The Toronto Raptors are searching right now. Where is Kyle Lowry? Where is the scoring off of the bench? What happened to the point guard depth? Why aren’t the 3-pointers falling? Where is the rebounding?
None of those questions were answered in a 104-99 loss in which a stout defensive effort faltered juuuust a little bit on the final few Bucks possessions, and the game got away. Now the West coast looms.
Defense: A Lot to Like! If only...
I mentioned the defense above; the Raptors did an excellent job for 47 minutes limiting open looks from downtown, switching liberally on screens, and even did an OK job defending the rim and rebounding. Check out this awesome sequence early, in which Toronto forced a 24-second violation:
They had a similar sequence in the fourth in a much more high-leverage moment, forcing another 24-second violation when leading by two with 2:45 to go.
But up 97-94 with 1:29 to go, the Raptors allowed the Bucks to score six straight on two incredibly wide open looks from downtown for Malcolm Brogdon. Gotta give credit to Milwaukee of course; they moved the ball well on both sequences to generate those looks. On the second in particular, Kawhi Leonard trailed the play after getting knocked down on the baseline on a shot attempt, and the Bucks zipped the ball almost all the way around the court to take advantage of the scrambling Raptors.
Then after a Fred VanVleet layup, the Raptors played excellent D on the Bucks’ inbounds play, twice — knocking a ball out of bounds and then forcing Khris Middleton to call a timeout (after traveling, a brutally bad missed call). Then Pascal Siakam overplayed the next inbounds, couldn’t recover in time to foul, Giannis Antetokounmpo had an easy dunk and the Raptors were behind the eight-ball with 12 seconds to go.
A Leonard miss, two Ersan Ilyasova free throws, and the Bucks ended the game on a 10-2 run. That’s a really tough way to lose after playing such excellent D all night.
Still Figuring Things Out, Eh...
The Raptors’ five-man bench unit of VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, OG Anunoby and Jonas Valanciunas struggled once again in this one. In fact, struggling might even be generous, especially on the offensive end, where they looked completely lost, unable to generate quality looks throughout two runs in the second and fourth quarters. VanVleet and Valaciunas just don’t have chemistry in the pick-and-roll; I don’t know what’s taking so long for that to develop, but it’s definitely not there. Anunoby isn’t ready yet to be a primary shot creator; Miles continues to struggle; and Wright is being forced into an off-ball shooter role too often.
It got so bad last night that Nick Nurse had to bring Leonard and Pascal Siakam far earlier in the fourth than he normally would — and thank god for that — but asking your starters to dig out of an 11-point fourth quarter hole (when it was a three-point hole when they subbed out) is a lot —especially with a struggling Kyle Lowry. You need your bench to keep it closer.
At points during the broadcast you heard the Raptors’ commentators talking about the Raptors and Nick Nurse still looking for combinations that work, finding the right guys to play together, the right substitution patters, and so on. And while you expect a certain period of that — and while in theory you have the entire regular season to figure that out — practically speaking, I’d expect a little more progress after 28 games. In other words: What did they learn in the first third of the season that can now be applied to the remaining two-thirds? Have we learned that VanVleet needs to play off the ball more, and give Wright more primary playmaking duties? That Siakam should get a chunk of minutes with the bench each game, and Anunoby with the starters?
I think we have. But will the team take the lessons to heart?
On the Other Hand: Experiment More!
We are seeing Nick Nurse experiment a little more often. We have the zone defense popping its head up when the Raptors are struggling. We saw the small-ball lineup last game, with Siakam at centre. This time we saw the small-ball lineup with Siakam at C and Anunoby at 4, along with Lowry, Danny Green and VanVleet for about a minute; then with Siakam, Anonoby, Miles, Wright and VanVleet for about two minutes. Those two groups played to a -2 in those three minutes, so, not great, but you saw some impressive switching in those minutes, and excellent post-up D from both Lowry and VanVleet.
Nurse spoke often of his desire to try different things in the pre-season, and I am all for this small-ball experimenting; I’d love to see some super-big experimenting as well, having two of Valanciunas, Ibaka and Greg Monroe on the floor at times. Especially with the usual bench groups struggling, and even with Lowry struggling — why not try some different looks to spice things up and again, to try and use the regular season as a learning opportunity?
Whither the Fast Break?
Before the Brooklyn game, the Raptors were scoring 18.6 ppg on the fast break (third in the league), and allowing 13.9. I wrote about it a couple of times, how much I was enjoying their efforts to run the ball and generate easy looks.
But in the last two? Toronto is scoring just six fast break points per game, and allowing 12.5. Not fun! Not exciting!
In the Brooklyn game, I would have attributed that drop-off to rebounding; the Raptors were killed on the glass (-19) and it’s hard to run when you don’t have the ball. But the Raptors did a solid job rebounding against Milwaukee, playing the Bucks even, but only managing seven fast break points (and all of those came in the fourth).
The Bucks are a good defensive team in transition, and that definitely accounts for some of the drop-off. Lowry’s struggles, too, are contributing; his pull-up three in transition is usually money, but he hasn’t made one in ages. And teams are doing a much better job at picking up Siakam in transition, before he gets too deep and can roast them with the spin move.
Let’s hope though that the fast break rounds back into form because this team needs to score some easy buckets.
Thank God for Serge Ibaka
I feel like I’ve barely written about Serge Ibaka this season, and that’s an oversight on my part. He’s been fantastic, and perhaps most importantly, he’s shown up every night. That was the knock on Ibaka last season — that you’d never know what you were gonna get for him in any given game. This year, he’s bringing it consistently, averaging 16.2 points on .614 true shooting, both career highs, coming in to last night’s game; his defensive effort has also been solid.
Last night wasn’t necessarily Ibaka’s best game, but, he provided scoring all night when the Raptors needed it. With the Bucks helping off of him liberally to double Kawhi Leonard and to cut off Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam driving lanes, Ibaka was the recipient of a lot of outlet passes, and although you don’t ever really want Serge Ibaka shooting 11 3-pointers, sometimes you gotta take what the defense is giving you — and 4-of-11 isn’t a terrible result (although I’m sure it’s one the Bucks were quite happy with). And with Lowry struggling, the Raptors needed every single one of Ibaka’s 22 points.
I certainly wish Ibaka was a better rebounder, but that’s never been his strong suit so it’s not fair to hold it against him now. And sure, Ibaka will have the occasional off night — every player does — but they’re much fewer and far between than last year. Credit to Nurse for putting Ibaka at the five; credit also goes to Lowry, who’s been excellent at finding Ibaka in good scoring position night after night.
But most of the credit goes to Ibaka for playing some of his best ball at age 29.
Well, that’s certainly not the result I wanted to see before heading West. Lowry’s struggles are incredibly concerning — he’s so integral to everything the team does — but I still maintain confidence he’ll figure it out (it’s not like he suddenly got bad overnight)... however, a four-game West coast trip isn’t likely to be the place where that figuring out occurs. Still, last night’s defensive effort, and rebounding effort, were positives. If the Raptors can channel that same energy on this trip they may just ride out Lowry’s slump and come back home on a high note.