Valanciunas nearing return to Raptors lineup seven weeks after dislocating thumb
Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas reacts after injuring his hand during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., on December 12, 2018. The Toronto Raptors say the injury to centre Jonas Valanciunas's left thumb continues to improve, though the team did not provide a date for his return. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Jeff Chiu
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, February 4, 2019 10:00PM EST
TORONTO - Jonas Valanciunas is almost ready to return to Toronto's lineup, seven weeks after a powerful swat from Draymond Green dislocated his thumb.
And with Kyle Lowry's troublesome lower back acting up once again, the Raptors need all the help they can get.
Valanciunas participated in practice on Monday, and coach Nick Nurse expects the Lithuanian big man to return some time during the team's three-game road trip which opens Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Is Nurse anxious to have Valanciunas back?
“One hundred per cent,” Nurse said. “Obviously when we face these big guys that are matchup issues, it's really important. I also just think that it gives us such a different feel. All of a sudden we're big and strong, and then we're a little bit more fluid and spacey and there's more space. I like that feel. Before, (Sixers forward Joel) Embiid had a tough time when we could throw both different looks at him. We miss the different looks.”
Nurse said that Lowry will likely miss a second consecutive game with lower back pain. The five-time all-star guard missed six games at the end of December due to his ailing back, but hadn't missed a game since until Sunday's win over the L.A. Clippers.
“He didn't partake today, but I would assume it's leaning a little further toward doubtful (for Tuesday),” Nurse said after practice.
Valanciunas was enjoying a strong start to the season when Green took a swipe at the ball in a Dec. 13 game at Golden State. Green connected with the Raptor centre's thumb instead, leaving Valanciunas howling in agony. He underwent surgery the next day.
Valanciunas, whose 12.8 points through 30 games tied his career high set in the 2015-16 season, said a big test came during Monday's practice when he took a hit on the thumb.
“It's still here, I'm not out so it's still good,” he said.
While Valanciunas said the thumb is still sore, he's not worried about the pain so much as finding a proper way to tape his thumb that allows the mobility to have a good grip on the ball.
What will his return mean for the (38-16) Raptors, who are a game and a half back of the Milwaukee Bucks for first in the Eastern Conference?
“My main thing is setting the good screens and getting guys open and that's what I'm going to try to do,” Valanciunas said. “We've got to share the ball, we've got to play together, we've got to get some structure when we play on offence. Defence . . . protecting the rim, that's the biggest goal. Protect the rim, protect the paint and be successful.”
Valanciunas is excited to be back with his teammates after spending most of his rehab working with the team's strength and conditioning coach Jon Lee.
“It's not fun sitting on the sidelines, you know?” he said. “It's not fun just running with Johnny Lee. Not saying he's a bad guy, he's strength and conditioning coach of the year, but it's not fun doing something without competition.”
Before Sunday's game at Scotiabank Arena, Lee was presented with the 2017-18 strength coach of the year award from the NBA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association.
Following Tuesday's game in Philly (34-19), the Raptors head to Atlanta to play the Hawks (17-35) on Thursday, and the New York Knicks (10-42) on Saturday. The Raptors return home to host Brooklyn (28-26) on Feb. 11.