It was always gonna be tough for the Raptors to match the high of the pre-game festivities on Wednesday night with their on-court play against the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard receiving his ring from Kyle Lowry, after a stirring and perfectly executed video tribute was almost guaranteed to be the highlight of the evening.
And man — did the Raptors and their game ops crew ever do that part right. From the standing ovation Leonard received upon emerging from the tunnel, to the wonderfully produced montage, all the way up to the light-lowering and fluorescent retracing of Leonard’s steps on the road to making the Sixers weep — the touch was deft, the eyes in the house misty. There’s almost no way the rest of the night wasn’t going to bring with it a slight come-down.
The hope was that it wouldn’t be a full on crash-landing into the sea. But save for about 18 minutes of the Good Raptors, that’s kind of exactly what the 112-92 loss to Leonard’s Clips was.
It didn’t begin that way. Throughout the first quarter, the Raptors looked very much up to the task of taking down Leonard’s new, title-favourite team. With OG Anunoby playing like a freshly ripped BeyBlade, and the Raptors geeked up to throw double teams Leonard’s way at any opportunity, the Raptors strung together what was probably their best quarter since forty-piecing the Jazz in the first half last 10 days ago.
“I thought we came out pretty revved up and executing really well,” said Nurse of Toronto’s 32-27 first quarter edge. “I thought we were really flying around out there and I thought it looked like it was gonna be a hell of a ball game.”
In spurts, it was one. But those spells of competitive tension were interspersed with long Toronto lulls, far too reminiscent of their worst stretches from the past week or so.
Toronto’s made its name on flummoxing opposing superstars all season. Thing about the Clippers is, they’ve got two, as Raptors fans well know. Into the second quarter, Leonard grew more comfy passing out of Toronto’s traps. But instead of a Damian Lillard-like situation where the escape valve leads to crummy role players, Leonard’s outlet is Paul George. When it’s not George, it’s the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell duo. Guarding all of those primary ball-handlers is tough enough in single coverage; scrapping and rotating to get in their face just seems bloody tiring. As the Clippers piled up 37 second quarter points to Toronto’s 14, the limits of Nick Nurse’s in-your-face schemes came into focus. It’s not crazy to credit the Raptors’ 25 percent clip from the floor in the frame to the tired legs that come with chasing stars all over the floor as well.
“We went through a really dry spell offensively and it deflated us, I think, all the way through the second quarter and into the half,” Nurse said.
Toronto began the third quarter re-inspired. Scaling back the trapping and relying on OG Anunoby (on Leonard) and Pascal Siakam’s (on George) one-on-one defensive chops, the Raptors seemed to have a little more in the tank for offense. Over the course of about nine minutes, Toronto cut the deficit from 18 to five. Norman Powell was all over this particular stretch, in the most Norman Powell ways possible.
Powell’s prominence in this game seemed to be by Doc Rivers’ design. With Leonard drawing the Lowry assignment and George on Siakam, Norm’s pastures were relatively clear and open. Problem is, he’s not much with the passing. Still, despite a couple of heinous turnovers, Norm’s wildness yielded a net positive for Toronto between minutes 25 and 34 of the game, thanks to a made three, a strip of Leonard, and probably the sexiest rebound you’ll see a Raptor grab all season. At 76-71 with 3:43 to play, Nurse’s “hell of a game” prediction became realistic again ... at least for like a minute.
With the bench hands slowly filtering in, things got sticky on offense again, while the defensive damn busted open. A 12-0 Clippers run finished off the quarter, and effectively the game.
Of note in the fourth quarter was, well, not much. Nurse put the writing on the wall himself with some whack-a-doo lineup combos. All-bench lineups for this team are a dicey proposition on the best of days. Against the Clippers’ Lou-Trez unit it reeked of a desire to run out the clock. Patrick McCaw scored his customary zero points in his return to the lineup, showing he did not skip a beat while on the shelf. Meanwhile Serge Ibaka, still looking out of sorts, missed all eight of his shots on the night.
As a sequel to the hopeless bench crew, Nurse trotted out a Lowry / Siakam / Ibaka / Marc Gasol / Chris Boucher grouping (we’re saying Gasol was the shooting guard, OK?) to kill time before the final buzzer. No inspired late-game full court press like there was in Philly to close this one out.
Toronto’s loss brings them to four losses in their last five. And with Kawhi dropping a cool 23-5-6 on 8-of-14 shooting on the other side, it’s easy to get into one’s feelings about the current state of the Raptors compared to where things sat just eight or so months ago.
This game and this team don’t have to leave you feeling somber, though. No team is ever as bad as it looks during its worst stretch — which the Raptors are very clearly enduring right now. And as Nurse alluded to after the game, his team is not at all far removed from one of the best halves of basketball any edition of the team — with Leonard or without — has played since the Raptors’ white dino jerseys first were unveiled to the world back in ‘95. Toronto isn’t going to shoot in the 20s from downtown in every game they play (probably). And the line of old teammates Leonard embraced on the way to picking up his championship ring before the game remains as savvy and talented and sure of their identity as they were last season. A couple of those guys are notably even better than they were last year too.
Hiccups go away with time and a deep breath or two; the difference between wins a losses ain’t more than a couple made threes, or as Kawhi once taught us, a handful of delicate bounces on the rim.