Toronto’s offense without Kyle Lowry has already been devoid of style points most nights, but the team has still been able to uphold league-average scoring efficiency over the last two weeks — mostly thanks to DeMar DeRozan’s nose for buckets.
Night’s like Friday were always going to be an inevitable side effect of Lowry’s absence, however. In a 105-99 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Raptors found little breathing room against the NBA’s fourth-best defense.
There were moments throughout the first three and a half quarters where it seemed like a Raptors’ breakout was imminent.
The ball pinged around the court in the first quarter. Had some open looks from three fallen, the Toronto might have taken advantage of a strong defensive start. Had DeRozan’s third-quarter outburst in which he gracefully carved up the Hawks with deft floaters extended into the fourth, the Hawks might have been outgunned. If Norman Powell’s fourth quarter mini-burst ignited into a supernova the way it did last Friday in Washington, the Raptors could be sitting four-games clear of Atlanta right now instead of two. Only so many Toronto runs could be suppressed before Atlanta would string together one of their own.
It was a game of continual half-hearted push and pull. No team crawled out to a lead greater than four points until less than three minutes remained in regulation, a game flow quirk that can mostly be attributed to the lack of offensive juice on either side.
It’s fitting then, that the Hawks’ advantage came as a result of a Raptors’ late-game scoring drought as opposed to an explosive run orchestrated by Dennis Schroder and friends.
After scraping together enough baskets to take a one-point lead into the final frame, the Raptors’ collectively lost their range. Only nine of 31 Toronto shots found bottom in the last 12 minutes as the offense reached peak viscosity. DeRozan found success navigating his screeners to find mid-range looks throughout the game, with a healthy chunk of his 28 points (on 12-of-30 shooting) coming from his personal hot spot in the area 10-12 foot from the rim. In that maddening fourth, the screens and ball movement gave way to life-sucking inertia.
Pointing fingers at DeRozan or Dwane Casey is easy. But finding a nightly rhythm is tricky without your conductor. Another ugly three-point shooting line was added to the Raptors’ post-Lowry resumé on Friday. Shooting 4-of-25 from deep almost seems impossible in today’s NBA, but that’ll happen when DeRozan jacks up eight shots from outside the arc (many of which were of the late clock/desperation variety).
Expecting Toronto’s offense to be as pass-happy and aesthetically pleasing as it was in moments against New Orleans on Wednesday is unrealistic, at least until Lowry returns. Nights like Friday at The Fortress are part of the Lowry-less territory.
An optimist would look at the way the Raptors have defended since their best player went down (tonight notwithstanding - Atlanta shot 52 percent) and be heartened. While the offense might be incapable of greatness right now, the Raptors had defended at a top-10 rate since February 23rd coming into the game with the Hawks. Stopping teams, rather than raining points on their heads, is the way the Raptors have to subsist right now. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be a winning formula every time out.