Promises of the Raptors' playoff line up against the Bulls


The Toronto Raptors' "best" lineup does not live here anymore.

It was suspended when Jonas Valanciunas was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 7 in an agreement with rescuer Marc Gasol, who made his ninth consecutive game for his new club against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday night.

Before the deal, the Raptors were the most potent – at least on paper – with Valanciunas on the ground with Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard.

His net score was impressive +23.8 in his 140 minutes together. That mark would still be one of the best in the NBA if the band was still together.

What the Gasol substitute will eventually mean for the Raptors is still a little unfamiliar, even if he's with his new team for seven weeks.

Injury, prescribed rest and coach Coach Raptors Nick Nurse's decision to swap Gasol with Serge Ibaka on the starting team until recently meant that the group claiming to be their starting team in the playoffs played only 75 minutes together before last night.

In that small sample, there were signs of promise.

The Raptors play with a net score of +11.9 with them on the ground and saw their assists increase and both the overall percentage of their field goal and their percentage of three points also increased.

It was all on display in Toronto's 112- 103 win over the Bulls at Scotiabank Arena

In their first seven minutes on the ground, the Raptors jumped to a 14-10 lead that looked like it could have been more given the feel of playing with the mouse rope. The Raptors stole the ball in the first possession of the Bulls and hit a three, and stole the ball on their next possession as well. That ended with Gasol hitting the open man in a red uniform in the corner, except that he ended up being a member of the Bulls wearing a red warming top on the bench.

Does not matter. Gasol threw high on the ledge, stopping several Bulls attacks. The ball hummed offensively. In just under seven minutes the Raptors made four assists in six field goals, with the exception of a couple of lay-ups from Pascal Siakam, where the attacker made a mistake in the exchange.

The potential of the group is evident. It has a little bit of everything: shooting, insulation score, defense interchangeability, paint protection and low score in a pinch.

The caveat is how much can be drawn from short shots against a team like the Bulls, who – at 21-54 – is the Raptors (52-23) and is racing towards the lottery again. Worse, they were missing four innings from a team that only the most optimistic would have considered a playoff candidate when they were healthy.

But that's all the Raptors have to work on right now. This week Toronto will play three straight games against teams that have lost 50 games for the first time in the franchise's history – the Knicks on Thursday and the Bulls in Chicago on Saturday.

They represent their own type of challenge. While the Raptors' players looked crisp in the first half, they were less after leaving the break with 56-41.

The ball moved less, as the Raptors were more willing to settle for Leonard (14 points in 10 kicks) going against one against one.

When they moved the ball, the Bulls' defense did not always follow or the Raptors fell into the trap of trying to make tougher moves for better kicks than to settle for the fast and easy visual that Bulls offered with minimal resistance.

But the Raptors riders managed to dominate the Bulls with a hint of aggressive defense and were rewarded with an exchange of Bulls. Leonard had six steals in 22 minutes, tied for second place in the franchise's history. The Bulls turned the ball more than 18 times in the night.

By the time the nurse went to his bench again with five minutes to play, the Raptors rose 19 after Gasol met Lowry for his triple room in seven attempts to raise bets in Toronto.

It's interesting to think of how the Raptors would stay if they had not made the trade that brought Gasol here. Before the thumb of Valancuinas was killed by Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors, the Raptors were rolling, reaching 20-4.

Where would the Raptors be now if they had not made the deal that also cost them the umpire insurance in the form of Delon Wright (as well as the three-point shooter CJ Miles)?

We'll never know, obviously. The Raptors were 21-12 while Valanciunas was on the shelf and then did the deal on the same day he should return to action. They are now 12 to 7 since they added Gasol, but with so many pushups in their lineups it is difficult to measure their true effect.

It is hard to imagine that Valanciunas has hurt them. He remained in great condition while he was rehabbing his thumb and hit the ground running in Memphis. Over 16 games, he has averaged 19.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in just 27 minutes of game time.

But Gasol was taken to the Raptors not to replicate the relentless work of the great Lithuanian on the offensive glass or even his ability to score in the left block. The former defensive player of the year is expected to increase the Raptors' collective defensive IQ and offer offensive pieces to other players.

There are many signs that he did just that, and some of them were evident against the Bulls, but how excited are you of being against Chicago?

The biggest plus point may be that none of the starters got hurt, especially Leonard, who fell awkwardly in the third quarter after falling in a race but did not look too bad. The exception was OG Anunoby, who hit his head after trying to take a load and had to be helped in the locker room.

Other good points were some good minutes for the Nurse's rotation players, in particular Norm Powell, who came off the bench by 20 points in 10 shots.

But the biggest plus point of all was that after 14 or so minutes of scrimmage controlled against what are theoretically NBA players, Nurse did not have to put their first players back for more.


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