Raptors have been finding their rhythm, with or without their head coach

Raptors have been finding their rhythm, with or without their head coach
After referees ejected him from Friday night’s dramatic win over the San Antonio Spurs, but before Nick Nurse actually left the court, the Raptors head coach paused to send last-minute instructions to assistant coaches Adrian Griffin and Nate Bjorkgren.

The advice was simple: Share the burden and work together.

“They did great,” Nurse said. “As a head coach I would hope that my guys know what to do if they ever get the opportunity.”

That development move put the Raptors in a difficult position. They were missing their head coach entering the late phases of a high-leverage game, with a squad still working to integrate newcomers like Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin. But the team rebounded for a 120-117 win in DeMar DeRozan’s emotionally charged return to Toronto, and the Raptors enter Sunday’s game against the Orlando Magic looking to further ingrain the continuity that has buoyed a seven-game win streak.

Shooting guard Danny Green says it helps when the team’s newest pieces are also NBA veterans with high hoops IQ.

“It’s easier for them to work themselves in (with) the fact that they’re experienced,” Green said. “J-Lin and Marc are very smart basketball players, and they’ve got some years in this league. They’re very experienced and they understand the game. It’s easier for them to adapt and adjust to what we’re doing.”

Three weeks ago, the Raptors dropped a home game to the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks, and Nurse spent the next two days drilling his team on positive on-court habits that had lapsed. Since then, the team has won seven straight games by an average margin of 9.6 points. Over that span, the Raptors have averaged 119.9 points per game, compared with 114.4 for the season.

Their rediscovered offensive rhythm survived the all-star break, as evidenced by their 120-point performance against a Spurs team that surrenders fewer than 112 points per game on average. Sunday they’ll face an even stiffer defence — Orlando ranks sixth in points-against, at 106.9 per game.

The Magic’s visit also marks the midpoint in a four-game homestand that includes a pair of prime-time showdowns on U.S. cable TV — Wednesday against Boston and Friday versus Portland, with both games occupying the 8 p.m. time slot U.S. broadcasters prefer.

Orlando, meanwhile, enters Sunday ranked 10th in the NBA’s Eastern Conference and eager to rebound from a tough loss Friday. The Magic had racked up five straight wins before the all-star break, then restarted their season with a 110-109 home loss to Chicago. An obviously rusty Magic made just 13 of 24 foul shots.

“That’s more a product of … not playing for eight days,” Magic head coach Steve Clifford told The Orlando Sentinel on Friday night. “We’re not going to shoot 54 per cent from the line many nights. If we do, we’re in trouble.”

Sunday marks another opportunity for the Raptors to build on the good habits they’ve been practising since their mid-winter reset. Earlier in February, Green said it wasn’t too early for the Raptors to adopt a playoff mentality, and now he says it’s not too late in the season to perfect fundamentals and on-court communication.

“You can make strides … within a week, depending on how well you communicate,” Green said. “Focus, lock in … (you need) everybody getting on the same page. That can happen within a week or two. To keep it consistent is hard to do, but it’s never too late to get that done.”
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