Two straight games with chances to win it, two isolation plays that didn’t produce any points, and two eventual losses. Looks pretty awful written out like that! But hey, you can’t suggest that the Toronto Raptors’ last two games have lacked drama.
Last night’s loss to the Boston Celtics, while a total bummer, was an extremely entertaining basketball game featuring two superstars playing extremely well — unfortunately for the Raptors, the guy on the other side just did a little more and led his team to victory.
The End is the Beginning: About That Final Play
You all saw it, 24 seconds of a Kawhi Leonard dribbling and four other Raptors standing around, then an off-balance fadeaway 18-footer from Leonard, nothing but rim.
A frustrating play to watch for Raptors fans. Here’s the reasoning behind it:
Nurse on last play of 4Q: "The main thing is we're going to hold it for the very last shot so that nothing bad happens & they can get a rebound, call a timeout & advance it. It's just man-on-man and you hope your guy can make the basket, and we have a lot of faith that he can."— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) November 17, 2018
On the one hand, this logic makes sense. You put your faith in your best player to make a play.
On the other hand, it also says you don’t have faith in the five guys on the floor to run a play, even something as simple as a pick-and-roll, without turning the ball over or without leaving too much time on the clock. And that’s... disconcerting. Even just setting some back screens or pindowns with the other four guys to get them moving, make the defense think, couldn’t possibly hurt. Heck, maybe a defender slips and falls! Doing nothing at all just makes it too easy on them.
Also, situationally speaking — you’re down four wings, your two best guys are already at 37+ minutes, you’re on the road, on the front-end of a back-to-back... I think maybe you gotta pull out all the stops and go for the win right then and there.
Holy Cow, Kyrie Irving
What do you do against a guy having a night like that? It wasn’t just that he scored 43 points on 26 shots; the variety of shots he made — the degree of difficulty on some of them — was incredible.
One of the things that had me most excited about the Raptors this year was the upgraded perimeter defense; with Danny Green and Leonard in the fold, and OG Anunoby developing nicely, I expected the days of perimeter players shredding the Raptors to be behind us.
Well, sometimes, even having great perimeter defenders doesn’t mean a damn thing when a guy is feeling it like Irving was last night. Certainly, Green’s foul trouble and Anunoby’s second-half injury didn’t help, but Irving was just as good in the first half (18 points on 8-of-11 shooting).
It was just his night, and sometimes you just gotta shrug, and tip your hat.
What Happened to the Raptors’ PG depth?
So, Irving scored 43 points on 18-of-26 shooting, with 11 assists.
The three Raptors point guards — arguably the deepest point guard rotation in the league — went 6-for-25 combined, and had 26 points and 11 assists combined.
I’m not saying they needed to match up perfectly with a guy going off, like Irving was. But when Kyle Lowry has an off-night, as he did last night, you gotta be able to rely on at least one of Fred VanVleet or Delon Wright to step up and fill the gap. Last year, they were more than capable. Right now it doesn’t seem like either one of them is up for it.
It remains odd, and concerning, just how badly Wright, and in particular VanVleet, have regressed since last season. Both were slowed by injuries, sure, but they’ve had time now to work themselves into shape.
Judging by the minutes played, Nick Nurse clearly has more trust in VanVleet; he’s playing eight minutes more per game than Wright, even though Wright’s shooting stats are higher across the board. Wright’s net rating is significantly worse, but that’s due to virtually all of his minutes being played with the bench while VanVleet gets a good chunk of minutes with Lowry, Leonard and the starters.
And speaking of VanVleet, leaving him in to guard Irving in OT — when he was struggling himself — just seemed demoralizing. I thought for sure we’d see more of Leonard on Irving, but I suppose the Anunoby injury and Green disqualification put the kibosh on that. Then again, Wright was an option, and I still would have much rather let Leonard bottle up Irving (if anyone could) and let someone else beat me.
Defense leads to Offense leads to Fun
One thing I am enjoying about the Raptors this year is how quickly they push it after stops and turnovers. They started to do more of this last year, which was a nice change after years of slowly walking the ball up; this year, having defenders like Leonard and Green has meant even more opportunities.
In the third, Leonard stole the ball on the Celtics baseline and was still able to lead a fast break:
In the fourth, it was two smart plays head-manning the ball that led to five Delon Wright points, first off the dish from Lowry (Aron Baynes was called for goaltending):
And then from Leonard:
The offense overall is still not there, generally speaking, for the Raptors, and plays like this are critical to the their ability to score right now. Also: They’re fun as hell!
NBA Officiating is [Your Adjective Here]
Hey, hey! Keep it clean! Yeah, I’m talking to you there in the comments section!
The officiating last night was bad, that’s all there is to it. It didn’t cost the Raptors the game, it wasn’t one-sided; there were plenty of bad calls and non-calls in both directions. But that’s what makes it so frustrating. How do players know what is and isn’t a foul? Especially this year, with all of the “freedom of movement” emphasis, inconsistency means no one know how much contact they’re allowed to get away with at any time.
If you showed the video of this game to someone who wanted to be a basketball referee, they would come away from watching it having no idea how to officiate a game.
Also — I am bummed that, with and Green (and later Pascal Siakam) fouling out, and the injury to OG, we didn’t see the mini-death lineup of Lowry, Leonard, Siakam, Anunoby and Green. Would have liked to have seen what that group could have done against Boston in OT.
But that gives us something to look forward to the next time these teams play.
One way to look at this game is to say, “man, the Raptors were up four with a minute to go, had a chance to win it on the final play, and blew it.” You could also say they were missing two players from the start, another for the second half, and yet another for the final four minutes and all of OT... and it still took a virtuoso performance from Kyrie Irving for the Celtics to win. At home.
Three straight losses is tough, but I don’t think the Raptors need to be too down about this one.