Raptors’ lineup options set to be augmented with Anunoby return

TORONTO — After missing nine games with a calf strain, it sounds like OG Anunoby is progressing well towards making his return to the lineup Sunday when the Toronto Raptors take on the Minnesota Timberwolves from their home-for-the-season in Tampa.

After his team finished practice Saturday, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse seemed hopeful that there would be some “good news” in regards to Anunoby’s status in advance of Sunday’s tip-off, noting that his top defender “looked good” while out on the practice court.

An Anunoby return Sunday would obviously be a positive for the Raptors. He’s not only the team’s best all-around defender, capable of locking up all five positions, he’s also one of the club’s key three-point marksmen and was on fire before his injury, shooting a volcanic 60.8 per cent from deep over his previous eight games.

But along with Anunoby’s impending return comes a pretty tough decision for Nurse.

Norman Powell has been on a tear as a starter, averaging 22.6 points per game on 49.7 per cent shooting from the floor and 44.6 per cent shooting from three-point range over his last 10 games. Almost all of these starts have come as a replacement for the injured Anunoby, and with Toronto’s usual starting small forward now on the verge of returning, the question of what to do with Powell has returned.

It’s no secret that Powell is simply a more productive player as a starter than as a reserve, but Nurse has been reticent to opt for a smaller starting lineup because it sacrifices what he feels is necessary size.

“I guess a little bit, but I’m not so sure it presents itself here in the near future, just looking at who we’re playing,” Nurse said when asked if he’s considered starting games smaller. “There’s some awfully big bigs here coming at us. I would say we’ll get to it in the course of a game and hopefully it’ll kinda work its way back in. I probably think that it is one of our better lineups, just across the board, as long as we can rebound, I think, is always the concern.”

With encounters against the Karl-Anthony Towns of the Timberwolves, Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers on the horizon, Nurse’s reservation regarding keeping Powell in the starting lineup and playing small is warranted, but it’s worth noting that he hasn’t completely dismissed the idea.

After all, the lineup has proven to be somewhat effective.

In 29 minutes played this season, the unit of Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Powell, Pascal Siakam and Anunoby is plus-3. Not the greatest plus-minus and, obviously, a small sample size, but it’s still a positive nonetheless, suggesting, if given more chances to play together, that this five-man unit could potentially turn into something greater.

“If it’s been [about] 30 minutes, then we’ll have to see what the next 30 look like,” VanVleet said of the possible small starting lineup. “OG is good enough to do it, Pascal is good enough to do it, and it’ll be different looks but [that’s] not [to] say it’ll be any better or worse. We’ll just have to see.

“I would envision a lot of dribble-drive, a lot of slipping, a lot of transition and just making plays and letting the ball find the right guy and figuring it out after that. Obviously, it’ll probably be determined on what teams we’re playing who they have guarding who. If they put a five on OG, then OG gotta screen, same for Pascal. If, just for instance, Joel Embiid is guarding Pascal, he’s our five now, coming up the floor and we can screen for those guys as well as guards.

“So it’s versatility for sure, but we’ll see. There’s been a lot of thinking about what that will look like and nobody will know until we get out there.”

It feels like an experiment worth trying out given how little the lineup’s actually been used. However, for the time being, it sounds like Nurse may look to flex his starting lineup a little more depending on who the opponent is on a nightly basis.

“I think it’s a bit of a possibility,” Nurse said when asked if he’d be willing to platoon his starting lineup a little game-to-game. “I think that we’ve probably got four guys for sure that are pretty locked in to needing to start. So it doesn’t give you a whole lot of room to maneuver around, but it’s a possibility. Again, I don’t see it as that is that big a deal.”

It’s a fine line Nurse has to walk between matching up with his opponents versus making them try to match up with what he’s trying to do, and keeping Powell in as a starter and beginning games small just appears to be another option he could possibly turn to.

“I think that you kind of massage it a little bit both ways,” Nurse said. “There’s some matchups where you’ve just gotta do it, it feels like. And then there’s some nights where you’re trying to put them in a situation where they have to decide. I think for me, most of the time, I go into it pretty open-minded, and I wanna get a good chunk of minutes, whether we think playing small is the right answer or not, we still need to get Aron [Baynes] or whatever a chunk of minutes in there, just for getting from zero to 48 minutes.

“And then the feel of the game usually determines a lot of it, too. It’s a little bit of a feel thing on each night.”

Quick Dribbles

• It was announced on Thursday that the Raptors will remain in Tampa for the remainder of the season.

Though understandable, it was still news that was a bit of a downer, particularly because the Raptors do miss their fans, and vice versa. Here’s a couple responses from members of the team in regards to the situation.

Lowry: “You know with this virus and the Canadian government doing everything to protect the country, protect the citizens and with everything going on, it was a decision for us and our job. You know we fly in and out, travelling all over the country, and we have very strict protocols but the protocols can only protect you to a certain extent. There are new variants out and we understand why the country of Canada and the government is really tight right now. It’s for the best for society up there and the citizens up there. …

“We always feel the connection. That is our home. That is where we play. It’s our home city. The country we play in and the country we play for. At the end of the day Toronto Raptors is on the front of our jersey and we play for that. We still know the fans are supporting us to their utmost that they can.

“We wish we were playing in front of those guys but until this virus and the vaccine gets out and get under control and all that stuff, we know that we have to do what we have to do. It’s unfortunate that the world is in this situation, but as professionals and as men we have to do our job. Yeah, we would love to be home, we would love to be in front of our fans and it sucks that we can’t be. The connection is still there. We understand they still follow us on social media and all those things. So we still have the connection.”

VanVleet: “You try to be optimistic about the situation, right? Oh, the weather’s nice, I’m here, got my family here, but, again, this is an unusual time this past year for the entire world, it’s not just us. So understanding that makes it a little easier.

“I wouldn’t have been happy to be moving again but at the same time, we do miss Toronto, we miss the fans. I love living there, I love the city, I had a great routine, obviously the best years of my life [have been] in Toronto so there’s that.

“But hopefully we can just finish out this year here, get this COVID thing under control and be back before you know it.”

• For more on the injury front, Nurse said Yuta Watanabe didn’t practice Saturday as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

Encouragingly, Nurse said Watanabe is “pretty close” and has been “shooting and moving OK,” but the team is just being cautious with him as his ankle still seems a little tender.

Nurse also said Patrick McCaw practiced Saturday, but is likely still a little ways away.

• For anyone wondering, Chris Boucher really likes Biosteel’s “Rainbow Twist” flavour. He said he drinks one every game.

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