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Trent Jr., Flynn making most of opportunity as Raptors enter home stretch


All anyone needs is a chance, whether they are trying to either establish themselves in the NBA or raise their profile in the league.

The Toronto Raptors are offering up chances like 50-50 tickets: three for a dollar, five bucks gets you an arm’s length.

What you do with those chances is up to you.

The Raptors might be a more certain bet to end up in the draft lottery than in the playoffs as the season approaches the final quarter.

But there is still plenty to gain.

Up and down Toronto’s injury-depleted lineup there are professionals playing for something; either a chance to crack the league, crack the lineup or crack open pre-existing impressions of what their potential might be.

The Raptors will never say they’re tanking or positioning for a better draft position, but it was hard not to interpret some of that with the way their injury list has been used of late. Kyle Lowry missed his sixth straight game with a toe infection he has played with on-and-off all season. He was downgraded from questionable to doubtful before the game but put in a full workout on the floor at Rocket Mortgage Arena hours before his teammates took the floor. He looked fine.

Could he have played in a pinch? Seems reasonable. Similarly, Fred VanVleet – as tough as they come — missed his fourth straight game with a minor hip strain, and Pascal Siakam was held out of the lineup for rest even though Toronto had an off-day on Friday.

It’s all defensible. There’s no point in playing through injuries at this point in the season, and in Siakam’s case he’s averaged 36 minutes a night while playing 11 games in the last 18 days. With the Raptors starting another stretch of five games in seven nights and with the Raptors playing games with eight and nine players lately, something had to give.

“We’ve had a super heavy schedule and it doesn’t get any heavier than [what’s] coming ahead, so we’re trying to figure [it] out,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “These guys are playing super heavy minutes because of the circumstances, and we’ve got a doubleheader this weekend and a doubleheader, I think, midweek, so we’ll probably do a little exchanging of players here and there, just for safety.”

And hey, if the Raptors end up losing the odd game they might have won and their lottery odds improve, well, there’s no harm in that, right?

It didn’t exactly workout that way against Cleveland, who just happened to be a half-game behind Toronto for sixth best lottery odds before Saturday’s game.

Instead, human nature took over in what was a record-setting 135-114 blowout of the Cavaliers as the Toronto non-stars set franchise marks of 47 points in a quarter out of the gates to give them a 21-point lead, and then set a new scoring mark when they took an 87-54 lead into intermission.

With Toronto’s top three scorers out, there were opportunities for all kinds of others to make their own mark and they took full advantage to improve the Raptors to 21-32.

Take Gary Trent Jr., for example. The 22-year-old acquired in the deadline deal for Norm Powell is a restricted free agent this summer. There were only so many opportunities available in Portland where the offence runs through Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum with a sprinkle of Jusuf Nurkic thrown in.

But given some extra oxygen, Trent Jr. has expanded his game. In nine games with the Raptors, he’s smashed his career-high for points twice: he made his first nine shots on his way to a 25-point first half and his 44-point night against Cleveland on 17-of-19 shooting topped a 31-point outing against Oklahoma City on March 31st. He then set a franchise record for plus-minus by going +54 against Golden State and followed up with a buzzer-beating, game-winning three against Washington.

His minutes are up, his scoring is up and his efficiency is up. He’s defended well, has shown he’s more than a standstill shooter and with every game he is using the opportunities provided to him to prove that Toronto would be wise to invest in him as a part of their long-term core.

Similarly, Raptors rookie point guard Malachi Flynn is taking the ball and running with it. He has no choice, given he’s been the only pure point guard on the roster available for four straight games and the only other one since Lowry started sitting out with his foot infection.

Flynn only got into 15 games over the first 30 games of the season, averaging 8.4 minutes a night. He mostly looked tentative and bit over-matched when he did take the wood. But coming into Saturday he had averaged 33.2 minutes over his last four games and set career-highs for points (16), assists (8), rebounds (8) and steals (4).

He was at it again against the Cavs and their young backcourt. Flynn finished with 20 points and 11 assists in 39 minutes – all career highs — but it was the steadying influence he provided in the second half that was huge as Cleveland tried to make it a game. It was Flynn’s tough three that momentarily stalled the Cavs after they started the third quarter on a 21-8 run to get Toronto’s lead to 20.

And Flynn kept it up in the fourth quarter as Toronto seemingly tried to give the game away with a series of sloppy turnovers. The Cavs pulled within 12 with 9:16 to play before Flynn nailed another three, knocked down a pair of free throws and then found Trent Jr. and Yuta Watanabe for quick scores that pushed the lead back to 20 with 6:54 to play.

It’s called making the most of the opportunity.

“I think he needs to be a guy that plays well every night,” said Nurse of his expectations for his rookie point guard before the game. “That doesn’t have anything to do with whether he’s 8-for-10 or 2-for-10. There should still be a number of assists; a number of steals; some good defensive play; three, four, five rebounds even though he’s a point guard. He’s the kind of player that needs to play a good… you know, run the team, execute, grow in his defensive scheme comprehension, all those kinda things.”

There is more opportunity to go around. DeAndre’ Bembry is on a one-year deal and has shown himself to be the kind of versatile, smart player that Nurse favours. He was outstanding during Toronto’s full-throttle start and has played well as a primary ball-handler option with Lowry and VanVleet out. He finished the night with 13 points, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals. He’s made himself noticeable. Similarly, Watanabe – a two-way player trying to earn his first NBA deal – put up a career-high 14 points on Saturday.

Friday night was the Raptors debut for Freddie Gillespie who started a 10-day contract, eager to make an impression and possibly become part of Toronto’s player development mix going into next season. He finished with six points, four rebounds and three steals in 18 minutes and showed some promise, even if he met his teammates for the first time on Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday, Khem Birch is expected to join the Raptors for their game against the New York Knicks after being bought out by the Orlando Magic and clearing waivers. The Montreal big man is a pending free agent looking for a chance to show that he could be a long-term answer to the Raptors void in the middle and earn some long-term financial security that’s so far eluded him in his four-year NBA career.

Everyone is looking for an opportunity, and while a playoff spot might not be in the picture at the moment, the Raptors can certainly offer something to all kinds of players as the season enters the home stretch.

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