Perhaps a three-day break was just what the Raptors needed. After a disappointing loss to the Timberwolves on Wednesday night, the Raps had Thursday to Saturday to think about what in the world was going on. Questions surely abounded. Prime among them: Could the Raptors play to their potential and re-assert themselves as an Eastern Conference leader? The answer: No, no they could not. Instead, Toronto lost in almost the exact same fashion tonight, allowing the Detroit Pistons to comeback and win 102-101.
It’s hard to explain this one. Oh wait, it’s not. After a solid three quarters of moving the basketball, getting everyone involved, and playing decent defense, the Raptors played the fourth quarter as if they were trying not to lose. This is never, not ever, a wise course of action.
The Raptors decided the last six minutes would be spent mostly force feeding the ball to DeMar DeRozan and just getting out of the way. Kyle Lowry was the only other Raptor to put some shots up. (Jonas Valanciunas was the third Rap to get some points in, surprise.) This is an offensive plan that can work at times — DeRozan can get switched onto his lessers and make easy shots. But other times, say, when DeRozan starts missing more shots than he makes while not getting calls, the Raptors should look elsewhere. Where else could they go? Interesting question.
The Raptors had some fun lineups working earlier in the game. The second quarter saw them put together a 17-2 run with the Lowry plus bench lineup, a little Norman Powell, and with DeMarre Carroll in there as well. The team moved the ball, found scoring opportunities out of the pick-and-roll, and featured some high-low passing between Lucas Nogueira and Valanciunas. There was variety to the team’s attack. For the night, Carroll went 6-of-9 from the field for 15 points, while chipping in three assists. Nogueira had a quieter 6 points-3 rebounds line, but was active. And Valanciunas put together another gem with 17 points and 9 rebounds on 7-of-14 shooting. Why he was ignored again down the stretch will forever confound me. He’s passing out of the post now!
Somehow, despite being up by 16 points and watching the Pistons clang open shot after open shot, the Raptors managed to let this one slip away. The team got roasted by Tobias Harris again as he went for 24 points. (Here specifically is where the absence of Patrick Patterson is felt.) And once coach Stan Van Gundy committed to playing his best five guys — Ish Smith in for Reggie Jackson, Harris playing like a terror, Andre Drummond and his 18 rebounds, Marcus Morris beefing with everyone, and Kentavious Caldwall-Pope and his miraculous 3 to give the Pistons the lead and win — the game was over.
It pains me to say this but even with Patterson in the lineup, this team may be broken. The final possession is a perfect summary. Eight second on the clock, DeRozan dribbles to nowhere in particular with Morris all over him and puts up a bad, wild shot. Was DeMar hoping for a call? Probably. Was DeMar going to get one? Get real, man. There has to be, by now, some sense of complexity to the Raptors’ execution. Is this really what coach Dwane Casey tells the team in the final huddle? Hoo boy.
The Raptors will make the playoffs again — they can’t lose enough games to avoid that fate — but we know how this is going to end. Lowry continues to lead the league in minutes (he played 36 tonight, for a 15 point, 6 rebound, 5 assist outcome), DeRozan continues to steer the team according to his whims, and there feels like a ton of potential left on the table. Every game coming will be a war of attrition, with the Raptors sometimes winning, often losing, and everyone else pulling their hair out. (I feel substantially balder already.)
The Raptors have two games to go before the All-Star break — the Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago and then their old pals the Hornets. They need some solid wins here or this feeling, this trend, this emotion is only going to get worse. Godspeed everyone.