floor.

“The things he brings to the game, it’s amazing to see,” Barnes said of Siakam, who finished with an efficient 18 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes. “Watching Pascal play is like, wow, damn. Every move he makes, the step backs, the spin moves, double spin moves, you know it’s coming but still, bang. It’s great to have him back out there.”

Without him for almost half of these first 20 games, this Raptors team is hard to get a good read on. The underlying numbers are solid, albeit a bit unusual. Coming into Monday’s game, they ranked 13th in offence, despite ranking 27th in field goal percentage and 25th in three-point shooting. They were 10th in defence despite allowing opponents to hit 48 per cent of their shots.

But, more often than not, their relentless pursuit of securing extra possessions – an identity that they established late last season – has made up for poor shooting, defensive lapses and injured stars. Toronto leads the league in offensive rebounding and forcing turnovers. As a result, they attempt nearly 10 more shots than their opponent on a per game basis.

This is how the Raptors want to play, regardless of who’s in or out of the lineup, but they’re hoping that getting Siakam back will make them less reliant on winning the possession battle every night. Prior to Siakam’s injury, Toronto was shooting 38 per cent from long distance. Without him, the team hit just 28 per cent of its three-point attempts. Some regression was to be expected, and their slumping shooters haven’t helped, but the absence of Siakam and his ability to get in the paint, suck in the defence and generate good looks for his teammates was surely a factor.

For only the second time all season, the Raptors attempted fewer shots than their opponent on Monday night. However, they hit 12 of their 28 threes, with Siakam assisting on a couple of them and his presence creating several others.

While the Cavs were on the second night of a back-to-back and missing some key pieces themselves, including all-star centre Jarrett Allen, Toronto held Donovan Mitchell to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting and a very good Cleveland team to 7-of-38 from three-point range.

“We didn’t have our normal team and we were losing games we felt like we should win,” Siakam said. That will happen. You just have to stay positive, continue to work and just find our rhythm. Having everyone back just feels good. The bench just feels full. Sometimes you would watch the bench and there was nobody on the bench. That felt depressing by itself. We are going to get on a run and as long as we stay together and play together, we’re going to be OK.”

Perhaps it was because we got used to seeing them play without a fraction of their roster, or maybe it was because of how they staggered minutes with a couple starters coming off the bench, but the Raptors had an embarrassment of riches when it came to talent on the floor. Now that they’re getting healthier, it’s easier to see some of those silver linings that can come with injuries.

O.G. Anunoby took his game to another level as the de facto No. 1 option these past few weeks, and it carried over even with Siakam back in the lineup, scoring a team-leading 20 points on 8-of-13. Then, Young and Hernangomez, who were barely playing early in the season, have emerged as viable depth pieces, whether they continue to start or return to the bench.

Trent and Barnes both found out they would be coming off the bench earlier in the day. With a couple guys coming back, including Barnes, and a few more still searching for their rhythm, including Trent, Nurse wanted to split them up between units, hence the lineup change.

Barnes had started the first 90 regular-season games of his career and didn’t seem thrilled about his demotion, though it’ll likely be temporary. The bigger question for Nurse, who was non-committal when asked about what his first unit will look like moving forward, is whether Trent might be best suited as a reserve.

Coming in shooting two for his last 22 from beyond the arc, Trent knocked down his first three-point attempts shortly after checking into the game. While he hadn’t come off the bench since opening night of last season, he responded, scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 26 minutes.

The Raptors may not be at full strength yet – they’re still two or three weeks away from having a clearer picture of when Precious Achiuwa might be able to return from his sprained ankle, and Otto Porter Jr. just got out of the walking boot that he was wearing to protect a dislocated toe – but suddenly, Nurse has options to work with. After treading water for the first quarter of the season, that’s not a bad place to be.

“We've got a little bit of everything, which is good,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got to figure out how we're going to put that together to be the best version of what we are, whatever that is. We're in a good spot. I like our team. I like where we're at. I like where we're headed. It's probably time to start putting together some nice stretches of basketball here going forward.”