Raptors’ final games still meaningful for team’s young players

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TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors‘ post-season hopes are all but mathematically cooked.

Despite this, there’s still games to be played as they finish out what has been a dismal season.

Toronto played their fifth-last game of the season Saturday night against what appears to be a play-in tournament-bound Memphis Grizzlies, falling 109-99.

Fortunately for the Raptors, the result of Saturday’s contest is, ultimately, meaningless for them at this stage of the season.

Toronto entered Saturday 6.0 games ahead of the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Cleveland Cavaliers for potentially better draft lottery odds. So, essentially, no matter if Toronto wins or loses through their remaining games it likely won’t impact their lottery odds much at all.

But while it no longer matters if Toronto wins or loses anymore, that doesn’t necessarily mean that any of these games are unimportant, either.

Strange as it may be to think about, these supposedly meaningless games are actually quite meaningful for the development of a number of key Raptors players.

In particular, young players like rookies Malachi Flynn and Jalen Harris and others who likely figure to be part of the team’s future such as Gary Trent Jr., Yuta Watanabe, Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie.

“I think there’s probably a level of cleaning up their game a little bit,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before Saturday’s game. “Instead of having 13 things we’re thinking about, maybe have three things we do repeatedly really well. And then when we get those three, we go to four. Most of the time, it’s let’s make sure you’re doing what we see as your strengths and staying away from your weaknesses so you can play well, and you can play well for the team. And then you kinda keep inching forward with some other things.

“You know how it is, one year the guy can’t go left, and he works on it all summer and he can go left, and the next year he’s got a jump hook, and the next year he’s got a fadeaway. There’s always things to keep adding. I’m mostly, though, evaluating are they playing winning basketball? And I don’t mean by the scoreboard. I mean are they in each possession playing the right way, and things that’ll help us translate to winning basketball.”

The last point Nurse makes mention to is important. Even if the Raptors aren’t winning games to end the season, they can still play winning basketball and have been doing so over the last month even as players have rested.

On Saturday Toronto was again missing players with OG Anunoby, Aron Baynes, Chris Boucher, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Paul Watson Jr. all out for various injuries of various severities and, in Lowry’s case, just straight-up rest.

It might be a little frustrating that so many key players are being held out, but if you view this from a developmental lens, then reducing Toronto’s available roster to just 10 men makes a lot more sense and looks much better.

For example, in an interesting turn of events, VanVleet was spotted on the Raptors sideline in full coaches’ attire that Nurse joked after the game that he stole.

Whether stolen or not, even though he wasn’t playing VanVleet got an opportunity to get a taste of a possible post-playing career.

“He’s interested, that’s the big thing. He even came in with our halftime coaches meeting and sat in with that which I thought was pretty interesting for him,” said Nurse. “It’s good that he’s engaged, he’s doing as much as he can physically as well on the court as well. He’s there when he’s not available but he’s still very near the court helping guys.”

Added Harris of his new coach: “I’d say Fred would be a good coach. Maybe one of the more intense coaches, though, probably.”

Unfortunately for the Raptors adding Coach VanVleet to their bench wasn’t enough for them. Despite the opportunity being there for some of their young guns, they couldn’t really take advantage of it against the Grizzlies as they were mired by poor shooting all night (38.3 per cent from the field and 31.3 per cent from three-point range). The suspects you probably want to see play well just didn’t have good shooting nights, including a rough 18-point outing from Gary Trent Jr. where he shot just 5-for-20 from the floor and 2-of-8 from deep.

“I just didn’t think we played that well offensively and I think there was some opportunities there,” said Nurse. “We had a real low shooting percentage, a couple guys on high volume low percentage but it probably just wasn’t enough offensively for most of the night.”

In more positive news though, the Raptors rookies played well as Flynn finished with 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting — doing most of his damage in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. And Harris finished with a career-high 16 points and six rebounds on 5-for-12 shooting as he played the best game of his young NBA career.

“He’s pretty confident, that’s the one thing. I didn’t think he was having a particularly good game tonight, just in general. And then he kept staying with it, and he took his game to a decent level,” said Nurse of Flynn. “A really good level in the fourth quarter. That takes some courage, and that takes some confidence to play through some stuff, and then make some shots and make some plays.”

“I’m just trying to capitalize on opportunity, mostly,” said Harris of the chance he got Saturday night. “I’ve been doing a lot of work throughout the year throughout the off-season before and all that and so I just want to be able to go out there and help the team win and be able to do whatever I can to help them win. And so I think they’ve been finding more opportunities for me and I’ve just been trying to capitalize.”

Sadly, the strong night for the two rooks came in the unfortunate circumstance of more bad injury news for the Raptors, though.

Pascal Siakam didn’t start the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game and he was forced to exit it with a left shoulder strain, and then later in the fourth, Rodney Hood was seen holding his left hand, grimacing in pain and also subbed out and didn’t return.

X-rays revealed that Hood suffered a fracture in the second metacarpal of his left hand, something that will likely end his season. A tough break for a player whose career has been defined by injuries more than anything else.

In regards to Siakam, Nurse said that the team would evaluate him in the coming days, but given how many other key players are missing games here at the end of the season to see him added to that list moving forward wouldn’t be surprising. It would, however, be a little disappointing because he had been on a tear since the start of April, entering Saturday night averaging 24.9 points per game. He exited Saturday with 18 points on 8-for-21 shooting.

The timing of Siakam’s departure was unfortunate as he had a fairly strong third quarter, scoring seven points in the frame. Had he been available in the fourth quarter a small spurt that the Raptors went on during the period probably could’ve been bolstered, but it just wasn’t to be as Memphis proved to be just too deep and too talented for this undermanned and inexperienced Raptors group.

Of note for the Grizzlies, former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas finished with 18 points and 21 rebounds, following up on the 27-point, 20-rebound outing he had the last time Memphis played Toronto. There was simply no answer for him.

Still, the fight was there and, hopefully, there were lessons to be learned.

“Well, I think we’ve played really well. I’m proud of how the team has played. Without question, they’ve competed, they’ve executed, they’ve played great and it’s just the challenge of a few more new faces back making a rotation back and can they continue to do it,” said Nurse. “And I can’t remember a game, other than the Denver fourth quarter I guess, where I didn’t think we were competitive, we were on point and I can’t remember really being disgusted after a game for a long time because of how we played. And that’s like, even when you’re rolling and your team’s at the top of the standings, you have those games and that’s just the way it is when you’re playing 70, 80, 90 games a year. So the challenge is to keep it going here.”

There are only four games left in the Raptors’ season and even though there won’t be a post-season for them they should try to keep going as well as they have here for the remainder.

To not take advantage of this learning opportunity would be one wasted.