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Raptors look for missing energy, shooting touch vs. Nets

Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka has struggled since returning from injury. (USA TODAY SPORTS)
Toronto Raptors forward Serge Ibaka has struggled since returning from injury. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

With all of the pomp and circumstance of Kawhi Leonard’s return out of the way, the Toronto Raptors can now get on with more pressing business: Righting what ails them, starting with Saturday’s Basketball Night In Canada tilt against the Brooklyn Nets.

A drop-off in overall energy and in shooting execution have led to a rare three-game losing streak and Toronto has shot only 27.7% on three-pointers over the past four games, the worst mark in the NBA. That’s a far cry then the rest of the season, which saw the Raptors lead the league in outside accuracy.

Head coach Nick Nurse said after practice on Friday that there are different ways to get out of shooting slumps. Some suggestions: “Sometimes it’s a clearing of your mind. Or maybe it’s resting and getting away from it for a day,” he said.

“It depends who you are. Maybe it’s wearing a certain pair of socks that the last game you shot really well in. Whatever you need to trigger you back to the next time you vault up, it’s going in. You always hear me say, ‘It’s hands, feet and between your ears if you want to shoot well.’ Between the ears is probably the biggest one,” Nurse said.

“You get to the gym. You maybe go back to some basic, real fundamental stuff. Usually it’s something very minor technically. It usually has to do with your release. You just go back in there really close to the basket and shoot a bunch of shots that are coming off your hand the same way every time and you try to re-groove those mechanics.”

Big man Serge Ibaka has struggled since returning from injury, including a particularly rough shooting performance against Kawhi’s Clippers, but he says that’s a by-product of missing so much time and not being able to practice while his ankle was injured.

“Yeah, because I spent like four weeks before I got back I didn’t even practice. So there’s no way to match practice and no contact, so, actually, those (recent) games, to me, is like my practice, my contact,” Ibaka said.

“It’s nothing to worry about. It’s a couple of games. I’ve been there before. I’ve been doing this for 11 years and I’m a hard worker, I’m never going to give up. I know you saw it last year the playoffs, I bounced back. So this is not new. I’m going to try to control what I can control, like I say, to be here every day (in the gym), to work hard,” Ibaka said.

It would help if the Raptors could get back to having some fun while on the court, too, while still going at opponents.

“Yeah you need to focus on energy. Both ends of the floor, offence and defence, that’s what made us who we are,” Ibaka said.

“That’s how we play … but it’s a long season, you know, now we have to find a way to bounce back. And, you know, get our rhythm back and to play hard basketball like we’ve always been doing.

Nurse agreed with Ibaka.

“When you’re thinking about who are you and what’s your identity as a team, I think one thing we’ve always tried to be is a super-hard playing team,” Nurse said.

“We usually come with an attitude of we’re gonna really guard you, get up the floor, play with some pace, those kinds of things. I think we did that the other night. I think we were flying all over the place. And after reviewing the tape, we had five or six straight wide-open, uncontested threes and none of them go (when the Raptors closed within five points of the Clippers before things went awry). Mix in a few turnovers and I think we let it get to us,” he said.

“We need to make sure we execute a little better. And we’ve got to step in and make some shots. It keeps that energy flowing, which we need. And again, that’s who we are.”

Or, as Ibaka put it: “With energy, you can do anything.”

FRED’S NOT HERE?

It doesn’t sound likely that Fred VanVleet will be back in his starting spot to face the Nets, though Toronto is leaving the door open. VanVleet has played only 12 minutes over the past three games due to a knee injury he suffered against Chicago.

The point guard was in the midst of a potential all-star campaign, but might need a bit more time (Toronto hosts Cleveland on Monday, then heads to Detroit for a game on Wednesday).

“He tried to get through practice today. He’ll be a game-time decision tomorrow,” Nurse said on Friday.

“We’ll see how it reacts today and all that kind of stuff. I think we’ll list him as doubtful and we’ll wait until game-time tomorrow to see if he’s ready to go. There’s a chance.”

Brooklyn will be without perennial all-star starter Kyrie Irving and standout guard Caris LeVert. Irving will miss his 14th game in a row due to a right shoulder impingement, while LeVert will sit for the 16th straight game due to thumb surgery. Spencer Dinwiddie has been outstanding in their absence.

MEMORIES OF BROOKLYN

The game against Brooklyn is going to be a weird one for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. After 251 games, including 147 starts, with the Nets, he will face his old teammates for the first time.

“Man, it was like I grew up there. Coming into the league at 19, 20 — New York in particularly, Brooklyn — it’s definitely a gritty place,” Hollis-Jefferson said.

“A loving atmosphere. But they want you to play hard every night in ways like Toronto. They want you to go out and get after it,” he said.

The forward said he was a bit surprised that the Nets moved on last summer.

“When you’re coming into the league, when you see guys like Kobe (Bryant) play his whole career on one team, Dirk Nowitzki. You kind of want to be the next guy to do something like that. Things don’t work out. Of course it’s a business. I definitely was a little bit hurt. But it’s part of the game,” he said.

Hollis-Jeffferson said he was eager to battle against the Nets.

“I’m a competitor… I look forward to every matchup. This one in particular, just because I spent my whole career there,” he said.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it. See some familiar faces.”

NETS TIPOFF

TONIGHT: 7:30 ET TSN/TSN1050

SCOUTING REPORT

Brooklyn has stayed afloat and above .500, three games back of Toronto, even with no Kevin Durant and very little Kyrie Irving or Caris LeVert. The team had won three straight before a surprising loss against Charlotte which saw Brooklyn blow a 20-point lead. Big man Jarrett Allen has been outstanding in the middle, despite splitting time with DeAndre Jordan. Spencer Dinwiddie has made a case for an all-star spot, Taurean Prince has been a nice fit, and sharp-shooter Joe Harris is starting to round into form. With Irving out, the ball has been moving more and the Nets are looking more like last year’s over-achieving group.

MARQUEE MATCHUP

Spencer Dinwiddie vs. Kyle Lowry

Dinwiddie has been tremendous, holding the fort while Irving and LeVert have been out. “He’s a heck of a player. He really is. He’s a baller man,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said on Friday.

“He can score the ball. He’s got tremendous confidence and swag out there, handles. He’s one of those guys that every time he shoots it, he expects it to go in. He just keeps getting better and better. He’s really been a huge factor in their success lately.”

Lowry got off to a torrid start to the season before getting hurt, but has struggled since his return, for the most part, and is eager to turn things around.

Dinwiddie leads the club in scoring (20.8 points per game) and assists (6.2).

DID YOU KNOW?

Toronto has won 15-of-16 recent meetings with the Nets, including eight straight at home … Toronto has won 33 straight home games against the Atlantic Division, an NBA record … Rondae Hollis-Jefferson averaged 9.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in 234 career outings with the Nets … This is Toronto’s busiest month of the season, with 16 games.

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