In a season full of epic unravelings, last night's 118 to 116 loss to the LA Lakers may have taken the cake as despite repeated double-digit leads, the Dinos yet again failed to close an opponent out, losing in a fashion you'd be hard-pressed to describe as anything but "epic."
Kobe Bryant's clear-path dunk with 10 seconds left in overtime capped off a ridiculous performance for Monsieur Vino who literally willed his club to victory. Bryant scored 15 points in the fourth quarter and overtime combined, including a series of absolutely ridiculous three-pointers to keep his club in it down the stretch:
It's hard to properly articulate just how spectacular Bryant's performance was but suffice to say without him, this would have been an easy Raptors' win.
That's the good part of the epic I suppose.
The flip side is that it wasn't Kobe's performance alone that prodded the fat lady into cantation.
Toronto also gave Bryant every opportunity to work his magic by stumbling their way through the game's final possessions, a walking Exhibit A so to speak in the case for "why this current roster as presently composed doesn't work, and won't work, going forward."
Because let's be clear about something. As good as Kobe was, there were a myriad of possessions that had Toronto correctly executed, would have meant a Raptors' win.
From the Raptors' inability to foul late and prevent Bryant from getting (and eventually making) a three-point look, to shot selection in the extra session, this was a concoction of Raptors' awful, and yet one that seemed pre-ordained to transpire. The opponent was different and Kobe's performance may have provided the extra dramatics, but the same issues that have dogged this club of late continued to do so last night, and as a result, I feel this recap almost does a disservice to Kobe's brilliance; intertwined with it were the Raptors' rudimentary foibles, many of which have been on display since pre-season, others, exacerbated by the addition of Rudy Gay.
Oh yes, Mr. Gay.
Again last night we saw the issues with handing the keys to the franchise over to the former UCONN stud.
Gay hit only seven of his 26 shot attempts and is now 38 per cent as a Raptor, despite taking nearly 20 shots a game. As his sample size of games has increased he's looked less and less like the "clutch" player he was advertised to be and instead, the player Memphis probably was thrilled to rid themselves of, especially if it meant acquiring useful assets in return.
That's not to say Gay is Alan Anderson, but as I noted while recapping Toronto's recent loss to Golden State, it's extremely hard to win games when your most used offensive options are so inefficient offensively.
Gay not only struggled to hit shots, but he also struggled to take good ones, a few of his decisions directly leading to Lakers' baskets. With his club up three with 49 seconds left, Gay for some reason decided to pull up for a three-pointer early in the shot clock, despite DeMar DeRozan having the hot hand on the night, and Rudy more akin to an icebox.
The shot missed badly allowing the Lakers to secure possession, call time-out and draw up a play for a Steve Nash three-pointer.
Which he promptly nailed.
That apparently didn't faze Gay, who then came right back on the ensuing possession, and fired up another brick, oblivious to the wails of despair from Raptors' fans watching in Friday's waning hours.
George Costanza once declared he would "do the opposite" since if every instinct he had was wrong, the opposite would have to be right. Rudy Gay desperately needed to take a page out of this book last night, as over and over he forced his offensive game, racking up six turnovers, two of which were huge offensive fouls down the stretch.
He simply couldn't have played much worse, missing both of his game-winning attempts, and suddenly instead of looking like an argument against firing Colangelo, Gay looks to be only furthering the case, another in the long line of BC's big name acquisitions providing marginal returns despite heft price tags.
Of course this loss isn't all on Gay.
In fact in some ways I'd argue it's not Gay's fault at all. His performance, while admittedly poor, isn't that far removed from his baseline level in Memphis, what's changed are the expectations surrounding him. It's a bit like putting a hungry crocodile in a room with a rabbit and not expecting to open the door hours later and find the rabbit inside the croc. Rudy Gay always has been a high-volume, low efficiency scorer, and despite new teammates, that continues to be the case.
And one could argue that's only compounded by his new surroundings in fact.
One high-volume/low-usage player on a team full of more efficient options isn't such an issue. We've seen various NBA teams be successful with such a composition in the past.
DeRozan last night was actually quite brilliant, keeping his club in the game despite the misguided firings of Gay and Anderson. He was 12 of 18 en route to a sensational 28 points, and added five rebounds and five assists for good measure.
Yet he didn't take a single shot in the final three minutes of overtime, his teammates preferring to try and take matters into their own hands despite his success in the game's previous 50 minutes.
Too many crocodiles.
And too many minutes for said crocodiles.
Dwane Casey needs to shoulder a big part of this loss as it was his decision that kept Gay, and a 6 of 14 Alan Anderson out there despite their struggles. Anderson's defence on Kobe Bryant was fairly solid, but like Gay, his decision making on offence for the most part was abysmal, leading to many a Lakers opportunity at the other end.
Casey elected to stick with Gray down the stretch despite Jonas' success previously in the match against Dwight Howard. Valanciunas had 12 points, 6 rebounds and a block in only 17 minutes of action, frustrating Howard with his tenacity and quickness. However Casey never again looked Val's way after Jonas picked up his fourth foul in the second half.
I love Gray, but he's a player with limited upside compared to Jonas, and not nearly the offensive threat. The Lakers didn't even attempt to guard Gray on many possessions, and looked to get him involved in pick-and-roll situations at the other end.
Post-game Kobe noted that on his go-ahead dunk, he saw Gray coming, and waited a bit until the plodding Gray could get close enough for Bryant to go right around him. Using Jonas Valanciunas might not have made a difference in that situation, but it's hard to fathom why Casey didn't give it a shot. Even Raptors' colour-man Jack Armstrong was questioning the decision, albeit as nicely as possible.
And in many ways, Valanciunas representing an upgrade in those situations is hardly the point.
The Raptors have been realistically out of playoff contention for a while, and what better way to get youngsters like Valanciunas up to NBA speed than to give them minutes in those situations? This is a team that should be playing for next season so why not loosen the reigns?
JA Adande tweeted post-game that:
"Lasting image for me was Kobe's expression after a Raptor layup led to quibbling over the defensive breakdown w/ 3 min left in OT...
Kobe held out his hands, palms down, with a look that said "chill out." Or, as he said later, "Let Vino handle this s---"
That's indeed how this one felt, Kobe knowing that over the course of the game he could exploit the Raptors' weakness, and get his team the W.
The Raptors conversely, didn't seem to have a plan, playing down the stretch as a team of individuals trying to "make the winning shot."
As the saying goes, the Lakers were playing like they were trying to win, whereas the Raptors were playing like they were trying not to lose.
We've seen this movie before, and the addition of new cast members like Rudy Gay didn't change the plot one iota.
And unfortunately unless major changes are made at likely the Director and Studio level, I'm afraid fans are in for a lot more episodes in this series the rest of the season, and possibly into next.