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Five Thoughts on Last Night: Clippers 117, Raptors 106

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Bad habits catch up to the Toronto Raptors as they fall to the Los Angeles Clippers 117-106 at home. We’ve got five thoughts on the loss.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

A brutal fourth quarter effort doomed the Toronto Raptors against the Los Angeles Clippers, as the switch they’ve been flipping repeatedly over the past 2-3 weeks finally broke.

An Outcome That Was Overdue

This game—this loss—was a long time coming. We’ve all seen the bad habits that have crept in to the Raptors over the past couple weeks; even though they’ve notched wins, there have been too many lazy first halves, lackadaisical efforts on the glass, poor defense, and sloppy turnovers. They’re 3-3 in their last 6, with the three losses coming against the three plus-.500 teams.

The Raptors are deep, and talented, especially on the offensive end, so the little things can get masked. Especially against teams without incentive to win, like Orlando and Dallas. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are good enough to bail the team out on some nights, too.

But that kind of play is not sustainable, and certainly not against more talented teams.

We all knew it was gonna catch up to them at some point. It happened last night. The Clippers played harder, especially on defense, and when reality started to sink in—as in, “hey, we might lose this one”—it was too late.

At the end of the day it’s one loss and this Raptors team is just fine. But this is not the time of year to let bad habits cost you games.

That’s a Fourth Quarter We’d All Like to Forget

The Raptors have been one of the best fourth-quarter teams in the league all season, and certainly lately, with their subpar starts, they’ve had to play great in the fourth to save their own asses.

Tonight looked to be more of the same; with the score tied at 80, you expected the bench to build a small cushion and the starters to come back in and seal it. But man, it went the other way in a hurry. Fred VanVleet opened the 4th-quarter scoring with an awkward banker, but from there it was all Clippers over the next three minutes: they scored 16 straight, with 12 of them coming in the paint on dunks and layups (the other four coming on two Lou Williams free throws and a Williams short jumper), and Dwane Casey had to burn two timeouts in rapid succession.

It was stunning in how fast, and how easy, and how unexpected it all was. After all, this was the vaunted bench unit! The unit that doesn’t give up leads! They dug the starters a hell of a hole to climb out of. And despite typical offensive excellence from Lowry, DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas after they came back in (those four shot a combined 7-12 in the fourth, and one of those misses was a Valanciunas tip where he collected the offensive rebound and scored anyway) they just could not get stops. LA shot 15-25 (60%) in the period, grabbed 4 of those misses and converted them into 4 points, and didn’t have a single turnover.

Having Lou Williams doesn’t hurt, either. As the Raptors tried to turn it around in the final five minutes, he kept them spinning, burying shots and finding teammates to the tune of 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 3 assists, 2 rebounds and a steal. He’s an assassin.

It All Started Off So Well, Too

It’s been a while since the Raptors threw the first punch. They came out with a ton of energy, passing the ball with purpose and finishing both from deep and at the rim. And how about Valanciunas? He was playing as though DeAndre Jordan wasn’t even in the gym. He drained an early triple, followed it with an and-1 on a baby hook, found OG Anunoby for a 3; he was 5-6 for 12 points and four boards in the first six minutes as the Raptors took a 27-9 lead.

Overall, it was the best the starters have played since the Houston game.

Unfortunately they couldn’t keep it up. JV got his second foul and a 13-3 Clippers run ensued. The Raptors—just like the last time these two teams played—had no answer for Montrezl Harrell. He was everywhere, crashing the glass, running the floor and dunking so hard the entire basket stanchion was shaking (I thought Kyle Lowry was gonna have to call for the level again). He reminds me of Julius Randle from LA’s other team: the Raptors just don’t have a counter for that combination of size, strength and speed. (Thankfully there aren’t too many players like him in the league!)

So, Let’s Have the Good News

Practice time! For the past two weeks we’ve heard it on the broadcast from Matt Devlin and Jack Armstrong, and we’ve been hearing it from the players too: The schedule has been tight and there hasn’t been much practice time. Thus the coaching staff hasn’t been able to help the players overcome these bad habits.

Well, the schedule eases up a bit now—only two games in the next 8 days—so it’s time for the Raptors to prove that practice does matter, or for us to find out if it’s just been an excuse for poor play.

(BTW, also on the good news front: Pascal Siakam can shoot threes now? He’s 6-of-9 over the past four games, and has hit his last four! Obviously he’s not gonna keep that up, but man, if he could shoot 35%, or heck, even 32%, in the playoffs, that’d be a huge boost for the Raptors.)

And the Bad News?

There might be only two games, but they’re pretty damn tough ones. Denver on Tuesday, a team that’s battling to stay in the playoffs. Then it’s Boston, currently just 3.5 back of Toronto for first place and playing just fine without Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving, on Saturday. And after that? A Cleveland-Boston back-to-back on April 3-4.

That’s downright nasty, that schedule is. (Denver, at least, comes to town on the second night of a back-to-back.)

But maybe it’s not all bad news. Maybe this loss wakes the Raptors up a little and reminds them that, for all the positive press and attention, they haven’t accomplished anything yet. Maybe this next stretch is exactly the test the Raptors need to get them ready for the postseason; to “prove ‘em” yet again. The pressure is on now; all four of those games are, essentially, playoff games. The Raptors will need to keep winning to keep that top seed (magic number: still six, and tiebreakers will be determined in this stretch).

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If the Raptors are the team we think they are, they’ll get their act together, shore up the defense, and come out of the next four games ready to do some damage in the postseason.

If not, well, better start stocking up on the antacid...