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10 things: Nick Nurse’s hands are tied with the Raptors bench

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Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 114-97 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

One — The Raptors ran out of gas at the end of a long road trip. They were sharp in the first quarter, playing a free-flowing offence that earned them an early lead, but once the Pacers ramped up their physicality, it was all over.

The Raptors were missing three rotation players from their frontcourt, they lost Gary Trent Jr. to an injury, Scottie Barnes had to get his thumb re-taped, and there just wasn’t enough energy collectively to mount a credible comeback against a Pacers team that was looking to avenge their two previous losses.

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Two — Indiana got whatever they wanted around the basket. The Raptors allowed the Pacers to score 60 points in the paint and were out-rebounded 53-41. Domantas Sabonis led the charge with 23 points and 18 rebounds, seven of which were on the offensive end.

The Raptors had played Sabonis well in recent meetings, but they failed on the one fundamental key to guarding any post player, which is to push him out and force him to catch it at the elbows rather than at the basket. The Raptors found some success with a zone defence at times, but the Pacers punctured that coverage by crashing the glass. And not to belabour the point, but the Raptors just didn’t have the bodies or the energy to meet the challenge tonight.

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Three — The main positive from this game was the play of Scottie Barnes. The rookie feasted in the third quarter, scoring 11 of his 17 points, and continues to show flashes that leave you thirsting for more.

He took Sabonis out for a ride on the perimeter, swaying him from left to right on his crossover, before shifting him aside and getting to the basket for an and-one. Barnes came off a pick-and-roll against an elite shot blocker in Myles Turner, and caught him by surprise with a flat-footed floater. He went end-to-end and forced the Pacers to hack him at the basket. Barnes also worked a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing sequence with Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam which ended with him scoring an easy layup off a cut.

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The only wish is that Barnes would be as aggressive from the start rather than taking over in third quarters, which is typically when he is most insistent.

Four — Barnes’ lingering thumb injury is a worry. He said it was nothing more than a stinger, but Barnes looked to be in a lot of pain when he checked out of the game in the first half after being raked across the hands by Justin Holiday.

It was an innocent play, the type that happens dozens of times in any game, and it will just be an ongoing situation to be managed between Barnes and the medical staff. The only recourse for a sprained thumb is rest, but if Barnes is okay playing through pain, the Raptors will keep rolling him out.

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Five — OG Anunoby’s absence was huge. He is usually the Raptors’ best choice to bang with Sabonis down low, and Anunoby’s scoring would have relieved the pressure on VanVleet and Siakam, who cooled off after a nice start.

Anunoby is nearing a return after missing the last week due to a hip pointer, and he will slot right back in as the Raptors’ best defender while also being a primary option offensively. Anunoby’s size and skillset allows the Raptors to be flexible in their lineups, and without him, they have often looked too small to succeed in their coverages.

Six — The two-man game between VanVleet and Siakam is always a welcome sight. Having entered the league together in 2016, the two have an intuitive sense for where each other is positioned, and that was on display in the first quarter, where VanVleet found Siakam relocating for a jumper, then Siakam returned the favour by feeding VanVleet.

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It’s odd that their two-man game has not been as much of a focus this season in the Raptors’ offence, as both players are usually asked to create on their own, but they’re clearly most effective when working in tandem.

Seven — Another concern to watch for is the health of Trent Jr., who left the game due to calf tightness. Trent Jr. was flowing with the second unit in the second quarter, but got his feet tangled up on a cut along the baseline by Caris LeVert. He was holding and massaging it throughout the game, and it was clearly affecting him, as his shots were erratic and nowhere near the usual touch that he puts on his jumper.

Trent Jr. had been one of two players all season to appear in every game, and if he is out of the lineup, the Raptors would be even more deficient in shooting than they already are. One suggestion would be to try Anunoby at shooting guard rather than leaning more heavily on Svi Mykhailiuk, who is too much of a defensive liability to be entrusted with more than bench minutes.

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Eight — Trent Jr.’s absence thrust Siakam into the role of leading the bench and it didn’t work. Siakam had one strong drive where he finished an and-one through contact, but otherwise he struggled to find space.

Siakam mostly tries to twist and turn his way into a shot at the basket, but there was simply no space as the Pacers helped off every other player to ensure that a second defender was swiping at the ball as Siakam attacked, which is why he committed a turnover and tossed up a wildly contested fadeaway while the Pacers bumped their lead to 13 points before Nurse begrudgingly brought his starters back in for a comeback bid that never was.

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Nine — Nurse’s hands are tied with the bench. The starting lineup has changed consistently due to injuries, yet almost every iteration works.

But whenever Nurse introduces two or more reserves, his team’s level drops. So his options are to play the starters together as much as possible, to build a lead and hope his reserves can hold it, or he can play his starters together less and rely on mixed lineups that may or may not even get him a lead in the first place.

So far, Nurse has leaned into the strategy of having one starter carry the second unit, but that feels unsustainable. It’s essentially isolation plays every trip down, and it’s too predictable. Ultimately, it’s on the reserves to develop some chemistry with one another and to perform. The Raptors’ entire bench was matched in scoring by Kelan Martin, and with all due respect, that’s just embarrassing.

Ten — The bench looked much stronger at the outset of the season, but two main pieces have completely flopped. Goran Dragic is the most experienced and likely the best player not in the starting five, but he has only seen the floor once in the last month as there seems to be a tacit understanding that he will keep sitting until the Raptors find a suitable trade. The other piece should have been Chris Boucher, who was very productive last season, except he’s completely lost his way and has lost Nurse’s trust due to his boneheaded mistakes on the defensive end.

In an ideal scenario, those two would give you twenty points between them, but neither one will see the floor if everyone is healthy.

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