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Raptors not making excuses but injuries clearly taking a toll on remaining roster

TORONTO — Supposedly this is supposed to be fun: the arenas are full, the cheques are in US dollars and hours are pretty good, too.

The NBA: Nice work if you can get it.

But there are limits and it would seem that the Toronto Raptors are approaching them. Before hosting the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night head coach Nick Nurse was asked about who was playing and who wasn’t.

The usual, except a sad opera broke out.

There was hope that Scottie Barnes (knee) and Dalano Banton (sprained ankle, then a non-COVID illness) would be back in the lineup, but they weren’t. There was no indication anything was wrong with Fred VanVleet, but Nurse announced his all-star point guard was sick with a non-COVID illness for the second time this month, his first bout keeping VanVleet out for two games.

Nurse didn’t need to keep going, but he could have. The Raptors have been without Pascal Siakam for three weeks (groin strain); Precious Achiuwa (ankle) for two and Otto Porter Jr. (dislocated toe) for a week. Returns for all of them are undetermined.

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Injuries are part of the job, but not a fun part. Nurse is known as an inventive, creative coach who doesn’t mind some spicy lineup gumbo, but on Wednesday he sounded like a guy who just wanted some familiar comfort food, and maybe a hug.

Instead what he got was something familiar, but much less tasty or comforting in what ended up as a 112-98 loss that was not nearly that close and dropped Toronto to 9-9 while the Nets moved to 9-10 on the season.

Have you heard this one before? The Raptors were dominant on the offensive glass (23-7), made more free throws than their opponent (19-5), forced more turnovers (19-13) and took significantly more shots (101-82) but ended up losing in part — maybe in large part — because they missed a whole bunch of threes and their opponents made plenty.

In this case the Nets shot 17-of-38 from deep to the Raptors’ 7-of-29, and as a result, none of Toronto’s positive box score advantages mattered.

The Nets were led by Kyrie Irving, who scored 26 of his 29 points in the second half to help Brooklyn run away with what was a close game for the first 24 minutes. Irving — embroiled in controversy due to his promotion of an antisemitic documentary — was booed when he was introduced but was clearly unbothered. Ben Simmons continued his return to form as he put up 14 points, six assists and three steals while Kevin Durant was able to coast to 12 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks.

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Absent some of their biggest scorers the Raptors could have used a lightning bolt from someone — maybe Malachi Flynn in his first start of the season — but the closest they could get was an outstanding game from veteran Thad Young who put up 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists. But he was the exception as you might expect given Toronto shot just 35.6 per cent from the floor while the Nets shot 54.9 per cent. Flynn finished with eight points on 12 shots in 30 minutes in an outing that won’t make anyone think he’s poised for a breakout in his third season. Gary Trent Jr. finished with 19 points but was 1-of-8 from deep in his first game back after missing the last two.

Is Nurse relishing the challenge of knitting a new lineup together from scraps of wool every night?

“… Not really to be honest with you. Once in a while, you might enjoy the challenge, but not for three weeks in a row here. It’s getting… it’s not that enjoyable,” he said. “…it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not like we haven’t played very well, because I think we have. If you look at some of our metrics… I think we’re still top 10 in offence and defence in the league and all that stuff, with all these injuries we’ve had for multiple weeks.

“… But what it does, is it causes so much other time spent away from focusing on the game. On trying to figure out when this guy is back, where this guy is, when his treatment is, when his MRI is, where he is, is he travelling, is he not travelling? There’s just so much. Is he sick? Is it COVID? There are so many other things that you’re spending and occupying, and that’s not what you really want to do. We want to focus in on the games and putting all of our energies there. We have to do the best that we can.”

The Raptors at least had a blueprint. The topsy-turvy Nets — who came into the game with a 6-4 record since they fired Steve Nash at the start of the month but just 1-2 with Irving, who served an eight-game suspension for promoting an antisemitic film and only belatedly apologizing for it — had a win gift wrapped for them against Philadelphia on Tuesday and kicked it to the curb.

The Sixers, who were without Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, upset the Nets by in part out-rebounding them 20-4 on the offensive glass, which is saying something since the Sixers were last in that category coming into the game.

The Nets played flat, failing to rise to moment in Simmons’s return to Philadelphia and further raising questions about the fibre of a team that has talent but not always a pulse.

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Nurse thought the Nets would arrive with something to prove after their no-show on against the Sixers. Those that follow the team closely were skeptical about any effort to predict what Brooklyn might do. Then again, the Raptors specialize in winning the possession battle — chasing down more offensive rebounds and forcing opponents into more turnovers than they make themselves — and the Nets were on the second night of back-to-back while the Raptors had played one game in six days.

There was a little bit of everything in the early going.

The Nets came out looking determined to put the Raptors away early. They led 38-26 after the first quarter and were shooting 71.3 per cent from the floor. Simmons, who has begun to find his stride after starting slowly following a missed season a year ago, was turning missed free throws into one-man fastbreaks; Durant scored seven points without trying and Royce O’Neal — who closed out a Nets win over the Raptors in Brooklyn earlier this season — was perfect on all three of his three-point attempts. The Raptors had Anunoby cooking — he scored 11 points as bulled his way into the paint at will — and little else after a pair of early threes by Flynn.

But there were some hints there: The Raptors won the offensive rebounding battle and the turnover differential, and their efforts began to show in the second quarter as their defence tightened up. The Raptors forced the Nets into eight turnovers and grabbed five offensive rebounds to the Nets’ one while holding Brooklyn to 33 per cent shooting in the period.

The effort was top-notch. On one sequence each of Young, Juancho Hernangomez and Trent Jr. hit the floor trying to corral a loose ball. They didn’t get it, but the intent was impressive. Sometimes the effort paid off, as when a Young steal and outlet to a streaking Anunoby ended with the burly Raptors forward dunking on Durant’s head to the delight of the Toronto bench. All of this coincided with some welcome offence by Trent Jr., who has been struggling badly for most of the month. His 14 first-half points helped the Raptors cut the Nets lead to 52-51 at half.

But then the second half came, and Irving and the Nets took off, and the Raptors could only do so much after they failed to convert one open shot after another. The Nets ran away with it — they lead by as much as 17 in the third quarter and were up 20 midway through the fourth.

It’s a tough way to play, and not a fun way to lose.

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