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Raptors let game slip away against the Jazz, lose 97-93

Despite a slow start, Jonas Valanciunas and the Raptors played well enough to beat the Utah Jazz. Except, well, they didn’t.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

“There’s an old saying: the way you start’s the way you finish,” said coach Dwane Casey after his Raptors fumbled away a winnable game, 97-93, to the Utah Jazz. “We finished the way we started.”

In case you missed it, this was a classic “playing in mud” game from the Raptors. They got off to a sluggish start, went on a second quarter run, gave it back in the third, and then failed to execute well enough down the stretch for the win. We’ve seen these kinds of performances from the Raptors before — Casey has too.

What’s unfortunately this time out, is the performance the Raptors wasted from Jonas Valanciunas. For a stretch in the early part of the season, it looked like JV wasn’t long for the NBA, let alone the Raptors; too slow, too robotic, too out-of-date, that was the thinking. But since the start of 2018, with a couple exceptions, Valanciunas has been a force on the court for Toronto. Tonight, against no less than Rudy Gobert, the best defensive centre in the league, Jonas went off for 28 points on 12-of-16 shooting (including the first multi-three game of his career; he went 2-for-2 from deep), 14 rebounds, and four blocks. He even had a sweet dish early for a Kyle Lowry bucket. On top of that, Valanciunas’ defense was strong throughout — he could not be accused of failing to do his job.

But speaking of that Lowry bucket, it was one of only two the newly-minted Raptors All-Star managed on the night. Now, the cynical among us would suggest that since Lowry has his All-Star spot secure, he was due for a bad performance. I don’t necessarily believe that — Lowry’s got too much pride — but the numbers don’t lie: five points on 2-of-14 shooting, including 0-of-6 from three, with seven assists, but against five turnovers. It was also Lowry left scrambling back to Ricky Rubio’s game-winning three after he found himself just a step or two too far away trying to help on defense. It was not an All-Star performance from Lowry by any reasonable metric.

“It happens. It’s a long season. It’s one loss. I’m not mad about it,” said Lowry in a definitely not mad about it way. “I mean we’re upset about it but we’ve just got to get better from it. We learn from it, grow from it and get better.​”

His fellow All-Star DeMar DeRozan fared better — 19 points, eight assists, six rebounds, one vicious tomahawk dunk — but it’s the pair of missed jumpers down the stretch that we’ll remember. In the micro, those misses cost the Raptors the game; but in the macro sense, let’s remember Casey’s adage. The Raptors finished the way they started: in mud, out of sorts, in a funk, in a bad way, lost. DeRozan shot 7-of-22 on the night and never quite looked himself. Paired with Lowry’s disaster, we end up here.

The rest of the the Raptors had their moments. Serge Ibaka had the world’s quietest double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. C.J. Miles hit some much needed threes — the team in total went 7-of-27 from deep, which is cause for concern. After getting bullied during his first run on the court, Jakob Poeltl played well enough to help the Raps rally in the fourth — he also finished with five blocks. This game felt more like Delon Wright game than a Fred VanVleet game, and it’s true the former was overall better than the latter. But it also didn’t matter that much.

Eventually rookie Donovan Mitchell got it going for the Jazz, finishing with 26 points (I thought OG Anunoby did a good job on him early, but alas); Joe Ingles hit some clutch threes, as is his wont; and Rubio ended up open with the game on the line. Start, middle, end, and what a bummer.

“We gotta learn from it, if we’re serious about going somewhere,” continued Casey. “We can talk all this stuff about winning and beating people, but if you don’t approach it and do the job the right way, coaching staff on down the players, we’re not going anywhere.”

Coach, that’s what keeps us up at night.

With the new court and the new duds, there were still the same old problems for the Raptors. They couldn’t hit 3s, they couldn’t execute in the clutch, they couldn’t get DeRozan and Lowry going effectively. Still, we were all collectively fine a couple days ago. It is still January, games like this do indeed happen, such is life, and all that.

But also, yes, we worry what the future has in store.