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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – It’s not hard to see why Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was so frustrated with his team’s effort, or lack thereof, following last week’s loss to the Miami Heat, a performance he would later deem “unacceptable.”

Not only did he feel like they were finally starting to turn the corner ahead of Wednesday’s setback, with three straight wins and coming off their most complete outing to date in an encouraging victory over the Dallas Mavericks, but he knew they were capable of better.

The way in which they’ve responded is proof that the man may have had a point.

Despite missing key pieces from their lineup, the Raptors have strung together a couple of solid showings since – a 101-81 revenge win over the Heat on Friday and a gritty 107-102 victory over the Indiana Pacers Sunday afternoon, both of them without Kyle Lowry and the latter without Pascal Siakam.

“They played hard, that’s for sure,” Nurse said afterwards. “Gotta really compliment the whole group there for putting in the effort. It’s good to be rewarded for that effort. Took all 48 minutes of work.”

In both games, they set the tone with their hard play and strong defence. In both games, they nearly wasted their efforts after giving up big leads late in the third quarter. But, most importantly, and contrary to some of their early-season losses, in both games they were able to hang in, throw a counter-punch, and make winning plays on both ends of the court.

Appropriately, the biggest plays of Sunday’s contest came on defence. With less than 30 seconds remaining and Indiana trailing by one point, Fred VanVleet tied up Malcolm Brogdon and wrestled the ball from the Pacers point guard. After OG Anunoby hit a pair of free throws to put the Raptors up by three points, Chris Boucher and Stanley Johnson each blocked Domantas Sabonis at the rim to put the game away.

This wasn’t necessarily the Raptors at their best, but it was a far more familiar version than the unrecognizable group we saw through long stretches of their uncharacteristically turbulent 2-8 start to the season. Instead of finding ways to lose, they’re once again finding ways to win.

“I've been lucky to play for a lot of good coaches growing up, and one thing I always was taught was just to be in the right place at the right time and then you'll be able to make a play,” said VanVleet, one of the league’s most underrated defenders, who had 21 points to go along with his three steals. “So just try to be in the right spot, and you let your instincts and your talent and your skill take over and just try to make a play on the ball. That's all I was doing there was just reading the situation and trying to make a play to help us win.”

Although Toronto had hoped to have Lowry back, and he may return for Monday’s rematch against the Pacers, the veteran point guard missed his second straight contest with a toe infection. Meanwhile, Siakam was a late scratch with swelling in his left knee.

Even against a banged up Indiana team that was missing T.J. Warren and the newly acquired Caris LeVert, the Raptors had their work cut out for them without their two all-stars. The Pacers came in with a 9-6 record, and with former Toronto assistant and Nurse disciple Nate Bjorkgren at the helm, these teams know each other well.

However, the Raptors held Brogdon and Sabonis – who were averaging a combined 44.2 points on 51 per cent shooting and 40 per cent from three-point range this season – to just 22 points on 6-of-32 from the field and 1-for-13 from long distance, with VanVleet and Anunoby playing crucial roles in neutralizing Indiana’s dynamic duo.

Anunoby’s elite two-way potential was on full display – bodying up the bigger Sabonis on defence and overpowering him in the paint, while hitting four of his six threes, getting to the free throw line 10 times, and scoring a game-high 30 points. He also recorded five steals before halftime.

They got important contributions from Johnson, who started in place of Siakam, sparingly-used forward DeAndre’ Bembry, and Yuta Watanabe, who continues to impress in his situational role off the bench.

The Raptors are now 4-0 in games that Lowry or Siakam, or both, have missed this season. They’re 3-9 in every other game. In no way should that make you question those players or their value to the team, but it does speak to how well this club seems to play when they’re shorthanded.

That’s nothing new, of course. In the 22 games Kawhi Leonard missed during the championship season, most of them for load management, the Raptors went 17-5. Last year, they were 12-2 without Lowry, 13-5 without VanVleet, and 13-4 without Serge Ibaka. They played most of the 2019-20 campaign with key players in and out of the lineup due to injury, and they finished it with the second-best record in the NBA.

There’s a couple prevailing theories. For one, it forces Nurse to look further down his roster and turn to guys he wouldn’t have otherwise, and it gives those players an opportunity to step up and prove themselves. Last season, that helped the coaching staff unearth some important pieces off the bench, and realize they had more depth than initially thought. Maybe it will do the same this year, with players like Watanabe and Bembry taking advantage of the minutes they’ve gotten in the absence of the regulars.

“It's just a funny dynamic where some of your best players are out and there's just more opportunity for other guys,” said VanVleet. “Like an OG, the ball was finding him, he was in positions he probably wouldn't be in if we had our full team. So it's just a weird dynamic sometimes. Norman [Powell] usually plays well when we've got guys out. It's just more opportunity to go around, and there's a focus, there's much more focus. Like, it's less stuff to juggle, it's less egos, it's less shots that gotta get distributed. So it's just a different dynamic.”

There’s another point that’s impossible to ignore. When the Raptors have less talent on the floor, they seem to understand that they need to play with more focus, more toughness and, in most cases, more effort. On one hand, it’s a commendable quality and explains why this team has shown so much resiliency over the years. On the other, it gives further credence to Nurse’s recent frustration.

If his team can play that hard undermanned, why can’t they do it consistently when they’re at full strength? It’s one of the biggest things holding them back right now.

Still, they seem to be headed in the right direction. Since starting the season 2-8, tied for the worst record in the NBA, they’ve won five of their last six contests and are back into the mix in the Eastern Conference. With Sunday’s victory, they pulled within two games of fourth place.

“Speaking of the last two games, I think it was just good timing that we needed to play hard,” VanVleet said. “We don't have a choice but to play hard with the guys we got out there right now. Feels like we're turning a corner a little bit and we've gotta be able to keep it up.”