Blame the shorter days if you want, but it seems like this week has lasted a year in Raptors-land. The highs and lows have been dramatic, as we started with Kawhi Leonard and Nick Nurse earning accolades from the league. From there, we woke up on Wednesday to Kyle Lowry’s icy comments regarding Masai Ujiri; then went to sleep with one of the season’s best wins over Philadelphia in front of a national audience.
Which brings us to tonight, and a frustrating bookend to the work week for the NBA’s top team. Visiting the Nets, the Raptors struggled to gain momentum from the get-go; despite an honourable showing from Jonas Valanciunas and a superstar turn from Kawhi Leonard, Toronto just failed to get enough support in a 106-105 overtime loss.
The win snaps an eight-game losing streak for Brooklyn, who improve to 9-18. Toronto falls to 21-6.
Let’s start with the good news: Kawhi freaking Leonard. Though a 32-point (10-for-21), four-assist, four-steal evening doesn’t necessarily pop on paper, Leonard looked like an insane person trying to win this game for the Raptors in the second half. Playing primary ball defence on any Brooklyn player who threatened to get on a hot streak, Leonard appeared primed to win the game by himself.
His second-in-command? Jonas Valanciunas, who had the start against the lanky Jarrett Allen, proof Nick Nurse is maybe concerned with his team’s rebounding woes, or trying to observe a mismatch. While Valanciunas didn’t necessarily shore up the issues on the boards — Brooklyn out-rebounded Toronto 44-35 — he was great on offence. The big Lithuanian had 24 points to go with eight rebounds.
Outside of that, save 16 from Pascal Siakam, it was crickets from the Raptors. Kyle Lowry in particular will be a talking point coming out of this one. With his jumper bricking badly, Lowry looked caught between not wanting to shoot and heeding the words of his coach coming out of practice this week. Nurse wants his All-Star to shoot ten times per game — if they look as bad as they did tonight, though, that might not be the best idea. Lowry had just three points on 1-for-8 shooting (1-for-7 from downtown), adding five turnovers while getting 11 assists.
Nobody outside those I’ve already mentioned shot better than 50% for Toronto. OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet were a combined 5-for-20 off the bench, as the Raptors struggled again to tread water during those minutes.
At the game’s outset, though, it was the starters who looked a step slow. With two early threes from Allen Crabbe, the Nets jumped out to an 11-2 lead. Toronto were somewhat non-committal with their offence, not waiting to set up much screen action, and paid the price as a result. Though Valanciunas did some clean-up work, it was a 24-20 Nets lead after one.
In the second, the Raptors initially struggled as they transitioned to their bench, but Nick Nurse pulled the “zone in case of emergency” switch from last week’s Memphis game, to some reward. The Nets took a lot of bad threes in succession, giving the Raptors starters a chance to tie the game at 47 with 1:21 left in the half. Kawhi turned up a bit after that, but the game went into the break tied at 53.
In the third, Toronto finally started to utilize some bread and butter. Leonard and Valanciunas, the only real creators for the team to that point, started to involve each other in action. The two surpassed 40 combined points to build a seven-point lead, but the Nets responded with a run of their own. D’Angelo Russell went off with Fred VanVleet guarding him, as a personal 7-0 run swung the game right back. Russell, who was quiet down the stretch, still amassed 29 points (13-for-22) by taking advantage of some good matchup minutes.
The fourth started ugly for both sides. The Raps bench played solid team defence, but couldn’t buy a shot on the other end. Eventually, it was Brooklyn who jumped ahead with another 7-0 run, forcing Nurse’s starters to make a run yet again.
Luckily, there’s Kawhi. Leonard started an insane sequence by snatching Joe Harris’ soul.
Nurse had changed up his strategy in the fourth by benching Valanciunas and playing some odd man-to-man matchups with Pascal Siakam at the centre. The Raptors hid VanVleet on non-shooting threat Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, allowing Kawhi and Siakam to guard a lot of the primary action. This messed with Brooklyn a bit, but Leonard was unable to play closer — missing a potential game-winner with three seconds left.
In overtime, Kawhi tried again. A massive dunk early in the frame, followed by a triple in the corner, gave the Raptors the lead.
The rest of overtime, unfortunately, was hard to watch. Kawhi was off on a couple jumpers and, with the game on the line late, the Raptors ran the same action they have in a few games previous — Leonard with the ball up top, Lowry as the screener, and a jump shot somewhere in the mid-range. The Nets expected it, blew up the action, and forced a difficult VanVleet three against the clock (not dissimilar to Serge Ibaka’s shot against the Warriors where he never had enough time). It missed, and the Nets emerged victorious.
Obviously, questions abound. Is Lowry hurt or just going through a dry spell? Will Nick Nurse find a new play in end-of-game situations? Can the bench hold a lead... just once? Pretty please?
We will watch and see what happens. Still, the Raptors are 21-6, with plenty of time to write some answers. We’ll see them next against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday night.