MILWAUKEE—It was just one game, but of course nothing is just one game. To get to where the Toronto Raptors are, most of the mountain has to have been climbed already. You can reduce the seven-month burden with load management, as the phrase goes. You can stop practising. The Raptors still practise once in a while, sure. But they may not again.
This is partly because Toronto is loading minutes on their main players like minutes are an all-you-can-carry shopping spree. And they are doing this because, well, somebody’s got to play.
“The season’s a gruelling season,” said point guard Kyle Lowry, after his 40-minute, 30-point performance in Toronto’s 108-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final. “We get paid a lot of money to do this, we get paid to prepare ourselves for these types of moments, and we get paid to prepare to be ready, and to play the best we can no matter what.
“But that being said, there are a lot of minutes out there that we’re playing, there is some fatigue.”
The Raptors have sports science and many therapies and a very fancy hotel. Kawhi Leonard only played 60 games and Lowry only played 65 and Pascal Siakam can run for days, weeks, years maybe. Danny Green might sometimes look old, and Marc Gasol too, but their minutes were limited this season, as were Serge Ibaka’s. Toronto played the long game to a fault this season, so everyone would be fresh when it mattered.
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The only problem is we have now listed all six players the Raptors are currently using with any regularity. In their eight games since the start of the second round, Kawhi has averaged 40 minutes per game, Lowry 38.9, Siakam 35.6, the 34-year-old Gasol 35.3, and Green 33.3. Ibaka is at a mere 21.4. That is all but 36 of the minutes available per game, and those 36 minutes have been filled by the battered confidence of Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell. They combined for 23 minutes in Game 1. And in this series, the games are every other day.
Those have been hard minutes, too, built on a defence that has to carry Toronto when the offence falters, which means working at a very high level of effort, which means … well, maybe that’s a part of why Toronto is missing so many open shots. Which, as coach Nick Nurse keeps saying, causes problems for the defence. Oh.
It’s not everything. Honestly, Siakam is a number two option who went from dealing with the insurmountable Godzilla defence of Joel Embiid to the world-encircling Hydra defence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and until he hits open corner threes he’s dealing with two of the greatest, most athletic defenders in the game.
But fatigue is something. Three Raptors scored in the second half, and the only non-Kawhi or Kyle field goal after halftime was Siakam’s pull-up three at the end of the third quarter. Non-Kyle Raptors went 0-for-15 in the fourth quarter. There are questions of ball movement, of confidence, of scheme, of their top two scorers not being natural creators and their two most unselfish players sometimes not wanting to shoot.
And they still nearly won, until fragmenting at the end. The Raptors were good. There just weren’t enough of them.
“I mean, (the minute load) wears on you, but we are a young team,” said the 31-year-old Green of a team with a 34-year-old centre, a 33-year-old point guard and a small forward whose regular-season minutes were watched as carefully as a baby bird. “This is the Eastern Conference finals. You have to get after it.”
That last part is inarguable. Meanwhile, Milwaukee has two players averaging more than 30 minutes per game since the start of the second round, and they are Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo at 35.2 and 34.5 per game, respectively, since the start of the second round. And they’ve played two fewer games.
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Also, they don’t bleed points without Giannis, because they have depth the Raptors can only dream of right now. He was a plus-8 in 37 minutes, so the Bucks were even without him; Kawhi was minus-4 in 42, so the Raptors lost another four with their star on the bench. Ibaka has been a weather vane for this team, and may get more minutes. But VanVleet’s not making shots, and Norm is unreliable at the other end.
The Bucks, meanwhile, played four bench players a combined 78 minutes. Toronto’s three-bench-player lineup at the start of the fourth bled points again, even if coach Nick Nurse doesn’t think it was their fault. The Ibaka-Gasol lineup wasn’t terrific, either.
But he has to play them. He has to play Ibaka because he needs a sixth man. Seventh? Well, that would be a luxury.
“We’re going to play that (three-man bench) lineup,” said Nurse. “We’re going to play Serge and Marc together. We’ve just got to make sure that we get them a little more comfortable in what they’re doing, both offensively and defensively, and I think there’s some very specifically defined roles that we can find for them to do that.”
Trivia: The biggest four-faced clock in the world is in Milwaukee. It doesn’t say whether Toronto’s time is running out.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
Published at Fri, 17 May 2019 02:34:05 +0000