An unexpected shot of optimism as playoff basketball returns to Toronto for first time since 2019

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There was an air of optimism around the Raptors as they got in a final walk through before a pivotal Game 3 in their Eastern Conference quarter-final series with Philadelphia.

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All of it, or certainly most of it, was rooted in a casual walk-by from Scottie Barnes who, the last time he was seen, was in a walking boot.
Well , the boot was gone and there was little to no sign of a limp for the rookie starter who sat out Game 2 after Joel Embiid planted all 280 pounds of his bulk squarely on the rookie’s left foot.

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Now we’re not sure if this was a little gamesmanship or not — it’s not like Nick Nurse is above those kind of things — but when he was asked if Barnes could possibly play in Game 3, he replied, “Maybe.”

About seven hours later in the day Nurse remained very enthused with the turnaround Barnes had made, but admitted a Game 3 miraculous return was not in the cards.

Nurse though sounded very confident that Barnes would be ready to go for a Game 4.

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Fred VanVleet was asked what it would mean to get a guy like Barnes back for what is basically do-or-die in the series.
“It would do a lot,’ VanVleet said. “You know he has been one of our better players this year. He’s obviously in the starting five. He brings a lot to the table with his size and his IQ and just the way he plays. He can break a defence down. Defensively he can switch and guard and rebound. We just got to let him heal up. Don’t want to put the pressure on him, feeling like he has to rush back. So, whenever he is ready, we’ll take him back for sure.”

Gary Trent Jr., who has played in both games in the series, but has been ineffective in both as he tried to play through a non-COVID illness, is trending in a positive direction in terms of his health.

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Nurse said Trent Jr. will definitely start the game but he’ll be watched to see if he has his conditioning all the way back.

“It will probably be that he goes out and starts again and we’ll see how he’s doing,” Nurse said. “The biggest issue that he’s having — kind of among others — I think that’s affected him physically is just being able to breathe and get you know, catche his wind and survive through that. So hopefully some of that will be better. If he can’t, we’ll get him out of there.”

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NOT AT THAT POINT

There may come a point that Nurse digs down into his bag of tricks and unveils some of the weird and wacky defensive gimmicks he’s compiled over his lengthy and far-reaching basketball travels, but that point isn’t here just yet.

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“I don’t know,” Nurse said. “I think we’re getting outplayed. They’re running faster than we are. They’re playing more physical, although I thought we held up better physically last game. The trickiest defences and the trickiest offensive players aren’t going to be any good if your foundational stuff isn’t solid, anyway. Most of that stuff comes out of foundational principles, and I think we’ve got to do that stuff a little bit better.”

THE HARDEN FACTOR

Few will argue James Harden is not looking like the James Harden who won an MVP in Houston or even the one that came off the bench for Oklahoma City and wowed everyone on his way to nine career NBA all-star honours.

None of that is to suggest he has not had a profound impact on this series thus far.

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Harden the scorer has been negated to some degree, but Harden the offensive creator might be right at the very peak of his game.

Through two games he has scored 36 points which actually puts him fourth on the team behind every Philadelphia starter not named Danny Green.

But on the assist list, he’s clearly No. 1 having doled out 20 dimes or 10 more than the next nearest 76er.

“It’s tougher to guard the guys that beat you with the pass than the guys who shoot 30 times,” VanVleet said. “James has been dictating the game, controlling the game from the point guard spot. We still have to worry about Joel, obviously, and then Tyrese and Tobias and those guys it feels like they’ve been making every shot. But James has been locked in, and from a point guard perspective I’m just trying close down some of those passing lanes and make things more difficult and crowded and contested.”

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CALLING FOR MORE SPICE

Through two games Pascal Siakam is averaging 22 points a game-taking 18 shots in Game 1 and 20 in Game 2.

Nick Nurse wants more.

“In the last game, I thought he turned down some opportunities, some fairly easy ones. He can’t do that,” Nurse said. “I think there need to be some more opportunities for him. I don’t know how many shots he took last game. 17? He probably needs to be in the 25 range.”

For context, Siakam averaged 17.8 per game in the regular season. But in the playoffs, and certainly with as many as two starters down, asking Siakam for more is not unreasonable.

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