Raptors find success with small-ball lineup, but Lowry injury muddles plans

The Toronto Raptors don’t have a true centre they can rely on, so it seems that they’re going to try and get by without playing one much at all for a few games and see what happens.

That was Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s strategy when it came time to submit his starting lineup before the tip for their game against the Milwaukee Bucks in Milwaukee Tuesday night, the first of a two-game mini-series that concludes Thursday.

With OG Anunoby back after a 10-game absence due to a calf injury Nurse decided he didn’t want to sit Norman Powell, who has been brilliant on 14 starts so far this year.

His solution was to sit big man Aron Baynes — early on at least — and play Pascal Siakam in a lineup that was long on skill and short on traditionally defined positions or size.

Given the Raptors came into the game 28th in defensive rebounding and have routinely had opposing big men — including the Bucks’ Brook Lopez the last time these two teams met — score all too comfortably in the paint while playing ‘big’, what did Nurse have to lose?

Not this game, as it turns out, as Toronto prevailed 124-113 to hand the Bucks (16-12) their fourth straight loss.

Is playing a lineup that goes six-foot; six-foot-one; six-foot-four, six-foot-seven and six-foot-nine sustainable?

“It better be. We don’t have a choice at this point,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, the smallest player on the floor most of the time. “We are past theories and hypotheticals; you know what I’m saying? It was a good start tonight and it worked. When you win everything you did worked and when you lose it doesn’t. The bad part is we have to beat this team again in 48 hours so we have our work cut out for us.”

VanVleet was the difference-maker in the win as the fifth-year point guard put up 33 points and seven assists while playing 38 minutes for Toronto, who were without Kyle Lowry for much of the second half due to injury.

One of the benefits of playing ‘small’ is that you should have playmakers throughout the lineup and that showed up down the stretch for Nurse. Toronto took control of the game late in the fourth quarter thanks to a VanVleet three — his fifth of the game — some strong plays at the rim by Siakam (23 points, 13 rebounds) and a blocked shot by Chris Boucher — his fifth of the game — that led to a fastbreak dunk by Anunoby that put Toronto up 10 with 2:32 to play, which was all the Raptors needed.

The win improved the Raptors’ record to 13-15, evened their record against the Bucks to 1-1 and was a nice way to start a difficult six-game stretch of games where they will play five against three of the top teams in the East — the Bucks twice, the Philadelphia 76ers twice and the Miami Heat.

Outcome aside the Raptors’ immediate future will likely hinge on how badly Lowry tweaked his left ankle just before halftime. The Raptors leader was his best early — he had 18 points and six assists in 22 minutes before checking out for good after trying to play in the third quarter but not being able to get up and down the floor without a noticeable limp. He’ll be evaluated Wednesday.

If Lowry is gone for any length of the time it will add to Nurse’s burden since regardless of who he put on, the challenges remained the same: How to compete against teams that can roll out quality size the Raptors can’t match?

The Bucks start Lopez, who towers over Baynes and is wide enough to render Boucher invisible, while Giannis Antetokounmpo is arguably the biggest and most athletic player in the league. They are long at the wings and big at the guard position as well. It adds up to Milwaukee — second in the East behind Philadelphia before the game — being third in rebounding percentage in the league.

The Bucks got 34 points from Antetokounmpo but even with a smaller lineup the Raptors more than held their own physically, holding an 8-5 edge in offensive rebounds and a 25-21 edge in free throw attempts.

There wasn’t much of a secret to it.

“Well, good old-fashioned blocking out is probably the key and you’ve got to fight sometimes when you’re undersized, you’ve got to fight a little harder,” said Nurse. “You just can’t have those lapses where you think well, I think I’ll just go get the ball before making contact and I think that’s probably the case and we were pretty organized, too, defensively. We weren’t flying around a ton, there was some in the first half where we’re doubling Giannis, and he kind of broke through and made really fast passes out that you’re just not going to get to the shooter on those… but we just did a good job of blocking out I think.”

Playing small worked reasonably well in the first half as the Raptors went into the break tied 64-64. Surprisingly, one of their advantages over the Bucks in the opening 24 minutes was on the glass as Toronto chased down multiple offensive rebounds while giving up just one to Milwaukee. Those additional possessions allowed Toronto to keep pace even as the Bucks shot 56 per cent from the floor to the Raptors’ 47 per cent, with the teams otherwise roughly equal at the three-point line and the free-throw line.

It was a bit jarring at first to see Siakam matching up with the likes of Lopez for stretches, but the Raptors consider rebounding a team activity without one player expected to carry the load themselves.

“I mean it is what it is. You know I think for me, I think the most like, the hardest thing — especially with a guy like Lopez, he’s more like a perimeter type of a big — the only thing you have to really worry about is boxing him out and stuff,” said Siakam. “He’s a presence down there. And I think that’s the challenge, so it is different, but I think you know for the most part it’s gotta be a team effort. We know we’re undersized, but we just got to go out there and get the job done.”

While Anunoby looked understandably just a beat slow given his long layoff, the Raptors’ best lineup featured Boucher playing alongside Siakam and with Powell, Lowry and VanVleet. After an energized first quarter that left the score tied 33-33 the Bucks opened up a 12-point lead early in the second only to give it back as Toronto put together a 19-5 run.

But that also saw Toronto’s fortunes turn when Lowry twisted his ankle on a full-court sprint to make up for his own turnover with just 36 seconds left in the half.

How Lowry emerges in the next few days will be telling. It’s clear that Nurse is ready to play small if he has to, but it will be a lot easier if his best smaller players are available.

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