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Scott Stinson: Raptors’ comically ugly win shows learning process has some way to go

Scott Stinson: Raptors’ comically ugly win shows learning process has some way to go
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TORONTO — There are probably not that many lessons that can be learned from the Toronto Raptors’ comically ugly 104-101 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, a game that looked as though it had been played with a basketball that was lightly greased. Perhaps even moderately greased.

Still, there were moments that underscored the work that the Raptors have ahead of them. Barely a minute in, Kawhi Leonard picked off an errant Atlanta pass, then turned and fired a football pass the length of the court in the direction of Kyle Lowry. The guard awkwardly tried to set himself to receive the toss, was taken out by Atlanta’s free safety — sorry, small forward — and ended up in a heap on the sideline. Just like that, there was a clear reminder that Leonard and Lowry were still getting familiar with each other — and also that plays that end up with the latter player, just returning from a back injury, splayed on the floor should definitely be avoided.

Less than a minute after that, after another Hawks turnover on a night when they had twenty-frickin-seven of them, Lowry and Leonard worked the ball back and forth between them, which was good, except the passes kept coming and the shot clock expired, which was bad. It was a Raptors turnover on a night when they had nine-bloody-teen of them. If it felt a little like a preseason game, there was a reason for that: Wednesday’s was the first game with both Lowry and Leonard in the lineup for a month, and only the 22nd of 43 games on the Toronto schedule in which the two All-Stars have shared the court. If this regular season was to be largely about the new-look Raptors getting comfortable with one another, then they remain at the early stages. In dating terms, they haven’t yet met each other’s parents.

Before the game, I asked head coach Nick Nurse if he was worried that the long stretch without his two best players on the floor together would set that learning process back to square one.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think there’s been a lot of growth in a lot of areas. I’m not that concerned about it.” The coach said that Leonard was playing in the flow of Toronto’s offence more now, looking to pass when the defence collapses on him, and so he expected him to be able to find Lowry in those situations. Lowry, in space, with options, usually results in Toronto points, as would unfold a couple of hours later for the game-winning basket, a Serge Ibaka dunk that came from a Lowry pass and began with a Leonard steal.

But before that moment of brilliance, when the 31-12 Raptors were struggling to put away a 12-win Hawks team, I realized that I had asked the wrong question of Nurse. It’s not about whether Lowry and Leonard can get comfortable together over the second half of the season; they are each so smart on the court that they will figure things out. While DeMar DeRozan was the face of this team for so long, Lowry was the guy who so often bailed it out with a timely play that didn’t necessarily show up in the box score; witness the screen/bodycheck that helped set up that Ibaka slam on Wednesday. In Leonard, he now has another teammate with the innate ability to make a key hustle play. Those two will be fine. The real question is how much time it will take before Nurse can get everyone else sorted out. And the answer is: probably most of the remaining 39 regular-season games. And maybe beyond that.

With Danny Green resting on Wednesday night, the Raptors deployed their 14th different starting lineup: Leonard, Lowry, Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. They used 12 different starting combinations all of last season. Nurse has said all along, though, that he planned to try different starters to see what worked and what didn’t, part of his season-long lab experiment. The unexpected part, though, is how much upheaval has taken place in the rest of the lineup. The team has still only been fully healthy for one game this season, and won’t be for weeks yet, with centre Jonas Valanciunas still working his way back from thumb surgery. The injuries have meant too many minutes for backup big man Greg Monroe and a lot of time in the starting lineup for VanVleet, who was formerly the ace of Toronto’s second unit. OG Anunoby has struggled off the bench, although he was excellent on Wednesday night, and Norm Powell has shown flashes of his old self, although he was a mess on Wednesday night, and C.J. Miles has continued to be a shining example of why the next Raptor to be offered the GoDaddy sponsorship should flee, screaming, from the room.

There is a lot for Nurse and his staff to determine, is the point. If they can get consistent bench minutes from Anunoby and Powell at the wing spots, and a healthy Valanciunas, then they can get by even if Miles can’t hit water from a boat. Nurse said before the Hawks contest that he wanted to have Lowry and Leonard on the floor to work on late-game executions, and then his team obliged by being so bad that they still needed to design plays against Atlanta in the final minutes. It worked, sort of. One resulted in a wide-open three attempt for Lowry, one an open three attempt for Leonard. Both missed. Good plays, though. They ended up sealing the game on the Leonard steal and Ibaka dunk, because that’s what good teams do.

Nurse said on the eve of the season that he didn’t care how many games the Raptors won. The first 82 games would be a learning process. Good for him, then, that there remains much to do on that front.

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