The immediate benefits of the long road trip that just ended for the Raptors are obvious.
They won more than they lost, got rid of a long and difficult journey in the first month of the regular season, and stayed very much in touch with the other teams near the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
That is all well and good, and should leave them with a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, but the true measure of what they just did will come long into the future.
“I would say we’re … we’ve got to be pretty satisfied and, you know, on the plus side of it, we grew a little bit,” coach Nick Nurse told reporters after the 3-2 trip ended with a 110-102 loss in Dallas on Saturday night. “We got a look at some guys and we know how we can use them here, and going into the future when guys do start filtering back in.”
The overriding accomplishment for the Raptors from the road swing is that they not only opened the eyes of some observers, but their own as well. It was after the second game in Los Angeles, albeit a loss to the Clippers, that it really sunk in. It was affirmed when they won in Portland despite the absence of Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby and Patrick McCaw because of injuries — fully half of the eight-man rotation they wanted to use from the start of the season.
This team always plays hard, and it’s a testament to their mental toughness that they don’t care who’s in the lineup or out of it. They work to get the job done.
“It’s not what we intended to do. You want to get them all, but overall, just happy at the play,” Fred VanVleet said Saturday after the loss. “We didn’t lay down for anybody.”
The Raptors began the journey in New Orleans with basically a full roster, although McCaw was out. They lost Lowry and Ibaka after the first game and were without Anunoby for basically two entire games, after he was poked in the eye by Kawhi Leonard in the opening 90 seconds of the Clippers contest, but still managed to split a tough back-to-back in Los Angeles and win going away in Portland before weariness — and Luka Doncic’s parade to the free-throw line — got them in Dallas.
“You know, given the circumstances, I’m proud of the group that was out there on the floor and what we were able to accomplish,” VanVleet said. “We’re playing out butts off.”
Perhaps the biggest and most important roster surprise was the contribution of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson over the last four games. He’s worked himself into the rotation with a defensive mindset that allows him to guard multiple positions and that can only ease the pressure — and cut the minutes — of guys like Pascal Siakam and Ibaka when everyone’s healthy.
That is the best long-term realization to come out of the trip.
“Rondae has been working really hard,” Nurse said Saturday. “ We’ve just kinda started using him here. He had a good night against (LeBron) James, he had a decent night against (Kawhi) Leonard and he had a good night against (Damian) Lillard.
“Also he’s, you know, got really good feet for his size (six-foot-six, 217 pounds) and strength and he works. For us on this road trip he’s been a pleasant find. A guy that I think the rest of our guys trust to have out on the floor.”
That trust will go a long way as the season rolls along. There were legitimate questions about the Raptors’ depth to start the year, and while there are certainly going to be slumps and blips and steps backwards to deal with in the coming weeks, they seem to have found enough bench pieces that someone will always be able to help.
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It might not always be the same player — Terence Davis II, Chris Boucher and Matt Thomas have had key stretches in games of late — but there’s enough help that someone should always be able to rise to the occasion when needed. And now with seven of their next nine games at home, starting Monday night against Charlotte, the Raptors are brimming with confidence.
“You’ve got to be pretty happy,” Nurse said.