The Raptors wild, crazy, and fun 11-game winning is over. This we know.
Victims of another Russell Westbrook “day at the office” triple-double, Toronto fell at home for only the sixth time all season, losing to Oklahoma City 132-125. As spectacular as Westbrook was, Toronto had equal if not more trouble containing Steven Adams, the Thunder’s part-Dothraki centre. Averaging 14 points and 9 rebounds for the season, Adams finished with 25 points and eight boards — five of the offensive variety.
A beast all game, apart from missing a stretch after being kneed in the family jewels by Serge Ibaka, Adams, with Westbrook, was essentially unguardable on one-five screen action. It didn’t matter what the Raptors did, or who they had out there — it was, among other things, one of Jakob Poeltl’s less stellar performances. But as bad as he was at slowing down Adams, Jonas Valanciunas and Ibaka didn’t have any more luck. Even when they forced a miss, Raptor players failed to close possessions with defensive rebounds, finishing -6 on the offensive glass and -8 overall in rebounding.
This game exposed Toronto’s collective lack of toughness in the paint. (It also showed Adams has yet to commit to a jock despite clearly being the target of a league-wide kick-him-in-the-junk contest.) It may very well be a one-game blip — Toronto was going to lose again, eventually. And the Raptors did play well in most other areas, shooting over 50 percent from the field, going 15-of-30 from three, and finishing with 31 assists, four more than Oklahoma City. Some days, it’s true, you just get beat by a better team (and referee Marc Davis).
The Raptors did fall short of expectations on the defensive glass thought, which was caused in large part by the Thunder's unrelenting aggressiveness and physicality down low.
Fifty-fifty balls, as they are often referred to, amount to extra possessions over the course of a 48-minute game. Yesterday saw the Thunder roast the Raptors in the 50-50 battle, finishing with more offensive rebounds, and thus putting up seven more field goals than Toronto did. It went beyond the likes of Adams, as Westbrook also had five offensive rebounds. Much like Kyle Lowry, the reigning MVP is a bulldog on the court, craving the ball at all times. Raptor players all day were getting caught watching as shots clanked off the rim. Meanwhile, Thunder players like Westbrook buzzed around grabbing loose balls, constantly one step ahead of their trailing Raptor defenders.
(In Lowry’s defense, he may too have had five offensive rebounds if it weren’t for foul trouble limiting his minutes, and ultimately his evening, as he fouled out late in the fourth quarter.)
The Thunder deserved to win the game. They played an excellent game from start to finish whereas the Raptors had lulls throughout. That said, the manner in which Toronto lost, having multiple players and their coach ejected in the process by a ref having one of his worst days as a professional official, was not indicative of the game’s otherwise highly entertaining feel.
Something else Jack Armstrong said in the post-game, on his personal opinion surrounding the ongoing lack of respect paid to the Raptors, stuck with me. He still feels the NBA narrative is one that doesn’t consider Toronto to be truly elite. As a result, a lot of ‘bang-bang’ plays, as he calls them, still go the way of Raptor competition in high leverage situations.
Which is a roundabout way of saying something like: DeMar DeRozan isn’t Russell Westbrook, but he’s pretty damn good and deserves more star-over-star calls than he gets currently.
By now, Jurassic Park is familiar with the NBA playoff environment. Never mind the supposed officiating bias, or the potential (inevitable?) early tip-times, the physicality gets ramped up to another level in the playoffs, and the Raptors need to show they can take it up another level too, specifically on defense. Offensively, I believe they are committed to their new selfless philosophy after seeing the fruits of that labour pay off all season.
The Eastern Conference doesn’t boast a worthy comparison to Steven Adams in terms of sheer physicality — he is a monster and we shall let the Westeros Conference deal with him. But in saying that, Adams and his team still exposed the Raptors to a degree, highlighting their collective inability to deal with a load down low. Toronto remains a poor defensive rebounding team and giving good teams multiple looks on offense in the playoffs is not a recipe for success.
Defensive rebounding and three-point consistency continue to be the two biggest concerns I have heading into the post-season. And this loss came despite shooting 50 percent from distance.
Oh, and I almost forgot: the third concern, of course, is the prospect of trying to win playing 5 on 8.