Sports

There’s a reason the Raptors look so comfortable with their backs against the wall

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Maybe the Raptors were just built for this.

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Dig yourself a 3-0 hole, lose your starting point guard and then, well then you start flexing your muscles?

It’s not like the team didn’t have any practice overcoming hurdles in the regular season.

Pascal Siakam started the season hurt. OG Anunoby ran into some bad luck in November and then repeated that in February, March and part of April.

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Fred VanVleet took the better half of the year to admit he was actually playing hurt and then toughed it out until he couldn’t.

All told the three mainstays in the Raptors rotation, the only Raptors with any real experience in the league,  missed 63 games – 34 by OG, 15 by VanVleet and 14 by Siakam.

Those were and remain the guys on this team. The leaders on court and off are being asked not only to improve their own level of play but to bring along the rest of the young rotation.

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It’s hard to do when you’re healthy and playing. It’s infinitely harder when you’re injured and simply focused on getting back on the court.

But somehow through it all Raptors head coach Nick Nurse and his staff had enough healthy bodies to finish the year with 48 wins and a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

And now those lessons learned as they played through injury and illness and overcame one absence over another just plugging the holes with that favourite athlete manta ‘Next man up’, the Raptors are once again putting them to use in a playoff run that looked dead on arrival but now feels destined for another series.

Perhaps without all those injuries, Scottie Barnes isn’t ready to assume the role of No. 4 in the rotation in terms of minutes and importance to the team.

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The NBA Rookie of the Year was always going to get a long look and extended minutes, but would he have got the experience leading this team in the absence of those key players had everyone stayed healthy?

Barnes in no way looks like a rookie in this series. A rookie gets stepped on by Joel Embiid and can’t feel his foot for a couple of days doesn’t come back three games later and just resume his experience.

With Fred VanVleet out Barnes had no time to baby his injury. He figured that out in a tough regular season.

Does Precious Achiuwa, a guy who looked out of control for a large chunk of the early part of the season, suddenly have the discipline and the confidence to look Embiid in the eye and basically tell him he’s no longer going to be allowed to do what he wants.

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Embiid had his way in the first three games of this series but in the last two Achiuwa has been a huge reason – along with Khem Birch and Siakam, and Thad Young – for why Embiid is looking and sounding so frustrated.

As Achiuwa took his seat at the podium to discuss the Raptors improbable and potentially historic comeback from a 3-0 deficit after a Game 5 win, he answered every question about his state of mind before the first one was uttered.

As he adjusted the microphone to make sure his words were clear Achiuwa suggested to one and all that his “drip” or outfit for the evening was deserving of some praise.

That’s a far cry from the Achiuwa who previously entered these podium interviews looking nervous and unsure of himself.

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“Yeah, he’s been huge for us,” Siakam said of his young teammate. “Obviously, guarding Embiid is a team job, but at the same time, he’s the initial defender out there and, you know, he’s guarding Harden and he can guard anybody. and I think that’s huge for us and then on offence, just taking the shots that’s there. Most of the time if you have the five on you, you’re gonna have shots, being ready to take them and he’s been doing that.”

And in this list of players who have benefitted from time they might not normally get we couldn’t leave out Chris Boucher.

The lanky Canadian basically re-invented himself mid-season when it became obvious the role that the team needed filled most was an energy guy coming off the bench willing to sacrifice his body and in large part a better stats night for a more effective second banana role alongside the starters on this team.

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Boucher eased into this role like it was designed for his particular skill set and relished the opportunity to raise the energy and spirits of everyone with him on the floor.

With Achiuwa and Boucher and the mid-season acquisition of Thad Young all fulfilling their roles, not even the loss of a man as key to this operation as VanVleet has tripped them up.

The job is surely not over, but for the first time in this series, it feels like the early hole the Raptors dug for themselves just might not mean the end of their season.

Ironically, they’ve been preparing for this very scenario the entire season.

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