All those man games lost still taking a toll on Raptors

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The Raptors have done a pretty decent job holding down the fort without key players all season.

The latest mass rush to the injured list included Pascal Siakam, Norm Powell, Marc Gasol and then, joining that group about three weeks later, Fred VanVleet, who was making his second visit.

Before all of that, there were the month-long absences of both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.

Just staying above .500 with all those key pieces missing was an accomplishment.

Without Lowry and Ibaka, the team went a collective 9-2.

Without Siakam and Powell — who both returned Monday — as well as Gasol, who remains out, the team was 5-4.

Overcoming those losses comes at a cost and that cost is still being seen today, even as the injured make their way back to the court.

The toll manifests itself in a number of ways, but right now the most obvious is an inability to play at a heightened level for all 48 minutes.

In two of the past three games, which were also the two losses, the Raptors squandered big leads on home court, letting winnable games slip away.

In both of those games, the Raptors looked fully in control for three or more quarters, only to see the lockdown coverage on opposing stars slip towards the end, which ultimately let both games slip away.

When Toronto is at its best, it basically eliminates the opposing team’s top scoring threat with blanket defence.

It’s a recipe that requires a lot of energy from the whole team as a Demar DeRozan or Damian Lillard attracts multiple bodies on the catch, forcing them to give up the ball.

It’s a strategy that worked wonders earlier in the year against the likes of Lillard, LeBron James and even Kawhi Leonard and James Harden to a point. But it requires 48 minutes of focused, high-energy play.

Earlier in the year, even down men, the Raptors were capable of that.

Lately, they don’t look like they are.

In the Portland game, the Raptors had Lillard under wraps for all of the first half and a portion of the third quarter before he got going and wound up with 20 points as the Blazers came back from a 14-point deficit to win mostly on his scoring.

Against the Spurs five nights later but again at home at the Scotiabank Arena, the lead got as big as 18 as DeRozan was denied the ball for most of the first two and a half quarters. When he did get it, the Raptors converged on him forcing it out of his hands. DeRozan, just like Lillard was a non-factor through a half with just two points to the three Lillard had at the break.

Both stars found their legs as the Raptors lost theirs in the second half, pulling their respective teams to wins. DeRozan wound up with a game-high 25.

The letdown is almost understandable given how long the Raptors have been playing shorthanded, though you will never hear those words from Nick Nurse, Kyle Lowry or anyone in that locker room.

Sunday’s second-half energy drain was further fed by the much-needed returning injured, who didn’t quite have their legs after the long layoff.

The good news is that the energy drain should be coming to an end.

Siakam, who admitted he dealt with some “heavy legs” his first game back, and even Powell referenced needing some time to get his legs under him, will both be better as they get re-acclimated to the grind of an NBA game.

And because of that, the load on the others who have been carrying the burden in their absence will be lessened.

Nurse has certainly seen it, but he also sees it for what it is: A carry-over from the months of playing shorthanded.

“I think that normally our fourth-quarter defence is great, but it wasn’t (Sunday) and it wasn’t against Portland the other night and we kind of let the star guys do the damage and that’s not really what was happening throughout the game, right?

“So we’ve just got to be able to sustain that over some extended time, and that’s probably a little harder to do with a lot of people in and out of the lineup,” he said. “The consistency thing gets jolted every time two guys come in and out, I think, but that will even itself out here.”

QUICK HITS

Patrick McCaw and that second unit Nurse has been using aren’t exactly a group that will light it up on the scoreboard, but there’s no questioning their desire. That group switches and closes out on shooters, and generally creates havoc as teams try to set up their offence as good or better than many starting fives in the league. They don’t always do it consistently, but if they ever do manage to put two halves together, it’s going to be a fine bench unit that can really help this team. And with the injured list getting shorter by the day, that unit will eventually be bolstered by the return of Ibaka and either Powell or whoever he would take out of the starting five to get Powell in, if Nurse carries through with his previously toyed with a plan to get Powell in with the starters.