“They looked us in the eye,” was a phrase coach Nick Nurse used after his Raptors lost 126-110 to the Pelicans on Monday night. He was referring specifically to a late run by New Orleans that decisively put the game out of reach for Toronto. It’s a sentiment, however, that captures the spirit of the entire night. The Raptors came into the game with the league’s best record, having won some contests almost casually. But Toronto won’t win them all. And some opponents, on any given night, will challenge them; they will in fact defiantly look the Raptors right in the eye.
The Raptors did themselves no favours on the offensive end. After a six-game win streak, the team was ranked third in offensive rating. Against the Pelicans however, Toronto managed to shoot only 40 percent from the field and a ghastly 13-of-45 (29 percent) from three. In other ways — e.g. a 28 to 7 advantage in fast break points — the Raptors put themselves in a position to win. But then the Pelicans would muscle their way into the paint again, or get to a loose ball just a step faster. In the second half, with the game threatening to get out of hand, the Raptors would make moves to comeback, and then fall apart. It happens, but dang if it isn’t hard to watch.
The problems here start with Kyle Lowry, who finished the game with just four points on 1-of-9 shooting (including an 0-for-6 night from deep). In the Raptors’ two losses on the season, Lowry has gone without a three; he did have 11 assists, but it was clear he wasn’t quite is confident self. Meanwhile, his backcourt partner Danny Green wasn’t much better — he went 1-for-4 from range for his only points of the game. When Toronto factors in a relatively rough night for Kawhi Leonard, whose 20 points came on a hard 7-of-20 shooting, it feels like it’s hard to gain ground. “It’s part of the game,” said Lowry of the night. “They played well. New Orleans played well. They got what they wanted. It’s one game.”
If there’s a bright spot to be had here, it’s in the play of reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Pascal Siakam. Matched up against the Pelicans best frontcourt players, including All-World Anthony Davis, Siakam put up a stirring 20 points, including some buckets in a 1-on-1 showdown with the Brow. For good measure, Siakam also drilled a couple of threes (going 2-of-4 overall from deep) and added three blocks. It was yet another complete game from the Raptors’ young do-it-all forward, and they needed every second of his energy just to stay close.
Still, not even Siakam going 100 miles an hour was going to be enough in this one. (“They did everything better than us,” admitted Pascal.) The Pelicans outscored the Raptors 72-42 in the paint, hit some back-breaking late 3s (NO went 10-of-27 from deep but three of them came in a four minute spurt in the 4th), and got a trio of monster performances from Anthony Davis (25 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists), Jrue Holiday (29 points, 14 assists), and — former Bull! — E’Twaun Moore (30 points on 13-of-18 shooting). There just wasn’t enough juice in the tank for Toronto to counteract that.
Other Raptors did try though. OG Anunoby continued his strong run of play with 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting. Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet chipped in with 10 apiece, and some sneaky and bold plays, respectively, of their usual variety. (This even after a tough first half from VanVleet in which the Pelicans’ size and length clearly troubled him.) And Serge Ibaka battled his way to 19 points and 14 rebounds, overall the unsung hero of the game. (It says something that we’ve become so inured to Serge’s play that a monster double-double barely registers. What a season he’s had so far.)
In the fourth quarter, after a pair of steals from Wright and VanVleet got the Pelicans’ lead down to six, it felt like Toronto still had a chance. They’d eventually switch over to a small-ball frontcourt lineup of Siakam, Leonard, and Anunoby to try and stay in front of New Orleans. Time and again down the stretch it felt like the Raptors would put it together, like they’d find the magic combination to put themselves over the top. It has happened before — but not tonight.
Now, some of the final outcome could be chalked up to it being just one of those nights. Nurse certainly wasn’t in a dour mood after the game. The Raptors were well off their usual average from three-point range three; they also got very little from their starting backcourt, which is also well off the norm; even Kawhi didn’t look himself. Still, it’s hard to ignore how New Orleans was able to bully their way to some of those points — it was instructive.
“A cold shower,” said Jonas Valanciunas (who had a rough 2-point night) when asked what the Raptors can take away from such a loss. “You take a cold shower. They played well. We didn’t match their energy, we didn’t match them in transition, their speed. They were on us. It’s kind of sad, but we gotta learn: do not underestimate anybody, and all the teams in this league are capable. So we just gotta regroup, it’s just one game. It happens.”
As always, it is indeed useful to remember: Toronto was always going to lose a few games. It’s still the first month of the season. And at 12-2 it’s not exactly time to panic. It can be both a bad game, and one of those games. Now the Raptors have to look themselves in the eye, keep things in perspective, and move on.