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Early season injuries can be a blessing in disguise for the Raptors

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TORONTO — The birds of prey can’t seem to be taking a break.

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Injuries are an inevitable part of life in the NBA. They find almost every team in the end. Even still, the basketball gods were particularly hard on Toronto early in the season.

Between Pascal Siakam (groin strain), Fred Van Fleet (illness), Gary Trent Jr. (sore hip) and Precious Ochiwa (ankle sprain), the team lost more than half of their offense – a total of 68.6 points, 17.2 assists and 21.9 rebounds. Per contest – heading into Monday night’s game in Detroit.

Things went from bad to worse when Otto Porter Jr., who was filling in for the starting spot, dislocated his toe and left before halftime.

Less than a month into the campaign, the Raptors have already lost 30 games to players due to injury or illness. They did not have the nine assumed best players available at once in any of their 15 competitions to unlock the campaign.

The hope is that they will get through the worst of it. VanVleet and Trent — both day-to-day, according to coach Nick Nurse — could be back as early as Wednesday when they host the Miami Heat. But Achiuwa is still in his walking shoes and Siakam won’t be re-evaluated until later in the week. Their return does not seem imminent.

The next few weeks could make or break their season, but not necessarily because of wins and losses. As of Tuesday morning, 18 teams have been in three games of . 500, either above or below, including the 8-7 Raptors. While they’ve had three bad losses over the past week, they’re a respectable 3-3 since Siakam slipped on a wet spot in Dallas earlier this month.

Given league level parity, and with only four matches played over the next 13 days, this stretch should be manageable. They are in a good position to tread in the water until they can regain their health again.

So why is this a critical juncture? They’re about to see if their reinforcements are strong enough to withstand the grind of an entire 82-game campaign.

A team can learn a lot about itself in times of adversity, the Raptors know. When injuries struck early in the 2019-20 post-tournament season, Nurse was forced to look under his seat and realize he had more options than he first thought. With Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka going down at the start of a long road trip, Chris Boucher, Ronday Hollis-Jefferson and Terrence Davis emerged as valuable deep pieces for a team that went on to finish second in the East.

On the contrary, consider the following year in Tampa. At full strength, this team wasn’t nearly as bad as its 27-45 record would suggest. The problem was that once the infections (and COVID) hit, they didn’t have a viable Plan B. And no one stepped forward to help fill the void, and it led to the worst season for the franchise in nearly a decade.

Injuries create opportunity. From there, it’s just a matter of whether or not the support team can benefit. When they do, that’s the silver lining. It not only benefits you in the short term, helping you navigate a difficult stretch, but also over the course of a season. If they don’t, it’s a problem that doesn’t tend to go away. This is not the last time adversity will strike. This isn’t the last time they’ll need to rely on these guys at the end of the bench.

So, what does this team consist of? Early returns are encouraging.

Three starters and two key reserves were down, and with Scotty Barnes struggling and likely playing through an injury on his side, this backup staff was able to lead the Raptors to a much-needed 115-111 victory over the Pistons.

D’Alano followed Banton’s 14 points in Saturday’s loss to Indiana with a career-high performance against Detroit. On the start with Trent being ruled out earlier in the day, the second guard scored a personal best 27 points to go along with four rebounds, four assists, three steals and two blocks in 25 minutes.

Thaddeus Young, also a starter, was more adept in his contributions, but despite only shooting four shots and scoring just six points, the veteran forward made a huge impact with his passing and solid defense.

By the second quarter, Nurse had already used all eleven players available to him. He scored ten of them, except for Porter, and each cracked. Fifty-five of the team’s points came off the bench, led by Boucher, who scored 20 on 7-of-12 shooting. Malachi Flynn was productive in his 15 minutes of accuracy in backup to Banton, scoring 12 points and handing out four assists. Starting the second half in place of Porter, Juancho Hernangomez had his best game as a member of the Raptors, scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds.

Even two-way guard Jeff Doughtin Jr., who was called up from the G-League at the weekend, posted a high-energy 15 minutes. He was on the ground and made two great defensive plays in a tough time.

“I think everyone who played their part contributed in some way,” said the nurse afterward. “That’s what it takes when you’re skinny and you’re playing with different players, everyone has to do something… It was nice to see.”

Nurse leaned heavily on his starts and used a tight rotation to open the season, which was generally the case during his five-year tenure as head coach. Most of these guys were playing sporadically, if at all, just a few weeks ago. Dowtin wasn’t even with the team when they started their last road trip, and had to fly in from Toronto and meet them in Indiana in time for Saturday’s game. But with nights like Monday, the nurse’s exclusive circle of trust must continue to expand.

As Nurse reiterated during training camp last month, the league has changed. It’s not good enough anymore to go into a season feeling good about nine or ten players. The season is very long and there is a lot that can happen. As injuries, illness, rest, slumps and trades crop up, all 15 players on the roster – 17 if you include players on two-way contracts – could be called up at some point. They must be willing and able to rise to the occasion at a moment’s notice.

Even once they’re healthy, this is a team that could always use extra depth. This time last week, the Raptors are 29th in minutes off the bench and 26th in scoring off the bench at roughly 29 per game. But over the last three competitions, they’ve accounted for their total score of 154 points, or an average of 51.3.

Heading into the season, one of their stated goals was to relieve the workload of their starting players, namely VanVleet and Siakam. This becomes a lot easier if a few of these sparsely used reserves can establish themselves as reliable contributors.

Certainly, the continued development of backup point guards can go a long way in taking the pressure off VanVleet and helping to maintain it. Without VanVleet against Indiana and Detroit, Banton and Flynn combined for 61 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists in 76 total minutes.

The pantone, in particular, is an interesting one. With his height and athleticism, as a 6-foot-9 senior guard, he fits the mold. His minutes and production have been up and down to start his sophomore season, but the former second round pick has been stellar in training camp and is still showing signs of growth.

After shooting 26 percent as a rookie, Banton has made 36 percent of his three-point attempts this season, including 5-of-10 over the last two games. He improved his free throw shooting from 59 percent to 88 percent and went 6-for-6 from the goal line against Detroit, hitting four big shots to freeze the game.

With the Pistons trailing – and the loss in which his team gave up a 15-point lead and collapsed in the fourth quarter – Banton scored 11 points over the final five minutes.

“The coaches trust me enough to put me in the starting lineup and the guys trust me, they see the work I’ve done,” said the 23-year-old goalkeeper who grew up in nearby Rexdale, Ont. “Whenever you get a chance, says Coach Nurse, you have to make the most of it. I just try to keep taking that, day and night, every game.”

Right now, the Raptors don’t have a lot of options. They need all hands on deck for their best players to recover and get back into the lineup. Injuries opened the door for Banton and others to play, learn quickly, and prove their belonging. If one or two of them can seize this opportunity and handle it, this early season misfortune could end up being a blessing in disguise.

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