Dave Feschuk: Raptors can’t tell their playoff rotation without a program

Dave Feschuk: Raptors can’t tell their playoff rotation without a program
The most promising playoff run in Raptors history will begin in a little more than three weeks. And if you’re head coach Nick Nurse, you’ve probably spent a few minutes contemplating your optimal rotation.

Begin with the starting five. Kyle Lowry, assuming he’ll be long recovered from Monday’s ankle tweak against the Knicks, is a no-brainer as your longest-serving, offence-triggering mainstay. Ditto Kawhi Leonard, who’ll be load-managed and readied by the best science available. Matchups can vary, but on most nights you probably also lean toward Pascal Siakam, Danny Green and Marc Gasol to round out the first five. Because on paper, that’s arguably your best lineup.

There’s a factor, mind you, that gives you at least a nanosecond of pause: Paper’s great. But those five humans have coexisted on a basketball court for a grand total of 62 minutes this season, according to numbers at There are pieces of ankle tape with which Lowry has become better acquainted.

And even if you swap out Gasol, a trade-deadline acquisition, for Serge Ibaka, who’s been around all season, that quintet of Lowry, Leonard, Siakam, Green and Ibaka has only found itself on the floor together in less than half of the Raptors’ 71 games. If the regular season is supposed to be a rehearsal for the real thing, let’s just say Toronto is probably a few run-throughs short.

The first-round opponent remains unknown. If the 16-team bracket started Tuesday it would have been Brooklyn. There’s a chance it turns out to be Miami, or even Detroit and Dwane Casey. But you can make the case that the Raptors’ real first-round challenger will be unfamiliarity.

Lowry, who was listed Tuesday as “questionable” for Wednesday night’s game in Oklahoma City, has called the lack of time with a full complement of players “super frustrating for our team.”

“But we’ve done a great job handling everything and playing through the injuries and the rest games, and trying to keep everyone together,” Lowry said.

To that end the coming two games against Oklahoma City, the second half of which goes Friday in Toronto, were supposed to be an important test run against a rare playoff-bound opponent on the remaining schedule. Wednesday, after all, figured to see Leonard back in the lineup after he was held out of Monday’s win over the Knicks. It happens to coincide with what’s expected to be Ibaka’s first game back from his three-game suspension for punch-tossing.

“I think by the end of this week we are gonna finally get our entire team on the floor,” Nurse said before Monday’s game.

But as Nurse noted after Monday’s win over the Knicks, when Lowry’s health became the latest focal point of concern, the coach should have knocked on wood. Lowry may or may not be available now. And really, given the way this season has gone, who’s surprised?

And how much togetherness is actually required? There was a time when championship teams stayed together for a long, slow climb up the mountain toward the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Pat Riley, the legendary coach of championship teams with the Lakers and Heat, called it the Principle of Perfect Painful Progression. It required patience. And it required personnel continuity, year after year after year.

Toronto tried that approach with teams built around Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. It brought unprecedented success to a once-fallow basketball outpost. But when two wins in the 2016 Eastern Conference final amounted to the pinnacle of the progression, a shifting of gears was in order.

Now, with the NBA on the precipice of its first post-season in 13 years without LeBron James, the Raptors come into the championship tournament without presupposed limits. There’s a sense they’ve got a card or two up their sleeve. If a team can be this good to this point, surely it’s possessed of another gear as yet unleashed. The thing is, nobody’s seen it — or, at least, nobody’s seen it in anything but glimpses.

That might not be a wholly good thing. Some might call it alarming that Toronto’s three best players — Leonard, Lowry and Siakam — have been on the court together in just 37 of Toronto’s 71 games this season. Then again, when Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors en route to the 2017 NBA title, the trio of Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson only played together in 57 regular-season games in the lead-up to their title run, and that went okay.

This team hasn’t played enough with everyone together, but there’s no shortage of big-game playing experience. That’s why team president Masai Ujiri acquired Leonard and Green, who played on a championship team in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs. That’s why the move was made to pick up Gasol, he of the 59 career playoff games and a couple of Olympic silver medals. That’s why Ibaka is on board, veteran that he is of the NBA final and 109 playoff matches. With that much experience in the rotation, how much fine-tuning is really required?

“All we need is a couple games on the floor together, we’ll be all right,” Lowry said this week.

Still, with just 11 regular-season contests to go until the real stuff begins, the injuries and late-season additions will likely leave Nurse experimenting into the post-season’s first round.

“I m okay with it now. I think we re still searching. I just think it s hard to call,” Nurse said Monday, speaking of the thinking that’s gone into this ultimate playoff rotation. “I think you re probably thinking nine (players) once you get to the playoffs, but you just don t know what happens. A big picks up a couple early fouls or a guard does, it just may throw somebody else into it.”

In other words, some coaches build cohesiveness slowly over seasons. Nurse has been put in a position to make it up as he goes along. That should make the Raptors’ most promising playoff run in history both exciting and surprising. As for whether it’ll be successful, a coach can only knock on wood.
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