TORONTO – Over the course of a long 82-game season, adversity is inevitable.
It’ll find you in some form or another; it’s only a matter of time. What makes, or in some cases breaks, a team is how well equipped they are to navigate those bumps in the road.
If you look back at the Raptors’ last successful season – their valiant championship defence in 2019-20 – there was a pivotal stretch early in that campaign.
They were in Los Angeles getting set to face the Lakers and Clippers on back-to-back nights in the middle of a tough November road swing. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green had left in free agency over the summer. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka had just gone down with injuries. Nick Nurse was reluctant to trust his very young second unit.
It was on that trip – and in an unexpected road win over the Lakers, in particular – that Nurse and his club realized they had more depth than they initially thought. A group of reserves that included Chris Boucher, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis emerged and began to establish themselves as key rotation pieces for that team.
In hindsight, it turned out to be a crucial, season-defining moment. It was a blessing in disguise. With injury comes opportunity and, to their credit, those guys took full advantage of the opportunity.
On the other side of the coin, look at how last season unfolded. The 2020-21 Raptors were displaced in Tampa; they faced a myriad of injuries to key players and a mid-season COVID outbreak before deciding to scale back minutes for their veterans late in the campaign.
There was no shortage of adversity, or opportunity. The biggest problem, and the biggest difference from the year prior, was that they didn’t have the depth to withstand all those punches. Stanley Johnson had his moments here and there, Yuta Watanabe was a pleasant surprise before getting hurt, and Malachi Flynn flashed towards the end of the season. However, they couldn’t seem to cobble together a group of guys that were ready and able to step up and contribute consistently.
Naturally, that brings us to where the Raptors find themselves now. Could this be a similar make or break point of the season?
With a record of 9-12, they’re more than a quarter of the way through, and injuries have already hit hard.
Pascal Siakam missed 11 of the team’s first 13 games recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. As he was working his way back, OG Anunoby went down with a hip pointer that has now cost him six straight games. Precious Achiuwa missed time with a shoulder injury, then just as he came back Khem Birch’s lingering knee swelling flared up. Now breakout guard Gary Trent Jr. is out with a bruised calf, and sparingly used veteran Goran Dragic has been excused from the team indefinitely.
The club’s three-best players – Siakam, Anunoby and Fred VanVleet – have only shared the court in three games this season. The two centres on the roster, Birch and Achiuwa, have played 12 games together. The only Raptors players that have appeared in all 21 games are journeyman Svi Mykhailiuk and rookie second-rounder Dalano Banton. They’ve yet to have their entire rotation available, and it could be a while before they’re finally back to full strength.
While Anunoby was making progress last week and got in a limited practice session over the weekend, news on his hip ailment has been less optimistic over the last couple days. His recovery has “hit a wall,” according to Nurse, and he’s not healing as the team had hoped. With Anunoby, Trent Jr. and Birch out of the lineup, the Raptors are missing more than 40 points per game, as well as three of their most important defenders, and there’s no timetable for their returns.
Having lost nine of their last 12 games, the Raptors are desperate to find a player, or players, who can give them a spark and take some of the pressure off VanVleet and the starters, who are carrying gigantic workloads.
So far, the supporting cast has underperformed. Toronto is last in the NBA in bench scoring. They’ve been outscored by opposing reserves in 15 of their 21 games, and by a total of 187 this season, including a 74-28 margin over the last two contests. Some of that is the result of injuries thinning out an already short bench, but it also speaks to the inconsistency and inexperience of that group.
“We don’t have much choice,” Nurse said following another long film and practice session on Monday. “They gotta get out there and they gotta play and they gotta figure it out, and yeah, it probably should build some character on the way. They’re gonna be in there and we’re counting on them to deliver.”
Nurse seemed to be settling into a rotation earlier this month, but Siakam’s return and the subsequent injuries have shaken things up again.
“[On] any team, if [somebody gets] hurt, it’s next man up,” Mykhailiuk said. “Either it’s me or other guys, it doesn’t matter, it’s supposed to be everybody’s mentality. It’s not really seeing opportunity, it’s helping my team win, all I’m trying to do is win and I feel like everybody here is trying to win. For me, if somebody gets hurt I feel like I gotta go step up and do it to the best of my abilities.”
Mykhailiuk got the start in place of Trent Jr. in Sunday’s loss to Boston. He scored 12 points, but needed 14 shots to do it and is shooting just 35 per cent over the last seven games. Banton, a training camp and early-season standout, has tailed off a bit in recent weeks and only logged three minutes against the Celtics. Flynn’s minutes have been up and down, as has his production.
Meanwhile, Boucher has been the biggest disappointment of the group. Coming off a breakout season, the big man is averaging 5.9 points, down from 13.6 a year ago. His minutes have been trending downward lately, and Nurse sent the 28-year-old a strong message on Sunday, making him a healthy scratch against the Celtics, in favour of Isaac Bonga and two-way forward Justin Champagnie.
That message is clear, and isn’t just directed at Boucher. The spark that Nurse is looking for doesn’t need to come on the offensive end. It’s about being consistent everywhere else. If they’re going to stay on the floor long enough to take advantage of the opportunity that’s right in front of them, that’s how they’ll need to do it.
“We’re striving for a work rate and a focus rate that needs to be more consistent, and we haven’t had that from some of the guys,” said Nurse. “Those guys have to come in with the mindset of bringing everything they’ve got. There’s just no time to ease into the game, there’s no time to play it a little cool, there’s no time to not give maximum effort the whole time they’re in there, and that’s what we’re striving for right now all the way through the bench.”
“It’s not pressure to make shots, it’s pressure to go out there and just lose yourself in the hard play of the game and competing. And if some shots come your way and you stick ‘em? Man, awesome, you’re going to have a great game. But it’s making sure that whatever it is you do individually, you’re ready to execute our team stuff first and to do it really hard as an individual.”
Once again, injuries have forced Nurse’s hand. Whether he likes it or not, he’s had to look down his bench and search for answers. What he finds won’t just determine if they’re able to tread water while guys are out, it could also set the tone for the rest of the season.