If you like ugly basketball, you sure had a ball watching last night’s Raptors-Bulls game, eh? Phew. Both teams were on the second night of back-to-backs, and what played out on the court last night sure looked like it.
This isn’t a game worthy of too much attention — it’s the kind you just want to get out of the way — so let’s get the thoughts out of the way too, and move on to Wednesday’s homecoming.
At Least the Raptors Weren’t the Only Bricklayers
The Raptors are having some well-documented troubles shooting the ball of late, but their opponents? Not so much! Miami, Houston and Philadelphia shot a combined 40% from downtown against the Raptors.
The Bulls, though, joined the Raptors in struggling from distance; Chicago was 12-for-46 while Toronto was 7-for-26. This certainly didn’t make the game any fun to watch, but, the Raptors needed it to win this game.
What may be distressing is that 32 of those 36 Bulls attempts were classified as wide open, per NBA.com. The Raptors continue to give up open threes as part of their defensive game plan; for one night at least, it didn’t come back to haunt them.
Unfortunately the Bricklaying Disease has Infected the Paint
Despite the Raptors’ shooting woes from deep, they’ve continued to finish at the rim just fine during their losing streak; in the previous three games they shot 57% inside the paint.
Last night, though, they were 24-for-51 in the paint, and even though the Bulls protected the rim with some force (shoutout to Daniel Gafford!) many of those misses were uncontested.
That's at least 3 missed Raptor layups in the first 3 1/2 minutes of the third quarter— Doug Smith: Raptors (@SmithRaps) December 10, 2019
(They missed another one about 30 seconds after Doug tweeted that, too)
If you’re not gonna hit threes, and you’re gonna miss layups, well, you’d better get a pretty damn good performance outta your defense.
All Hail our Defensive Overlord, Marc Gasol
Marc Gasol has been... confusing(?) on offense since he joined the Raptors. He alternates between not wanting to shoot and rushing his shots, and now he’s become a greater threat from 23 feet than three feet.
But it seems that no matter how many steps he's lost on offense, you can count on him completely on the other end.
Last night Gasol was masterful in protecting the paint against Chicago. He put on clinic of verticality and moving his feet, and saved the game on the Bulls’ final two possessions. First, with the Raptors up one, he blocked a Lauri Markkanen baby hook:
Then, after the Raptors failed to score, he stood his ground and contested a Zach LaVine drive on the final play:
My favourite thing about the second one is that Marc gathers himself, as if he’s going to jump to contest the shot, but then doesn’t, and simply gets vertical. Did he do that to throw LaVine off? Or because he realized it was a smarter play, and he was less likely to be called for a foul, if he stayed down? Or was it just because he can barely jump anymore?
Who knows, but it worked!
Still Need More from Pascal
Pascal Siakam started off well enough, looking aggressive and scoring early, but he reverted back to passive bystander mode. After a 13-point, 5-for-10, three-rebound first quarter, he only scored nine points, on 2-for-8 shooting, with three rebounds, two turnovers and not a single assist the entire rest of the game.
Now, the Raptors’ cold shooting depresses their assist statistics, but that last number is glaring; with Fred VanVleet out, Siakam is either the primary or secondary creator for the Raptors whenever he’s on the floor. If he’s not generating scoring chances for himself (and eight shots in three quarters would suggest he wasn’t) then he needs to be doing so for others. And its not like Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are all-defensive players! (Although again let’s give credit to Daniel Gafford, who was a terror anytime the Raptors ventured into the paint.)
Siakam’s best asset has always been his high motor. Where’s it gone?
Mad Scientist Run Amok
One good thing about this Raptors slump is that head coach Nick Nurse has embraced the mad scientist role. He’s throwing zones and traps and full-court defenses out there, and some truly bizarre lineups too. At one point, a truly Knicks-ian lineup of forwards took the floor, with Terence Davis surrounded by Siakam, Chris Boucher, Serge Ibaka and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. (That went as well as you’d expect.) Hollis-Jefferson got multiple post-up opportunities! (They also went about as you’d expect.) Malcolm Miller got first-half minutes! (They also went... well, you get the idea.)
In other words, the lineup combos haven’t hit their mark yet.
Those defensive experiments though, have paid dividends; in fact, you could say that they’ve broken the Raptors out of their malaise at times. The trap and pressure against Philly sparked the late run, and the zone against Chicago turned the game around (the Bulls took an 85-77 lead with eight minutes to go, and only scored seven points the whole rest of the night).
Maybe the Raptors guys are bored in their post-championship season, and they need these Nick Nurse experiments to wake them up?
With that out of the way, it’s on to Kawhi Leonard’s return to Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. It’s sure to be emotional, and probably a playoff-like atmosphere — in other words, it’s exactly the kind of game that, should the Raptors win, can snap Toronto of their funk.