MILWAUKEE — The Raptors’ bench has arrived in the nick of time.
To date, the GTA’s best shot at a major-league sports championship has reached Game 5 of the third round of this playoff run primarily on the strength of its starters.
Serge Ibaka has been the one exception, although even his impact his been spotty. His insertion into the Philadelphia series helped address the rebounding issues the Raptors were having and was extremely important in turning the tide in that seven-game set. For three games, Ibaka was huge. But find another huge impact by anyone off Toronto’s bench until these past two games.
It’s human nature to look at the boxscore to measure contributions and, while Fred VanVleet and, to a lesser extent, Jodie Meeks certainly had some impact on some earlier games, the scoring load was almost exclusively being handled by the starters.
That started to change in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks with the emergence of Norm Powell, enough that head coach Nick Nurse was already talking about ramping up his involvement before he took the floor in Game 3 and busted out for 19 points.
Powell followed that up with 18 in Game 4 and was joined by both Ibaka and VanVleet in having a concrete impact on the outcome with all three non-starters in double figures.
In a series in which the bench was being outworked and out-produced by their Milwaukee counterparts for the first few games, it was a significant turn of events.
Now clearly boxscore stats don’t cover everything. And Nurse wouldn’t have a team playing for him the way they are now, if he just gave up on players such as VanVleet or Ibaka when the results weren’t there over a period of time.
Give Nurse plenty of credit for rolling with the bench members now producing for him when everyone was screaming at him to go in another direction. A man could have gotten rich if given a dollar for every Jeremy Lin suggestion that was floated during some of those rougher bench moments earlier in the run.
Nurse did condense those minutes in the Philadelphia series although Ibaka eventually wound up playing more than a couple of starters in the final three games.
But this deep into the playoffs, there comes a time when your starters need a breather.
For the Raptors, that came Tuesday night in Game 4. In a blowout win, no starter logged more than the 34 minutes that Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard logged. Marc Gasol punched in with 30. But to have three subs play more minutes than at least two starters — and in one case three — Nurse couldn’t have asked for more, save for OG Anunoby, recovering from appendicitis, suddenly joining this series.
That won’t happen, but Anunoby is at least ramping up the work and on the verge of starting contact drills, according to Nurse.
But to get to an Anunoby return, or even the possibility of one, the Raptors are going to have to get through this series and, to do that, they need contributions on the offensive end from players not named Leonard, Lowry, Siakam or Gasol.
At no point in the first three games of the series, did it ever feel like the Raptors would get that from multiple bench guys … until it happened on Tuesday. And it isn’t just Leonard who needed the break.
Siakam also broke the 50-minute mark in the double-overtime win in Game 3 and while he didn’t look hobbled at times as Leonard did, the juice in his step was gone in Game 4. Siakam played just over 23 minutes.
The only physical thing Nurse asked of his team on Wednesday was that they be on time for an early afternoon flight. Other than that, it was a day of rest and recovery.
Now back in Milwaukee the job is only going to get harder. To win the series, the Raptors need to win one road game. Milwaukee needs only to protect home.
The nebulous notion of momentum might be in Toronto’s favour, but don’t kid yourself, Milwaukee is still in charge of this series.
Now that Toronto has a bench operating like it can carry some of the load, taking charge with a road win seems much more plausible.
COACHES PLAY DOWN DRAKE DISTRACTION
It seems Drake has got the attention of the Milwaukee Bucks fan base.
The Raptors’ global ambassador and ridiculously wealthy rapper has risen to the level of chief irritant in the Cheesehead state for his sideline antics these past two games in Toronto.
Drake certainly gets far more latitude from the security personnel at Scotiabank Arena — venturing on to the court from his courtside seat to both cheer the Raptors and jeer their opponents.
Both coaches in the series were asked about Toronto’s own version of Jack Nicholson or Spike Lee, the omnipresent in-house celebrity.
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer initially tried to ignore the Drake questions, but eventually piled on along with the majority of Milwaukeeans when asked his opinion of the hyper-active Drake.
“I don’t know how much he’s on the court,” Budenholzer said. “It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors, to be on the court. There are boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wisely went the other direction, even though he was the only individual who was physically confronted by Drake during the game when Toronto’s biggest home-grown rap talent tried to lessen the tension of the moment mid-game for the coach with an unsolicited shoulder massage.
“It’s certainly not a distraction for me,” Nurse said of Drake perhaps getting a little too close to the action. “I didn’t even know I got the shoulder rub last night ’til someone showed me a picture today because I was so locked into the game. I think the fans on whichever team comes out on the wrong side get disappointed about a lot of things, coaching decisions to refereeing decisions to playing decisions, and everything else. It’s which way the wind’s blowing sometimes and it’s just that when they lose a couple games. It’s the same with our fans when we lost a couple. They were up to that, it’s kind of part of the show.”
Love him or hate him, Drake is not going away, at least not while the Raptors are still alive in the post-season. But that’s not to say the league won’t be calling on the Raptors before this series gets back to Toronto for Game 6.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019