The term "tough loss" usually refers to a heartbreaking finale, where one team either had the advantage for the majority of the game, only to lose it, or loses a neck-and-neck affair at the game's end, due to some unfortunate event, or series of events.
The Toronto Raptors have had their share of tough losses this season, and last night's 108 to 101 overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was no exception. As I noted last night, this was a game Toronto looked to have in hand, up by as many as 19 points in the early stages of the third quarter, even up by four points with eight seconds left.
As I watched last night's nightmare unfold,a few topics permeated my mind.
One, the team's bench strength. It's something TSN 1050 Radio's Josh Lew noted via Twitter last night:
@Jlew1050: Over the last 10 games, #Raptors bench is 3rd in scoring (45.0), 6th in rebounding (17.6), 1st in assists (11.3). 7th in mins played (20.5)
On a number of different statistical levels, the Raps do indeed have one of the best bench groups in the league of late. The Lowry-Anderson-Ross-Acy group has been terrific, and again last night the quartet put together some solid play.
But to me, last night's match, was again a reason why having a solid bench isn't enough. If your bench and starters are essentially interchangeable, or in fact your bench is consistently outplaying your starters, that's probably not a good thing.
And to me, this has been one of the central themes of the Toronto Raptors during the Bryan Colangelo era; lots of bench depth, not much starting mojo.
The 2008-09 version of the Raptors that sported guys like Joey Graham, Kris Humphries, Jason Kapono and even Andrea Bargnani was an example of this. And the bench mob of Sonny Weems, Jarrett Jack, Reggie Evans and Amir Johnson the following year was solid enough that a number of said players ended up as starters by season's end.
But aside from Chris Bosh, there's been a major dearth of go-to talent during Colangelo's reign, and despite BC's best efforts to rectify this (Hedo, Jermaine O'Neal, now Kyle Lowry), the story remains the same.
That's why last night's third quarter was so mesmerizing to me as Philly buckled down and started running their offense through the club's two upper tier talents, Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young. Toronto had no answer for either and suddenly said 19 point lead had all but evaporated thanks to a 29 to 13 third quarter scoring advantage for the Sixers.
That's not to say the Raptors shoddy D, shot selection and execution didn't play a major part in this too. But if you watched last night Philadelphia's best players stepped up with the game on the line, and Toronto's did not.
I noted after the match that it's games like these that really makes you question the contract extension handed out to DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is being paid to be a cornerstone of the franchise but he amassed a total of eight measly points last night, hit only 4 of 10 shots, and failed to get to the free-throw line.
Alan Anderson didn't have a great shooting night, but at least he made his presence felt as DeMar, as he does far too often, went off quietly into the night.
And all of this brings me to the second topic I was bouncing around my head during the match, one hammered home by an article TSN.ca's Tim Chisholm posted to the interweb hours before the match. In it, Tim correctly identifies the tough situation the Raptors currently find themselves in; "good enough to take themselves out of the running for a top draft pick but not good enough to realistically make the playoffs." The club had been improving their record of late by beating up on the dregs of the league (for the most part) but last night's affair shows just how tough it is to be a playoff contending team without a consistent go-to option on O. Kyle Lowry was supposed to be that guy but he's alternated between overly passive and Kobe-esque since his return from injury.
And outside of that, the consistency this current group brings is more on the effort side than on the "20 points per game" part of the equation.
That consistent effort of course is crucial, but it's hard to see this current group taking a next step, even in the East, if games like this continue to be the rule, and not the exception. You can blame the refs and yes, again last night there were some suspect calls, but really to me this comes back to an under-talented team with such a small margin of error, that those type of calls become magnified each and every game. Had Toronto sustained Philadelphia's third quarter attack, then you're not so worried about Alan Anderson being pushed out of bounds on an end-of-game possession.
Interestingly, for Raptors fans, this strange combination of "120 per cent effort," mixed with a lack of top tier talent, ends up producing many matches like last night's. The effort is there to take a club by surprise (as was the case in the first half last night against a Philly team that looked asleep) but over a larger sample size, ie 48 minutes, the talent tends to rise to the top and while Toronto's effort lets them hang around, they don't have a Jrue Holiday or Al Jefferson hitting a last-second shot.
No, they have Alan Anderson fading away, or worse, last season, Andrea Bargnani triple-pumping.
And unfortunately, I don't think we've seen the last of these.
Unless Bryan Colangelo manages to really shake things up before the trade deadline, there's likely a number of these types of heartbreaking losses still to come.
Oh to be a fan of the Toronto Raptors.