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Toronto Temperature: Raptors losses are mounting, but let’s not panic

After a pristine start to the 2018-19 campaign, the Raptors have lost four out of their last six. It’s definitely not time to panic just yet.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

December has seen the Raptors go 4-5 in their nine games played. Over the past week, they went 1-2 and that included a big statement win over the Warriors by 20, and two losses to the Blazers and Nuggets (a team they can’t seem to beat yet).

After a pristine start to the 2018-19 campaign, the Raptors have stalled, losing four out of their last six. It’s definitely not panic stations yet, though. Losses are expected in an 82-game season, but it’s clear the Raptors are in the midst of experiencing some minor turbulence with injuries to Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and Norman Powell — who is set to return against the Pacers tonight. Kawhi Leonard has missed some time and Nick Nurse has made it clear that the referees haven’t exactly been on his team’s side.

All things considered, the Raptors are still on top of the NBA at 23-9 and are three games clear of their Eastern rivals in the Bucks, Sixers, and Pacers. For the Raptors, their depth is being tested right now, which is okay because they are one of the few teams that have a deep squad.

Guys like Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles will need to step up in the coming weeks and they’ll need to work on consistency. It’ll be good to see what Greg Monroe can do in JV’s absence. And the return of Powell will add more depth.

The next four games bring matchups against the Pacers and Cavaliers at home, Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center, and the Heat in Miami. If they can get past the Pacers tonight, it’s quite possible they can go on a 4-0 run. But with some personnel on the wait-and-see injury list, it’s going to be an intriguing week. Here’s who’s hot and not for this week.


Toronto’s Road Record of 12-5 is the Best in the NBA

For me, winning on the road has always been a measure of how good a team really is. Sure, most teams can find a way to win at home, even with a paltry record. But winning away requires a team to be switched on and the need to find something extra to get over the line.

If you look at the Warriors, a model for success, over the past three seasons their road record has been remarkable: they went 29-12 on the road last year, 31-10 in 2016, and 34-7 in 2015. That’s good news for the Raptors if they can continue to play a strong style on the road for the remainder of the season.

Winning Without Kawhi Continues

It’s been mentioned a lot over the past week, but it’s worth raising again: the Raptors are 7-1 when Kawhi doesn’t play. While not a cause for concern yet, it’s worth noting that the Raptors are 1-2 when Lowry doesn’t play. He’s one of the best ball handlers in the NBA, so it’s not surprising the Raptors have some things to think about when Lowry is injured. But winning without Kawhi is comforting and a luxury. It means he doesn’t have to play with niggling injuries. It means he can rest when he needs, which allows him to be the All-Star elite player when he does play.

Powell Set to Return

This is good news. The Raptors bench is being tested and Powell, who has missed a month of ball, is coming back at the right time. It’s been a slow start to the season for Powell who needs to start taking his opportunities, however limited, and take on the game when he’s on court.

From 11 games this season Powell has averaged five points, two rebounds, and an assist — while shooting 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from outside the arc. He can be explosive and that’s what the Raptors need from him. To have that sort of player, like Powell, coming off the bench as an aggressive drive-to-the-rim guy who is confident in firing off the long ball, will only strengthen the Raptors’ championships hopes.


Nurse’s Fine

In the grand scheme of things, the $15,000 fine is not a big deal, but I’ve never understood why coaches talk smack about the referees – the same referees that will be officiating their games in the future. The non-calls that the Raptors (and Kawhi) are not getting will hopefully even out over the course of the season. But if not, so what? It shouldn’t be a thing Nurse needs to worry about. Also it’s not a new Raptors thing: the Toronto ball club has had to work against the refs for years.

With that in mind, it’s nice to have the coach step in and go to war for his players, but I don’t see any point in Nurse letting his feelings known as that could potentially aggravate the situation. Teams lose games because they generally didn’t play as well as their counterparts. The Raptors are 23-9. The focus should be on playing good ball.

The JV Injury

It’s not exactly Jonas Valanciunas’ fault that he’s got a dislocated left thumb. But the big man will be on the sidelines for at least a month and that poses a problem for Nurse. JV has been a key cog this year rotating off the bench and starting when asked. JV’s production in 18.8 minutes has churned out 12 points, seven rebounds and an assist per game. He was humming. What his absence means is it gives guys like OG Anunoby, Monroe and even Chris Boucher some time to get their hands dirty.

Wright’s Struggles

In 27 games this season, Wright has only been able to produce 6.1 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 17 minutes per game. He’s the type of guy that needs heavy minutes to be able to offer serious output. It doesn’t look like his role under Nurse will cater to 30 minutes per game, especially as he’s in a timeshare situation with Danny Green and VanVleet.

Wright’s minutes are slightly down from last year and I think we all thought he was in line for a bigger role. The arrival of Green and Kawhi changed the dynamic and the way the Raptors work in 2018-19. That’s partly to blame for Wright’s backpedal.