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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – It’s been a while since the Raptors were healthy enough for head coach Nick Nurse to have tough lineup decisions to make.

After getting Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell back from injury on Sunday, Marc Gasol is expected to make his return in Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

Although Fred VanVleet remains out indefinitely with a hamstring strain, this is the closest Toronto has been to full strength since those three players went down in the same game – Dec. 18 in Detroit – nearly a month ago. That will be a boon for the Raptors, one of the NBA’s most banged up teams this season, but it challenges Nurse to reintegrate key pieces into the rotation while also finding time and optimal roles for the guys who stepped up in their absence.

While Siakam and Powell returned to the starting unit – albeit under a minute restriction – in Sunday’s loss to San Antonio, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gasol eased back in off the bench. 

Without Gasol, who missed 12 games due to hamstring strain, Serge Ibaka has blossomed as the team’s starting centre, arguably playing the best basketball of his 11-year career. Over that stretch, the 30-year-old averaged 18.1 points and 10.3 rebounds on 54 per cent shooting and 44 per cent from three-point range. He’s recorded double-doubles in a personal-best eight straight contests.

The two centres platooned in the starting lineup for a few weeks after Gasol was acquired from Memphis at the trade deadline last February. Gasol eventually ran away with the job, starting 66 straight games – including the playoffs – before getting hurt last month. Admittedly, coming off the bench was an adjustment for Ibaka – who had been a starter for most of his career – but he bought in and embraced the new role for the betterment of the team.

It wouldn’t be a permanent solution, but alternating those roles and having Gasol back up Ibaka for the time being could make sense in the short term. Not only does it help Nurse monitor Gasol’s minutes until he’s back to full speed – which he’s said he’d like to do with each of the injured players – but it rewards Ibaka for his strong play while also riding the hot hand at the position.

Keeping the first unit fluid is something Nurse hopes to do more of once his team gets healthier. As he likes to point out, you never know what lineup a matchup will call for in the playoffs, and they want to be ready for anything. That’s the precedent he set last season, when he used 22 different starting lineups, so tinkering with the rotation again isn’t likely to ruffle feathers like it might in other organizations.

“I think Coach Nurse has done a phenomenal job setting the tone for our team and we're a very unselfish team,” said assistant Adrian Griffin. “These guys make sacrifices for each other. We have a luxury of having two awesome bigs. It'll be up to Coach Nurse to decide who he rolls out there, but we're confident with whoever, whichever one starts.”

As good as Ibaka has been this past month, the Raptors have certainly missed Gasol and what he brings. The great thing about that one-two punch is that they’re very different, yet highly effective big men.

Ibaka gives you more scoring, especially from mid-range and around the basket, and has developed great chemistry with Kyle Lowry in the pick-and-roll (and pick-and-pop). He’s a more mobile defender than Gasol, which comes in handy against teams that play small, and is also a superior shot blocker.

While the team would probably like Gasol to be more selfish in looking for his shot, he’s one of the best passing big men to ever play the game and serves as the hub of the offence. Defensively, he’s arguably Toronto’s most important player. At 34, he’s not the quickest or most athletic – although he never was – but the former Defensive Player of the Year winner gets it done with his smarts, size and physicality. Few think and see the game like Gasol.

“He knows the game,” Griffin said. “He knows the game like the back of his hand. His game is predicated on involving others and he's not going out there looking to score 30 points. He's out there to facilitate, run the offence [and] take the shot when it presents itself. He's a tremendous team player.”

“That’ll be great to have those two,” Siakam said. “Obviously you need Marc back out there and obviously Serge has been playing unbelievable the whole time with all the injuries. He’s been great. Having those two guys coming in and out is a nightmare for the other team.”

There’s almost always going to be an adjustment period when bringing prominent players back from injury, especially when the team was playing so well without them. First, the returning players have to get their rhythm and conditioning back. Then, everybody else has to adapt around them.

The Raptors went through it when Lowry and Ibaka returned from their injuries last month, losing three games in a row and four of five before those two started to look like themselves again.

The same will likely apply to Siakam, who got off to a hot start in his return on Sunday, knocking down five of six shots and scoring 12 first-quarter points, before hitting the wall (three points on 1-of-11 shooting the rest of the game) once the adrenaline wore off.

“It’s hard not being able to play,” Siakam. “You can do whatever work you can do off the court, but it’s different than playing – the game speed, not being able to get your legs under you. That first [stint], I played like seven or eight minutes, and after that it just went downhill. That’s kind of expected after not playing for that long. It’s my first time [coming back from a significant injury]. I’m not used to that. It’s gonna take a little bit.”

As a ground-bound player who is less reliant on speed and athleticism, it may not take Gasol as long to work his way back. If anything, his injury could end up being a blessing in disguise.

Gasol will turn 35 later this month, and after playing a full year of basketball – winning his first NBA championship with the Raptors, followed immediately by a FIBA World Cup title run with Spain – a little down time couldn’t hurt. In addition to the hamstring injury, Gasol admitted he had been battling a few other ailments. Getting nearly a month of forced rest could pay dividends late in the season.

“Obviously, in season when you are out and you’re team goes and wins a couple, loses a couple, tries to find that consistency, it’s always hard,” Gasol said. “You want to be about there with your guys. You want to help any way possible. It’s frustrating when you are not out there. Obviously you try to make the best possible [out of any situation]. I’d rather be playing than sitting, but sitting obviously should help.”​

Toronto's return to full strength in the front court also means that Chris Boucher, who's done an admirably job filling in this season, reprises his role as the team's fourth big behind Siakam, Gasol and Ibaka. His usage will almost certainly be sporadic going forward, but he's played well enough to earn situational minutes when the matchup or game script call for his brand of energy.