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Nick Nurse must ride Raptors' bumpy bench for future gains

TORONTO — Nick Nurse has been left with no choice but to play his bench, and having been forced to do it, he is going to constantly be forced to make choice after choice. And that’s okay.

Terence Davis checked in for the Toronto Raptors with 2:06 remaining in the first quarter of Wednesday’s win over the Sacramento Kings. Literally two seconds later, he picked up his first foul of the game. It was only another minute and change before he picked up another one, but Nurse decided to ride him.

Davis rewarded his coach with another couple minutes before he picked up his third, and Nurse had to turn to Matt Thomas. The 25-year-old sharpshooter had arguably his best moments as a Raptor with a couple of triples and an encouraging effort defensively in 11 minutes, but also lost his man a couple of times and effectively gave back what he was getting. Chris Boucher played five minutes of listless basketball outside of one handy swat, but most notably ruined a play at the end of the first quarter by not knowing where he was supposed to be.

“I thought that group was okay,” Nurse said after the game. “They weren’t great, Matt stuck a few, gave up a few, but at least that group kind of held it even tonight, I thought.

“I’ve got to find some guys and gotta keep trying them so it was a night to do it.”

Patrick McCaw is out for at least the next four weeks, Kyle Lowry played his sixth game of at least 38 minutes out of seven, and Fred VanVleet picked up his fifth game with at least 35 minutes in his first season as a full-time starter. When the Raptors traded traded for Marc Gasol, they gave up Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. They got a ring out of it and that will always be a most worthy payoff, but now they must cope with the other side of the deal.

The Raptors have minimal depth, so even “okay” against a team that currently ranks second-last in net rating, per Cleaning the Glass, is something Nurse will take right now.

Matt Thomas showed he can let if fly in limited minutes. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Davis has tremendous upside, and just as Pascal Siakam is adjusting to life as a star and figuring out how he’s officiated as such, the former has to figure out life as a rookie. It was five fouls in seven minutes on this night, but the 36 minutes he showed over the first three games of the season prove he’s someone that needs to be given every opportunity to grow.

“He needs to get out there and play, so I’d like him to be able to go out there and not foul as much,” Nurse said after the game. “He’s just gonna have to learn. There’s some holding fouls early in possessions, you can’t quite, well, can’t get caught. Got to be able to hold and take your hands back, it’s something you’ve got to learn. How long they’ll let you have them on and take them off when you’re off the ball.

“But we’ll keep throwing him out there, I think it’s good experience for him and we’ll watch the film and see what we can do.”

Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox are a tough hand to be dealt when you’re trying to make an impression, but the road literally only gets more difficult from here with visits to the likes of Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, Lou Williams, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Luka Doncic on hand.

“Stop hacking, that’s number one,” VanVleet said when asked about advice he had for the rookie. “But there’s games like that. I think with him, I just told him, don’t talk to the refs. They pick on rookies. He got picked on a bit tonight. Sometimes you’re just in the wrong place, wrong time. Sometimes you’re making bad decisions or you’re late. It’s gonna happen. We’ve all been there, I’ve had them. I think everybody on this team has had them. It’s just some of the bumps you have to take as a young guy in the league.

“But he’s doing the right thing, he’s playing hard and trying to be in the right spot, and he’s learning. So all he’s gotta do is not do it again on Friday.”

What was encouraging about Thomas was the defensive effort, even if the results weren’t great each time. His biggest mistake in the first half came off a semi-transition push by the Kings, where Cory Joseph caught Harrison Barnes in stride at the left elbow extended. Thomas had Bogdan Bogdanovic in the left corner, but couldn’t resist the temptation to fill the lane Barnes was about to occupy, even though Serge Ibaka was waiting in the paint. Barnes swiftly kicked the ball out to Bogdanovic, and the Serb calmly drained the open triple. A likely contested paint two going up against one of the best shot blockers in the league or an open three? Thomas should learn to make the right choice with more reps.

On another play, he showed the upside. Thomas was forced into a switch on Barnes, denied him receiving the ball back after a pass to Richaun Holmes, then perfectly showed on a Hield drive before recovering quickly enough to get a hand on a kick-out back to Barnes and force a turnover. The reward was a three-point play the old-fashioned way for OG Anunoby (who continued his stellar season). Let them play through some of the bad, and perhaps they can play a bit more carefree and surprise you.

Nurse expected plug-and-play to be the norm from his non-championship core before the season began, but Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, it would appear, can’t even be trusted with that. Boucher, who somehow got beat to board by Joseph, may be looking for a bit more room in the dog house.

But Davis and Thomas have shown they can carve a niche for themselves, the former as an off-ball guard who is as athletic as they come and the latter as a floor spacer who could potentially work his way to be consistently passable on the defensive end.

The four teams after the Pelicans Friday have a combined 19-10 record in the early season and will surely expose the flaws in those two players, but if the Raptors and Nurse are going to give themselves a chance of keeping their best players fresh for the post-season, some sacrifices have to be made in the here and now.

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