Healthy & Happy At The Halfway Mark

By: Holly MacKenzie

The Toronto Raptors kicked off the second half of the regular season with a 122-112 road win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. They also had their full roster available for the first game in quite some time. Though the All-Star Break is the unofficial midway point of the season, the true halfway point for the Raptors came after the team’s dominant 140-111 victory against the Washington Wizards at Scotiabank Arena on Friday. That win moved the team to 27-14 after the first 41 games of the season. Thanks to Saturday’s victory against Minnesota, their record is now 28-14.

Prior to the team’s victory against the Wolves, the broadcast displayed a graphic that showed how impressive the start to the 2019-20 season has been. This year’s roster has already missed a combined 140 games heading into Saturday where Fred VanVleet made his return from injury.

After weathering the storm without much of its roster for the first half of the season, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse is just glad to have everyone back. “It seems like it’s clicked pretty fast this year,” Nurse said. “We deal with what we have. I think there’s a lot of positives we can take from [the injuries we’ve had]. It hasn’t been easy, but there has been some positives. We’ve seen lots of minutes from lots of guys, different ways. We’ve been forced into a lot of different defences and offences, a lot of different things.”]

Another positive is that the returning players look fresh and ready to go. In four games since returning to the lineup, Norman Powell is averaging 22.8 points on 61 percent shooting, including 48 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Pascal Siakam has also been back for four games, making his return the same time as Powell. In those four games, Siakam has averaged 15.5 points, but he has been able to ease back into things, averaging 10 fewer minutes per game as he works his way back. 

“Fresh legs are golden,” Nurse said. “It’s been really nice for us to have a couple of games here where we can keep the minutes for everybody down.”

Powell agrees with Nurse that the first half of the season has passed quickly. “I didn’t know it was [the halfway mark of] the season,” Powell said after Friday’s victory against the Wizards. “I think that’s part of just being out a couple games, but it still feels early. I think this team has done a great job of taking it to the chin, adjusting to it with the injuries, taking advantage of the opportunities, playing together, playing hard and trusting the coaches and trusting one another. That’s what you need as a team, going through an 82-game season.”

Marc Gasol made his return in Friday’s victory against the Wizards. Despite missing 13 games and being sidelined for a month, Gasol scored 20 points in his return. He shot 7-for-9 from the floor and matched a career-high with six three-pointers, making 6-of-7. 

While Powell is surprised at how quickly the halfway point of the season has arrived, Gasol doesn’t give much attention to where the team is with respect to the calendar. “I try not to think about it,” Gasol said. “I go game by game, week by week, and try to invest as much as possible into taking care of my body and putting [myself] in the best position to help the team.”

A day after Gasol’s return against the Wizards, it was VanVleet’s turn. In his first game back following a five-game absence, he scored 29 points in 29 minutes against the Timberwolves, shooting 11-for-16 from the floor and 7-for-8 from three. “The guys did a hell of a job while I was out,” VanVleet said after the victory. “They played their butts off. The last two or three games I was seeing the offence find its way back, especially with Marc back out there. I couldn’t wait to join the party and get out there and play with the guys.”

Despite the injuries and setbacks in the first half of the season, the players are only focused on what’s in front of them.

“We just try to go out and play,” Powell said. “We don’t make excuses for who’s out, who’s down, who is playing this game or not. We just continue to play within ourselves, play for one another and play basketball. It feels good to have everybody back, everybody contributing, getting minutes and hopefully continuing with this chemistry.”

Every coach always has a list of things they think their team can improve upon and Nurse isn’t an exception. Still, he’s pleased with how the Raptors have worked through absences, as well as how they’re performing each night, whatever lineup it is that’s playing.

“Do we know who we are?” Nurse said. “I think so. We’ve got a good team out there. We’ve got some guys that play to win and [we’ve got] some experience and I think if we can continue to be versatile we’ll continue to improve and keep heading in that direction a little bit.

“We’ve got some firepower,” he continued. “We’re playing pretty well. I think we’re guarding. That’s going to take us a long way this time of year.”

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