If there was a single moment that summarized the Raptors 96-91 loss to the Kings tonight — a game in which they at one point held an 11-point lead — it came afterwards in the locker room. Just before the cameras went on Jakob Poeltl, starting in place of injured Jonas Valanciunas (knee contusion, day-to-day), the Austrian big man turned back to his locker quickly, reached down, and grabbed his pink Frozen backpack. After putting it on, then Poeltl addressed the media. This was the Raptors’ lead defender of DeMarcus Cousins, arguably one of the best forwards in the world.
Now, Cousins’ line of 22 points (on 7-of-21 shooting), 14 rebounds (five offensive), four assists, three blocks and a steal was not the only thing that sunk the Raptors. (Former Raptor Rudy Gay had 23 points on 9-of-19 shooting, for example.) But Toronto was forced to guard Boogie with a combination of Poeltl, the unproven Lucas Nogueira (given playing time for the first time this season), and a blitzing double team (which often featured another rookie in Pascal Siakam). This was ultimately a “hope for the best” situation. And in truth, each did what they could.
But Poeltl swinging on his rookie backpack after the game highlighted the need for the rest of the Raptors — the core of veterans on the team — to, if not always play their best, at least competently fill their roles. Tonight, despite a solid first half, it didn’t happen. “We were out of it the entire night offensively,” said coach Dwane Casey afterwards. “We were off rhythm. They did a good job of sending bodies off of our young guys and onto DeMar (DeRozan), Kyle (Lowry) and our shooters.”
To begin with, the bench trio of Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Cory Joseph were only sporadically effective. Each finished in the negative for plus/minus on the game, though there were individual plays here and there that stood out. (A brilliant chase down block from Patterson; a run of steals from Ross; stout defense and a first half buzzer beater from Joseph.) None of them could reliably hit shots though, going a combined 6-for-22 (including a ghastly 3-for-11 from deep, and another zero percent night from Patterson). Norman Powell got a spot of minutes, putting in four points, but it wasn’t quite enough to offset the collective forgettable outing from the bench.
Speaking of forgettable, we officially need to send a search party out for DeMarre Carroll and his lost game. I’m not sure where it wandered off to. Carroll again shot horribly (1-for-8 from the field, including 0-for-5 from three), and while he was still out there cutting and gamely trying to defend guys, DC did not have it tonight.
At the top of the pyramid were the efforts of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. On Lowry’s side of things, the assist numbers were way up (10 in the game) but his shooting remained off — 5-for-16 on the night, including 3-for-10 from three. And while it’s hard to bag on DeRozan now given the tear he’s been on to start the season, this was the DeMar we’ve seen more often than not in the last couple of years. He shot 7-for-20 for 23 points, but was often drawn into double teams from which there was no escape. The flow of the offense often appeared to stall. The Raptors finished with 22 assists, which is actually up from their typical game, but it didn’t help.
On a night when the Kings expectedly crushed the Raptors 52 to 30 on points in the paint, Toronto needed shooting. What they got was 35.7 percent from the field, and a legitimately awful 23.3 percent from three. So we’re left with the image of Poeltl and his pink backpack, trying to make the best of a bad situation.
Sure, it was an off-night, and the relatively easier to produce offense of Valanciunas was missing. But if the Raptors are going to look to Siakam (10 points, six rebounds), Poeltl (six points, four rebounds) and Nogueira (seven points, five rebounds) for extended minutes, they’ll need the big guns to come back in force.
“Honestly, I don’t know what happened and I can’t even give you a good explanation,” said Lowry. “I know that I have to play better and the team has to play better. It’s only one loss but I put a lot of pressure on our team because we are one of the better teams and I put a lot of pressure on myself because I’m one of the better players.”
Despite the highflying opening of the season, with positives to go all-around, Lowry’s mention of pressure is a reminder to the team that there’s still work to be done. The defense has been mostly sharp, but the offense — and the shooting in particular, besides DeRozan’s thermonuclear start — has been shaky.
“We just have to play better as a group and myself individually,” said Lowry. Sometimes it is just as easy — and difficult — to define as that.