If you think the Toronto Raptors should look to tank this NBA season, you were probably pretty happy with last night's 102 to 100 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Not only did the loss prevent the Dinos from getting back to .500, but it was a living opus to just what this current version of the Raptors is all about.
And yet the latter part of that sentence also must give Masai Ujiri pause as he considers the club's next direction. Let me explain.
Last night we had a moribund Brooklyn Nets team come into Toronto, and for nearly nearly four quarters, kick the Raptors tails all over the court. Sure, the Raps led 28 to 26 after one quarter, but the bulk of that was on the strength of their three-point shooting (the club was 5 of 5 from long range in Q1 and was 10 of 20 at one point), not a normal Toronto "strength." The Nets however continued to pound away inside and as the Raptors' shooting regressed to the mean, Brooklyn took over.
Considering the Nets have been one of the most horrendous clubs in the NBA this young season, and were missing arguably their two best players, and two other top seven options, well, losses like this certainly make your fanbase reach for their collective army helmets.
On the flip side though, after looking down and out, the Dinos staged a furious comeback to cut a 15 point deficit with three minutes left, to only one. In the process, they looked like a well-oiled machine, attacking the rim, drawing fouls, stretching out the Nets defence, and generally getting whatever they wanted on offence.
It's this version that makes one wonder if, with a few pieces rearranged, the club couldn't begin to put it together similar to what the Pacers did a few years ago, and the Blazers seem to be doing this year. DeMar DeRozan for instance is starting to look like a veritable plus on the court thanks to some much improved long-range shooting and offensive repertoire. He had an efficient 27 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists, hit 4 of his 6 three-point attempts, and essentially kept the Raps in this one by himself for half the game.
And while I'm still not convinced that Kyle Lowry is the perfect point guard for this collective, he too was excellent last night scoring 24 points and dishing out 6 assists. Lowry was the catalyst for the Dinos' late-game comeback and has played much better of late.
We know that Amir Johnson is a consistent plus on the court, and if the team would get Jonas Valanciunas more than six shots maybe, just maybe...
But of course for now, we don't get the "maybe" version of the Raptors, we get the version that had DeRozan and Lowry carry the club, and not get much help from their teammates. The back-up point guard spot was a mess again, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas didn't get enough looks on O and were routinely out-muscled in the paint on D, and Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak and Terrence Ross weren't nearly consistent enough.
And then there was Rudy Gay.
Gay has struggled this season but last night looked to be on track for an-all time worst Raptors' performance. While he hit a huge three to get the Raps within a point with 23 seconds left, Gay was 2 of 11 before that shot with SEVEN turnovers. Had he not nailed the three well...yeah.
I'm not faulting Gay on that final play however. He did the right thing by attacking and drawing the defence, and kicking it out to the open shooter. It wasn't his decision to put Amir Johnson out there and have him pretend to be Bruce Bowen. That situation falls at the feet of Dwane Casey who again seemed a bit off with his late-game management. The club waited too long to foul before that final possession, and while I understand Amir Johnson's importance as a screener and rebounder, you've got Jonas out there too and considering the club's excellent long-range shooting this season, maybe you go with another long-range option like Terrence Ross?
This finale though isn't the Charlotte situation all over again to me (Amir has knocked down a decent percentage of those looks, maybe more than Ross) but it brings me back to the main point of this recap. What the hell does Masai Ujiri do?
If he stays the course this club could very well be mediocre enough to get a top playoff seed in the East considering the play of their competition.
But as last night's game illustrated, they aren't too far removed from the NBA's dregs either and could also easily sink down to the bottom of the East again.
The question is, if the latter occurs, will Ujiri have ensured they sink far enough down to come up for air via a top lottery pick.