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The most ridiculous game of the year is over: Raptors lose to Houston, 121-119

Raptors vs. Rockets was easy to hate. It was absurd, it was inappropriate, it was so against everything we know this Toronto team to be — but it was also amazing entertainment.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

After looking sharp for the opening two minutes, the only thing that ended up sharp for the Raptors this evening was the dagger through its fans’ hearts. Toronto would find themselves down 14 with around three minutes remaining before mounting a 20-8 run to get within two, ultimately succumbing to an energized Houston team.

The Rockets were led by James Harden of all people, who dropped 35 points for his 22nd straight 30-point game. He also added seven assists, but was limited to 2-of-13 from long-range. Kawhi Leonard led Toronto with 32 points of his own, while chipping in seven rebounds and five assists.

In Houston, the benefits of adding Kenneth Faried (21 points, 14 rebounds) to the injury-plagued roster became evident tonight. The Rockets came out of the gates playing a very focused brand of defense — using two to three players to crowd the paint — being especially motivated to take away Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry pick and rolls. The defensive attack was effective early, as Ibaka quickly settled for a few elbow jumpers after not being able to find room to score close — throwing off his usual early-game routine.

By the seven minute mark, Nick Nurse called the team’s first timeout as he found the Raptors doubled down 16-8, and not finding much energy on either end from the starting group. Offensively, Houston was finding a good rhythm, and as a result had built a good bit of momentum.

Immediately after the timeout, they continued their run, extending the lead to 13 points, 23-10, with just under five minutes still remaining. In addition to hitting a couple threes, Houston committed zero turnovers halfway through the first period.

Things weren’t looking too hot for Toronto, admittedly. There were a few glimpses of hope late in the first (Toronto cut the lead to seven at one point), but the bench unit eventually found themselves back in a 13-point hole by the first buzzer. Ibaka led the team with six points in nine minutes, followed by Leonard with four. The starters were all at best -11 in box plus/minus. Yikes!

Entering the 2nd quarter, the Raptors had an opportunity to cut the lead if they buckled in and focused their play in transition. Instead they let the Rockets blow the game open, staring at a 50-29 deficit with just over seven minutes remaining the half.

Toronto looked like a team that hasn’t practiced in a few days, and with this having been the third game in four nights — it’s true, they haven’t. It’s been a long week for the Raptors, and flying to Houston after a back-to-back didn’t help their weary legs, contributing to an incredibly slow start.

Again, though, the team had its moments. With 4:43 remaining in the half, Lowry scored points three and four on the night, cutting the Rockets lead to 13, and after Faried missed a bunny layup on the other end, Leonard found Danny Green (22 points, six 3PM) for a transition three to get within ten. This is the team nowadays — they feel out the first half, and begin to make moves in the second half.

One of the biggest factors in their run was putting the tandem of Danny Green and Pascal Siakam on James Harden defensively — Harden was struggling to find a rhythm while being draped by Siakam’s 6-foot, 9-inch frame and mixing a quick, savvy Green to the mix further confused the league’s leading scorer.

Capping off the 14-6 run was yet another Green triple to get with six, 60-54, and suddenly, Toronto wasn’t a turtle on its back any longer. They were in this game.

Picking up the pace really began to help the Raptors find the bottom of the bucket in the 2nd quarter. After a 20-point 1st quarter, the Raptors eclipsed 40 in the 2nd, before finding themselves down just nine points at halftime. Having Kawhi Leonard certainly helps, too — it wasn’t just that increased pace. Leonard scored 13 points in the quarter, and was nearly perfect shooting the ball by halftime, going 5-of-7 from the field, including 2-of-2, and 5-of-5 from the line.

As usual, Lowry did a great job finding his teammates, logging seven assists in 18 minutes, finding Siakam twice on long passes in transition. If Toronto wanted to come out of the locker room and win the final two quarters, they had to push the tempo and keep on guarding the perimeter. Despite containing Harden better than almost anybody in over two months, (he had just 13 points on 3-of-11 shooting through two quarters), PJ Tucker tore the Raptors up from the corner, hitting 4-of-6 threes in 16 first half minutes. Might be good to cover him in the second half, yeah?

After halftime, things just fell apart though.

I’ll be honest: this was a seriously frustrating game to watch the entire way through. Toronto came out of halftime and blitzed Houston’s defense, pushing the pace and getting the deficit down to four points before completely abandoning the push-the-pace strategy, ceding an 18-4 Rockets run thereafter. That was the first down-swing, and Toronto found themselves in an 18-point hole with four minutes left in the third.

Sidebar: The lineups were great tonight, and that’s close to the only thing that was positive all the way through, so — credit where it’s due. As bad as the game felt though, they were still down just seven points heading into the fourth quarter.

The game was ultimately: down 22, down four, down 18, down seven, down 16, lose by two. Zero consistency combined with “a lot of effort expended” divided by “minimal efficacy.” Like that last sentence, this game made little sense, and it’s that much more asinine that Toronto almost won.

So heading into the final frame, the thinking was if Toronto can string together two consecutive runs, they have a chance to win the game — which is one they had no business winning given how bad some of these individual games were from the guys. Where to start?

Siakam was making rookie mistakes. Powell had a few of those too, including an unfortunate one in the early fourth that crushed a chance for momentum. Lowry’s shooting stroke is still missing in action — he air-balled a three mid-way through the 3rd quarter and passed up a decent look in the fourth. Greg Monroe was — yet again!!! — a total black hole in his limited minutes.

The only positive (or, non-negative) individual games came from Fred VanVleet (though he had his moments), Leonard, Green and Ibaka (12 points, 14 rebounds). Green was especially great, hitting big-shots when the team needed them most.

Well, those consecutive runs never came. It was more of the same play that fans saw in the first three quarters, as the seven point deficit quickly grew to — and hovered around — 16 the rest of the game, and Houston nearly wrapped the contest up thanks to unbelievably out-of-character mistakes by the Raptors on both ends of the court.

I don’t want to downplay the absurdity of this game, because Toronto looked nothing like the team we know. They were strangers on the court all night — especially in the second half — save for a brief five-minute window early in the third quarter and, of course, the following sequence that took place in the eleventh hour of the game.

The fact that they were even within striking distance with nine seconds remaining (121-119) was a miracle. Siakam hit a corner three, Green hit a corner three, Norm drilled a 28-footer all while playing defense and suddenly — the Raptors have the ball after a brain-fart from Eric Gordon (24 points), in position to win the game.

Kawhi would miss the isolation three drawn up by Nurse, finally ending this abominable mess.

Toronto deserved to lose tonight, because — even though they aren’t full-strength — they did little to show they wanted to win tonight before the absolutely ridiculous “comeback that ultimately didn’t matter.”

Let’s be honest: ripping off a 9-0 run with under a minute left after basically handing Houston the game is peak frustration. Sure, you could pin those mistakes and inefficacy on not having a true, effective big in this match-up, but this was a game that Jonas Valanciunas would normally struggle to play in against a quicker Faried. He’d likely only give the team 12-15 minutes tonight. It wasn’t Valanciunas’ injury, it was the lack of consistent effort, point blank.

Why does this team need to be over the campfire to perform like a playoff team? Why do their backs need to be pressed against the wall in order to find the motivation to go out and win? They shouldn’t need these conditions, if I’m being fair. But, as of January 2019, they do apparently.

But, setting aside all the criticisms, the Raptors were a Kawhi jumper away from winning this incredibly ridiculous game that made absolutely zero sense.