The Toronto Raptors were definitely in for a tough one last night, facing the Nuggets in Denver at the end of a four-game road trip; it got even harder when Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet were ruled out. With only nine rotation players (if you can even call Lorenzo Brown a rotation player) the Raptors just didn’t have the horses to compete at high altitude.
Speaking of the altitude — let’s start there, shall we?
Dear NBA, Please Stop Handing the Nuggets Wins
I think it’s BS that the NBA can schedule a team to visit Denver on the last game of a four-game, six-night road trip.
Look, I know there’s nothing you can do about the altitude. It is what it is. And certainly you can’t predict that a road team will come in to the game undermanned like the Raptors did last night. But scheduling a game in that circumstance should not be allowed to happen. The NBA knows that the altitude gives the Nuggets a significant home court advantage that no other team enjoys (well, Utah to an extent) and so should be doing everything to ensure that teams don’t come in extra tired from road trips or back-to-backs. Aside from competitive balance, that just leads to less-than-entertaining basketball, you know?
(Think it’s not an advantage? Do you know that Jamal Murray averages almost double the fourth quarter points points per game at home (6.93) than he does on the road (3.69)? Do you think that could have something to do with opposing defences getting winded as the game goes on? Hmmm.)
Anyway, I digress. Despite the universe and NBA schedule makers aligning against them, the Raptors played as well as you could expect. I’m not a moral victory believer by any means, but I’m fine with the loss; they did a lot of good things! The defense was sensational until they got tired, holding Denver to a mere 39 first half points; the rebounding, which I surely thought would be a problem without Jonas Valanciunas against this beefy Denver team, was just fine (+9 in the first half, +7 for the game).
Doing that, and still losing while missing two starters and two key bench players, in Denver? I’m fine with it.
Rest is Good. I Like Rest
Sure, having a bunch of guys on the shelf can make for some pretty putrid basketball; see: the final two minutes of the third and first five minutes of the fourth last night. And from the reports and Nick Nurse’s pregame comments, it doesn’t sound like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet were seriously injured, so maybe part of you thinks they could have played through it.
But on the other hand: I like the message the Raptors are sending here. If you’re not right, rest, get well and come back healthy. It’s a good message for the players, both the ones that are here now and any potential future Raptors players/free agents: That they, and their health, long-term and short-term, really matter. It’s a good message for the franchise (and the fans) about where the Raptors are today: We’re playing for the postseason success, let’s not kill ourselves for every regular season game.
And I like this as a direction for sports, in general. Long-term health and wellness matters, that macho tough-guy BS is a thing of the past.
I get that it’s not great for fans who buy tickets to see their favourite players play. I’m heading to San Antonio for the Raptor-Spurs game next month and if Kawhi Leonard doesn’t play, or Lowry or DeMar DeRozan don’t play, that’s gonna suuuuck. But I get it, and I’m OK with it.
Getting Looks at Other Guys? Also Good
Although it didn’t work out (understatement of the season perhaps) giving extended minutes to OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles isn’t a bad thing. Those guys are struggling, and for most NBA players, the only way to get through a slump is to play through it. Because as frustrating as it can be to watch them launch brick after brick, I’d much rather have them do it now than in the postseason.
And although part of me would enjoy longer looks at Malachi Richardson, Chris Boucher and Jordan Loyd, the fact is that Anunoby and Miles are objectively better NBA players than them at this point. Yes, I want the 905ers to develop, but with the team in the midst of an all-in season, the priority has to be getting the rotation players right, rather than giving guys who might be future pieces extended looks.
At some point though, Anunoby and Miles gotta hit shots, and if they don’t... Well, I guess it’s comforting that playoff rotations are generally shorter!
Looking Ahead: Not Quite Time to Breathe Easy
Although there are no more West coast games, which is awesome for those of us watching the games here on the East coast, things are still tough for the Raptors. They’ve got Indiana next (winners of seven straight games), then a trap game against Cleveland followed by a three-game road trip. And the first week of January sees the Raptors playing Utah, at San Antonio, at Milwaukee, and Indiana again.
The Raptors are now 13-8 when playing against teams above .500 according to NBA.com, and 8-7 in games decided by single digits. Which sounds a lot like last year.
So this team is clearly still working through some things, and having injuries makes that even harder. But that kind of adversity can in fact improve chemistry between players. I think even in these two losses, you’re seeing it a bit — Leonard definitely looks to be more comfortable with Serge Ibaka in pick-and-rolls, and I hope the staff is seeing the value of Delon Wright as a playmaker.
Does That Mean it’s Time to Panic?
The Raptors are 3-5 in their last eight games, with more tough ones coming up. Not good right?
But it’s definitely not time to panic, not in the least. For one thing, those three wins were against great teams — the 76ers, the Clippers and the Warriors. And beyond that, I’m on the record as saying that I didn’t think the Raptors would win 60 or have the best record in the conference. Obviously I’d prefer to be wrong, and the basis for my prediction was that they’d start slow as they’d need time to gel. They started off extremely well, obviously, so now it’d be disappointing for them to fall back off such a torrid pace... but not entirely unexpected, especially given the injury situation.
That torrid early pace may have skewed the expectations a bit, and the Raptors may seem a little more “mortal” the rest of the way. And that’s OK. They built a good cushion early on, giving them room to could adjust and figure things out from here.
So: Even if they go through a bad patch, it doesn’t mean anything in the long run. As long as they show up in the playoffs.
A 2-2 West coast trip is by no means a terrible result, even if the early returns suggested three or four wins might be possible. The focus now has to be health; with two days off before the Indiana game, we can hope that Lowry, Siakam and VanVleet are healing up and ready to go.