The absences of Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas were keenly felt last night, as the Toronto Raptors looked shaky on both ends of the floor, fell behind the Portland Trailblazers early, and could never quite catch up. It was one of those frustrating affairs in which the Raptors couldn’t get stops — until they did, but then couldn’t score — until they started ringing up triples, but once again couldn’t get stops. And it ended yet again with a full-on fourth-quarter Kawhi Leonard assault, punctuated by… another crunch time turnover. Alas.
Rusty Kawhi + No Kyle = Sad Face Emoji
Boy, that first half sure wasn’t pretty for the Raptors offense. Yeah, they scored 50 points and that’s not terrible, but it’s a number propped up by a few unlikely shots falling; everything just looked off a bit, as Kawhi Leonard took the entire half to find his groove (0 field goals, three points at halftime), and the execution from the rest of the starters just wasn’t sharp. And the bench? Forget about it. I don’t know how a man as large as Greg Monroe can be invisible, but he somehow played seven first half minutes and put up goose eggs in every category. He’s too talented offensively not to contribute on that end. (Something tells me that doesn’t happen if Lowry is playing.)
Leonard, obviously, found his mojo as the game went on, and Fred VanVleet had an excellent second half, but that first half is an indicator that this ongoing chemistry experiment hasn’t found the right mixture just yet.
Testing the Depth
Since day one this season we’ve been talking about the Raptors’ depth being one of their greatest strengths, and it continues to be tested. The team has dealt with injuries to almost every rotation player, with absences big (Norman Powell sidelined more than a month, and Valanciunas now on the shelf) and small (Lowry has missed two) and everything in between (six other players have missed five or more, including of course Leonard). Danny Green and Pascal Siakam are the only two Raptors to play in every game, and last night, Siakam took a hard fall that kept him out of the fourth quarter.
That the Raptors are still winning is a testament to the depth, of course, and that’s been great to see. But, as noted above, it’s playing havoc with chemistry as guys just aren’t getting the consistent time with one another to gel.
You hope it evens out by the end of the year — that the learning that’s happening with players shuffling in and out now pays off. But it sure would be nice for this team to be fully healthy for a stretch, wouldn’t it?
The Value of Valanciunas
Much has been made of Jonas Valanciunas’ D the last couple of years, as the game has passed him by and he’s had a tough time playing in certain matchups, as the league has shifted to perimeter-oriented attacks and mobile big men.
But you can’t deny the value of having a smart big man taking up space in the lane and anchoring your defense.
Since he's going to miss some time, let's pour one out for the best high-volume rim protector in the NBA. (If you drop it to min 75 attempts, Richuan Holmes is better.) pic.twitter.com/Ywmh3CttTF— verticality (@AnnaJaneSmith4) December 13, 2018
As our own Daniel Hackett pointed out on Twitter, “making a good contest doesn’t equate to a miss, and making a bad one doesn’t equate to a make”, so those numbers must one with a grain of salt. But then again, if you watched the parade of layups and dunks the Blazers scored on simple screens and back cuts last night, well, the eye test backs it up too.
And then there’s the rebounding; already an issue even with a healthy Valanciunas, is even more problematic now. It wasn’t a huge difference last night — both teams shot the ball extremely well — but the Blazers did pull in 12 offensive boards and score 14 points off of them.
Valanciunas will miss at least a month, so the Raptors have some work to do to figure out how to compensate.
The Ghosts of Inbounds Past
So, who had deja vu of late-game inbounds failures last night when the officials called the Raptors for a five-second violation with 1:16 to go? I think we were all hoping those days were behind us!
Leonard was upset at Serge Ibaka after the play, and — I think — rightly so, as Ibaka set a terrible baseline screen for C.J. Miles (it’s never a good idea to backpedal when setting a baseline screen!). But Leonard has some responsibility as the inbounder too — he was laser-locked on that baseline action, not keeping awareness of what else was developing, and he needed to respond faster when Ibaka’s screen went nowhere. By the time he did it was too late.
By the way — you read that correctly. C.J. Miles was on the floor in crunch time!
Please let the Curse be Lifted
That may well have been Miles’ best game of the season. It’s a low bar, to be sure, but he was one of the only aggressive Raptors in the first half, and only one shot — his first, an awkward runner — was an objectively bad one. (Well, there was a long two in there, but at least he had good form on the shot). He hit two big threes in the fourth quarter, the first coming off a beautiful cross-court pass from Leonard.
Miles finished with a season-high five field goals made and a season-high 13 points. It is, indeed, very sad that those are his season highs in game 32, but, not every busts out of a slump like Kyle Lowry the past two games; sometimes, it’s a slow burn, small beginnings leading to great things, you know? Let’s hope that’s the case for C.J. and the GoDaddy Curse that has afflicted him thus far.
I didn’t think the Raptors would go 4-0 on this trip, though I’ll admit the 2-0 start had me hoping. The Raptors have another tough one on the road coming up before returning home to face… the red-hot Indiana Pacers. In other words, things aren’t getting any easier — and so the depth will continue to be tested.