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Five thoughts on last night: Rockets 121, Raptors 119

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A fun final minute shouldn’t mask the lack of ball movement and hustle that found the Raptors down by 22 early. 

Five thoughts recap: Houston Rockets 121, Toronto Raptors 119, James Harden Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard back! James Harden on a historic tear! This had the makings of a good one, but unfortunately, was a bit of a dud. The Raptors kept Harden from going off, but Leonard was rusty, and the Rockets led the entire way and the Raptors, while sticking around, couldn’t seem to make enough plays to get over the hump.

A couple of bone-headed Eric Gordon plays late gave the Raptors a shot to win, but alas.

Deja Vu All Over Again

For the second game in a row, the Raptors found themselves down early, let the lead get bigger in the second quarter, and had to spend the second half fighting to get back in it, and just running out of time.

While you can certainly appreciate the fight the team has, the slow starts have to be concerning, especially because the starting lineup (whether it has Fred VanVleet in for Leonard, or VanVleet in for Kyle Lowry) has generally been excellent, while the bench lineups have been inconsistent at best. If the starters continue to fall behind early, it’s asking a lot for the bench to bring them back in it.

Some of the slow start last night could be attributed to working Kawhi Leonard back in to the lineup, but that again, illustrates another problem, one we’ve been talking about all season and that doesn’t seem to be getting any better — with Leonard missing so many games, and so many other injuries up and down the roster, the chemistry you’d expect after 50 games just isn’t there.

You can talk about the long game and rest and load management all you like, but if you “save it for the playoffs” so much that you never learn how to play with your teammates, what’s the point?

So, About that Final Minute

I don’t even know what to write about this. The Raptors were trailing by 11 with just over a minute to go. The Rockets seemed to have it under control, and a deep three-pointer from Kawhi Leonard looked like nothing more than the Raptors making the margin of victory respectable.

When Harden turned it over on the next play (on a great trap from Leonard and Danny Green), and the Raptors came down and Leonard absolutely bricked a triple, and then Lowry followed it up with another egregious three-point brick of his own, all I could think was, “please let this end, we’re embarrassing ourselves.”

But wouldn’t you know it, Pascal Siakam was there to corral all the loose balls, and he found a backpedaling Danny Green (shades of Chris Bosh and Ray Allen?) who nailed a corner three. All of a sudden it was a five-point game with 35 seconds to go! Would they.... Could they?!? When Eric Gordon stepped out of bounds on the inbounds, the answer seemed like... maybe!?

Siakam proceeded to nail a silky-smooth three-pointer from the right corner on the ensuing possession, and at that point I don’t even know what was going through my head. Eric Gordon must have been equally stunned, because he launched an off-balance three that missed and gave the Raptors a chance to tie or win with 16 seconds to go.

Unfortunately the Raptors didn’t get a great shot on the final possession, and the comeback fell short. They got the switch they wanted — Norman Powell screened for Leonard, taking out P.J. Tucker and putting James Harden on Leonard... and Harden kept Leonard moving laterally, didn’t let him get a clean look, and that was your ballgame.

Ball Movement, Where Art Thou?

Down 19-8 early, trying to weather a Rockets barrage, the Raptors head-manned the ball to Pascal Siakam, who proceeded to back down James Harden in the post, towards the middle, spun back baseline, and missed the five-footer.

Two plays later, Siakam got the ball at the top of key, and tried the same thing, but Harden blocked his shot.

One the one hand, you might think Siakam against Harden is a good matchup. And I don’t mean to pick on Siakam. But on the other hand — those are two plays that were emblematic of everything the Raptors did wrong on offence in the first half. One player, trying to take a defender one-on-one, taking up the entire shot clock and forcing a shot rather than moving the ball and getting a good look.

To be fair, the ball movement wasn’t terrible all night, but it was inconsistent. On all those 10-4, 9-0 runs the Raptors had? Yep. On all the 21-6, 13-4 runs the Rockets had? Nope.

Kenneth Faried, Don’t Call it a Comeback

We all know that Kenneth Faried was a rumoured Raptors trade target for years, and in the pre-Serge Ibaka era, he seemed like a good one. But then he signed a huge contract he couldn’t live up to, the Raptors traded for and signed Ibaka (who also signed a huge cont... ah, never mind), and Faried ended up buried on Brooklyn’s bench this season while Serge has had a solid year, so it seemed like the Raptors made the right choice. When the Nets waived him and the Rockets signed him, it seemed like nothing more than Houston getting a warm body to fill in for Clint Capela.

Well, Faried seemed to resurrect his career last night against the Raptors.

He finished with 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, had 14 rebounds and two blocks, and played 38 minutes! The highlight had be a three-minute stretch in fourth. First, he squared up against Kawhi Leonard, who looked to attack from the left wing. Faried knocked the ball away, stole it, and drew the foul on Leonard. He hit the first three throw, missed the second, got the offensive rebound and laid it in.

Two plays later he drew a (questionable) offensive foul on Siakam, and two plays after that rejected an Ibaka follow-up.

He’s either a perfect fit for this Rockets team or he was trying to show the Raptors what they’re missing. Either way, he was a huge difference maker last night.

A Tale of Four Hands

Early in the first quarter the Raptors got a rare opportunity to run, and Kyle Lowry floated a pass ahead to — who else? — Pascal Siakam. The pass was a tiny bit long — I don’t think it was intended to be an alley-oop — but Siakam was able to corral it mid-air and lay it right in.

That kind of touch and concentration is rare, and beautiful thing to see. For all of Siakam’s runout and spins, none of it works if he can’t control the ball.

Now, another player known for his hands is Greg Monroe. For all of Moose’s faults, handling the ball has never been a problem for him; he’s always been able to get his mitts on bad passes and loose balls and careening rebounds, and keep the ball under control.

But not lately. His defense has been bad, his offense has all but disappeared, and now... he can’t even handle the rock! On one play last night Moose attempted to pull down a rebound of an Austin Rivers miss, but he somehow bobbled it in between his hands and Rivers took it away. It won’t go down as a turnover but it was emblematic of Moose’s problems lately. This team sure needs Jonas Valanciunas.

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Well, other than an exciting final 90 seconds, there wasn’t a whole lot to like in this one. We got another episode of the Kyle and Kawhi Playing Like Strangers show, but we didn’t get a corresponding episode of the James Harden Cooking show. Hopefully the Raptors will have their full lineup (minus JV) together again tomorrow and can continue to work on that elusive chemistry.