SACRAMENTO, California – When the Toronto Raptors battled the Sacramento Kings on Sunday evening, it suddenly felt like they had a trainer's ransom to fall back on.
After almost an entire season of trying to cobble lineups of spare parts and the walking wounded, the Raptors were exceptionally complete when Marc Gasol returned after an absence of 15 games. With Fred VanVleet coming back next week, Toronto's problem could soon be too many players instead of not enough.
Nobody complains, but it will be fascinating to see how Raptor's head coach Nick Nurse finds out how the 240 minute game time can best be divided between at least 10 worthy candidates.
Not much has changed against the kings. Serge Ibaka – who started instead of Gasol – kept his place for the moment and looked like he was in no hurry to give it up, and Norm Powell, who started for VanVleet while he was away, showed again why he will very difficult to take out of the starting rotation.
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Kyle Lowry was a constant this season and was again a stone when the Raptors had to grind for a 118-113 win. Powell led the Raptors with 31 points to continue his career high of 37 against Golden State on Thursday. Lowry added 30 points and eight assists, while Pascal Siakam added 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Toronto needed everything and more.
The Raptors led 78-74 into the fourth quarter, but the momentum seemed to shift when Lowry caught his fifth foul in just 13 seconds. He stayed in the game, although the player most missed was probably VanVleet, who could have relieved Lowry or at least offered a little more support.
The Raptors Bank certainly didn't provide it – they scored seven points for the night.
Lowry managed to play almost the entire quarter of a possession-by-possession game without picking up his sixth foul and scoring 13 points on seven shots – all critical.
"You never want to let your coaches down, let your head coach down," said Lowry. "He believes in you and understands that you are in a situation where you can't be lazy but still have to play defense and play hard. This is just one of the things you don't want to let your teammates down in. You don't want to let your trainer down because he trusted you to be in this situation, I appreciate Nick for believing in me and Nick and Nate and AG and these people for believing that I can play without getting dirty. "
The fourth quarter was wild. The Raptors led 78-74 after three quarters, and each team caught fire as they combed to shoot 58 percent off the floor, with Toronto winning the quarter 40-39.
It was only when Siakam drove the track 27 seconds before the end that the Raptors finally had the lead and could then freeze the game from the line.
Toronto improved to 45:18 with the win – its third straight – and improved to 3: 1 on its five-game road trip that ended on Monday night in Utah. Their timing was also good than the Boston Celtics lost to Oklahoma City at home and Toronto had a three game lead in the fight for the second seed in the east. The Kings have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA lately, and have come into play 7-2 since the All-Star break when they tried to spool the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the west and break the NBAs longest series without appearance after the season, 13 years and counted.
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The Raptors paused when Sacramento played a duel on the second night after winning in Portland on Saturday.
Gasoline returned after missing 27 of the Raptors' last 35 games with thigh problems. He looked rusty and went 1: 5 with three rebounds in his 16 minutes. After Ibaka is back and VanVleet (shoulder) will return for the Raptors' next home game next Saturday, Toronto will have new problems after doing much of the Season has spent time figuring out how to put a competitive lineup down its rotation despite layers of injuries.
Given that Ibaka scores 18 points and nine rebounds while shooting 55 percent of the field and 42.4 percent of three as starters while laying elite all-round defense, he is told to do so go to the bank? He ended on Sunday with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
When VanVleet returns, the same question can be asked related to Powell, who has a career season and averaged 19 points per game in his 21 starts before last night, while being 51.9 percent off the field and 41, 9 percent of three shoots.
Both Ibaka and Powell played well from the bank, which in a way makes it easier. However, if you try to lead your team on merit, it's hard to ignore what Ibaka and Powell have accomplished.
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And while one option could be to play Ibaka and Gasol together – a lineup used for a stretch in the second quarter – it means that OG Anunoby is likely to be seated and the best and most versatile defender of the Raptors.
They are the problems of the rich, but they still require some attention.
"I think it's really wide open. I don't think [Serge or Marc] is the only question either," said the nurse. "I really think Norm is making his way there, too. There are probably seven People there who could have five of these seven at any time [start] I think we obviously need a big one and a point guard and then you will probably see Pascal out there most of the time, but I think we could both Serge and Marc start, we could start both Kyle and Norm, there are a lot of things we could do, but let me come back to it when we get them all back and start figuring it out, I would love to see you again that we are versatile and flexible. "
“The step in the game between Norm, OG and Serge has put us in a good position where we would even think about it. They all had their options here and made the best of it. "
If all injuries are beneficial, almost everyone has had time to shine. With VanVleet, Ibaka, and Gasol all in free hands, everyone had plenty of time to show up in the regular season – a little consideration maybe, but it's easier to sacrifice the boys if they all had a chance of their worth to prove
Having a championship in your back pocket and having plans for another also focuses your mind.
"I'm not worried about that," said Powell, who has averaged 28 points per game in five starts since returning from a broken finger when asked about a role change or minutes after VanVleet's return. "I play to win. I sacrifice myself for the team. Whatever the coaches think is best, we go out and win, I'm all for it. I give myself up for the team because it's not about production, it's about the end goal and getting where we want to be.
Powell and Ibaka certainly showed the full range of their abilities in the first half. Whether or not Ibaka was aware of a possible role change on Gasol's return, he certainly spoke out early for the status quo. Ibaka put 10 points on five shots in his first eight minutes and helped the Raptors gain a 22-13 lead after nine minutes. Then gasoline came in and mishandled the ball a few times without finding the mark on a few wide-open eyes. The kings stormed back and tied things up between 22 and 22 in the second quarter.
The kings began to accelerate at this point and opened a lead of 42:34 in the middle of the second period. At that point, Powell began to roll and knocked down a pair of threes at either end of three straight lines from Lowry, allowing the Raptors to advance halfway through 51:50. The nurse also played gasoline with Ibaka on the same route to counter some large lineups with which the kings ran, which of course kept Anunoby on the bench.
The bottom line is that it will be difficult for the nurse to play everyone in the role they prefer and with the minutes they are likely to deserve, but these are the challenges teams with championship aspirations can only face.
"I think we are confident," said Lowry. "I think we just know who we are, we know what we can do. But at the end of the day, health is the most important thing and get the boys to feel comfortable on the floor and bring the boys back together. We have some time. Marc has been gone for a while and Freddy has been gone for a while, but now we're starting to put the boys together and get the boys back to their normal roles and get the boys back into their comfortable situation, but still closing them themselves his. "