If the uneven Raptors performances of the last two weeks were warning tremors, Sunday’s 117-106 loss to the Clippers was the earthquake that forcefully shook the confident foundation of the team and its fans.
Oddly enough, the opening stretch of the game contrasted the Raptors’ recent starts entirely. Jonas Valanciunas did that thing where he demolishes DeAndre Jordan at every turn, dropping Toronto’s first eight points, and 12 total before picking up his second foul just over seven minutes in. At the time of that foul, JV’s efforts (along with those of OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry) had his team sitting on a cozy 27-11 cushion. His departure brought an end to the best Raptors’ start in weeks.
Jakob Poeltl, usually a defensive rotation artist, found himself unable to hang with a powerful, dive-first centre for the second Sunday in a row. His struggles bled into the rest of the league’s best second unit. Outside of Pascal Siakam, who is apparently hitting threes now, the reserves struggled to create much of... well, anything. As a lineup, the bench has always been more into fast food than drawn-out multi-course feasts on offense. Siakam or Delon Wright leading a break with Fred VanVleet and CJ Miles lurking around the arc is a devastating combo that normally offsets the fivesome’s stodginess when creating in the half court.
Those galloping end-to-end flourishes don’t happen when The Bench People aren’t playing like the conveyor-belt of defensive stops they usually are. There were few successful defensive trips for the second unit on the night.
“Going against Boban (Marjanovic) and (Montrezl) Harrell and just his energy coming in with offensve boards... they hurt us,” said Casey of L.A.’s second unit, which bullied Toronto’s bench all night.
The death blow came at the start of the fourth quarter. Entering the frame with the score tied at 80, the smart money would have been on the Raptors to pull ahead and take win no. 55. No team in the league boasts a better fourth-quarter NET Rating than Toronto’s +10.8 figure. But instead of the typical bench steadiness, a super-sized Clipper lineup centred around the aforementioned Boban and Harrell punished the Raptors to the tune of a 16-2 run to start the quarter.
“That’s the first time in a long time,” said Casey of his second unit’s troubles. “Our second unit has been great all year long ... First time in a long time they’ve lost a lead for us.”
During that outburst, Harrell padded his hilarious career stat line against the Raptors. Now with five games against Toronto under his belt, Harrell is shooting a combined 30-of-38. His 19-point night on 9-of-12 from the floor leaves him now averaging 14.0 points a night against Toronto — more than two points better than his mark against any other team in the league. Harrell, paired with PER God Marjanovic, offered too much physical might for the Poeltl-Siakam duo to handle.
That made Dwane Casey’s next move a curious one. Instead of plugging in Valanciunas, the noted large person who is good at rebounds and whose four fouls shouldn’t have been a deterrent in the dying minutes, Casey opted to test out Serge Ibaka next to Siakam. That pairing has been a +11.8 NET Rating’s worth of awesome in 159 minutes together, and will almost certainly be a counted-on look in the post-season. But against perhaps the most mountainous big man duet in the league, it seemed like a strange time for Casey to opt for space and offense over size and rebounding. That lineup went minus-five in under a minute.
While it was a poor in-game choice, it’s worth noting to the Casey-haters out there that this is the exact kind of move Raptors fans have begged Casey to make in previous years. Maybe the biggest critique of Casey has been that he’s more reactive than proactive; more likely to conform to the style the opponent is dictating than to force the opposition to match what he wants to do. At a time in which Ibaka isn’t ice cold, a five-out look could conceivably outscore a burly opposing front line into submission — and it’ll almost certainly have to at points in the playoffs. So, yes, while it was an obvious coaching error at the time, it’s not hard to see why it was made.
After initially getting their asses handed to them to start the fourth, the Raptors, spurred on mostly by Lowry, nearly pulled out another narrow win. An Ibaka three after some clumsy-but-effective footwork in the left corner brought the Raptors within five before Lou Williams decided he wasn’t going to miss anymore. Williams ended the night with 26 points, many of which of the clutch variety. His late buckets alone kept the Clippers alive in the West playoff derby.
Every Raptors loss since the middle of December has felt a little jarring. They don’t do it often, and it’s understandable for a long-tortured fan base to want to take advantage of the few opportunities it gets to nit pick. Toronto hasn’t played well over the last seven or eight games. It’s a good enough team that 12 to 16 minutes of dedicated effort is often enough to make up any gaps that sitting in second gear most of the night opens up. A recent run of bad habits — and a particularly crammed schedule — caught up to the Raptors on Sunday night.
“We gotta make sure we do the little things, and don’t let them slip,” Casey said. “And they’ve slipped. Our defense has slipped, our offensive execution and passing.”
While it’s fair to point out the drop-off of the last nine games, Sunday’s loss should be no means represent the end of the leash given to the team by fans. It’s going to take more than a couple of up-and-down weeks from a team that is possibly bored and probably tired to wipe away the 65-game sample of the Raptors being definitely really good.