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Nick Nurse adamant on depleted roster in Raptors’ close loss against Heat

Heat, Raptors, Nick Nurse, Gary Trent Jr., Khem Birch

It was another great showing and another loss for the Toronto Raptors.

As has always been the case with the team this season, the margins are thin. That means missing key rotations pieces like Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch are going to have a serious impact on the best of nights against the lowliest of opponents.

But the Raptors weren’t playing a bottom-feeder on Monday night. No, they were playing the Miami Heat (sans old flame Kyle Lowry), one of the few teams in the league with both a top-10 offense and defense—the macro profile of a contender.

“I think we played as tough as we could,” coach Nick Nurse told reporters post-game. “I didn’t see anything that was changing. I think we were battling from start to finish. Other than one small stretch there, they took it out to nine, we clawed it straight back—it probably could’ve went either way. It was a hell of an effort by our guys.”

As such, the losses to the rotation hurt enough that, even with the Raptors revving its engine and playing at a high level, it simply didn’t have enough juice to get the job done. On top of that, Nurse opted to play just seven guys (Justin Champagnie, the seventh man, only took the floor for nine minutes and dislocated his finger, though he was cleared to re-enter), consequently having the starters log heavy minutes that may have factored into the end-of-game lull.

It felt like a playoff game, not a random Monday night in January, and while the end result was a well-fought battle that both sides can ultimately be proud of, one wonders how many contests Nurse can roll out such a short rotation without repercussions for the Raptors.

“I know that’s a lot of minutes for some of those guys, but I felt comfortable,” Nurse said. “I thought I had six guys, I wanted them all out there. I wanted to keep Precious (Achiuwa) out there more in the fourth quarter. But ran Scottie (Barnes) and Chris (Boucher) was having a great game so let him keep going. I’m not sure, looking at the guys we played, that I can fault any of them for the way we played tonight. So I’m not saying I needed to try somebody else.”

Indeed, neither players nor coaches like to talk about minutes or load management or anything of the sort, but there are endless past examples of guys with heavy regular season workloads succumbing to injury by the time the postseason arrives. It’s a concern worth, at the very least, keeping back of mind.

With the trade deadline looming, there is a chance this issue is addressed in one form or another. But it also depends on Nurse’s trust in and willingness to play his end-of-rotation players. Guys like Malachi Flynn, Dalano Banton, and Svi Mykhailiuk (Yuta Watanabe has really only been in and out of the lineup due to injury and health and safety protocols) have seen their minutes and roles undulate significantly over the course of the season.

Put simply, the Raptors have the league’s worst bench. They average the fewest points (23.8), the fewest minutes (14.2), and the lowest three-point percentage (26.8). Nurse is by no means in an easy spot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to an untenable solution which could lead to other offshoot troubles requiring mitigation of their own.

Evidently, the hope is that once Trent and Birch are able to return, and Watanabe has ramped back up to game shape once again, the answer lies therein for the Raptors.