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Five thoughts on last night: Rockets 119, Raptors 109

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The Raptors fell behind by double digits, fought back to take the lead — and then ran out of gas against the Houston Rockets.

Five thoughts recap: Houston Rockets 119, Toronto Raptors 109, Fred VanVleet John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll tell you what — I don’t normally like watching the Houston Rockets play basketball, but that was a heck of a fun game last night! Watching the Toronto Raptors try — mostly successfully! — to contain James Harden was fantastic to see, and watching the other Rockets players share the ball, and actually play like a team, was great. And of course we got another try-hard game from the Raptors, who, despite falling behind by as many as 16 points, never stopped fighting. And Kyle Lowry is starting to look like Kyle Lowry again!

Sure, watching the Raps miss another 27 three-pointers, and give up 24 second-chance points, wasn’t ideal, and obviously factored into the final result, a 119-109 Rockets win. But overall? I enjoyed the game, and I wasn’t expecting to.

Let’s get to the thoughts:

Regression to the Mean

A couple of years back, during the Raptors’ “culture reset” season, Rockets GM Daryl Morey infamously declared (via a not-so-cleverly-disguised tweet) that the Raptors’ new offense would “regress to the mean.” It never really did that season (well, maybe when they ran into Cleveland in the second round), but, unfortunately, the remark kind of applies to the last two Raptors games.

The Raptors, as we know, started the season red-hot from downtown, leading the league in three-point shooting percentage through December 2. But they’ve regressed the past two games, shooting only 28 percent against Miami and Houston.

In both games I think you can argue the shooting has made the difference. Sure, the Raptors have had other problems — lack of defensive focus against Miami, turnovers and defensive rebounding against Houston — but a couple more triples drop, and these games are a different story.

I guess the question is whether this is a blip or a trend? Somewhere in the middle I suspect: the 40 percent mark wasn’t sustainable, but the 28 percent will certainly come back up. The Raptors have enough good shooters that they should be well above league average, and I’m confident they’ll turn this around soon enough.

Scramble!

Since the Raptors lost, this will probably go down as a failure, but I loved the way the Raptors defended James Harden last night. With a combination of face guarding, double-teaming, trapping, box-and-one, and zone, the Raptors threw multiple looks at the Rockets and kept the ball out of Harden’s hands.

The Rockets needed massive contributions from Danuel House and Ben Macklemore — who shot a ridiculous 8-for-17 from downtown — to beat the Raptors. I feel pretty comfortable giving up those shots to those guys, though it is fair to note that normally those shots would go to Eric Gordon — and that is a scarier proposition.

Unfortunately, this defense looks to be pretty darn exhausting. Multiple Raptors were sprinting to Harden, and back, and other three guys had to cover a lot of ground. That led to a big advantage for Houston on the glass, and left the Raptors running out of team in the fourth. But again, I think the D worked, and I think the scrambling and rebounding is something the Raptors can get better at, if they had to play such a defense consistently — and a deeper bench run (more on this in a minute) may have helped with the energy levels as well.

Killer Ball Movement

The thought process when defending the Rockets goes that, sure, you can pressure Harden, but he’s a good enough passer that he’ll find his teammates and make you pay either way.

Last night, in the first half especially, the Raptors did an awesome job not just defending Harden when he had the ball, but preventing him from getting the ball and running the show. The problem for the Raptors was that Harden’s teammates all turned into a bunch of Steve Nashes out there.

I was absolutely impressed by how well they moved the ball, and how quickly. With the Raptors scrambling, the Rockets were whipping the rock around and making the extra pass and generating high-quality looks. They assisted on 10 of their first 11 field goals, and finished with 29 on 40 made shots — and Harden only had three total.

Whither Rondae?

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson played a mere 11.5 minutes last night, and I’m not sure why. He seemed fine on both ends, although maybe he didn’t give enough of an effort on the defensive glass for Nick Nurse’s taste? It’s hard to say. Terence Davis, meanwhile, only got 14 minutes as well; he made a couple of defensive mistakes (leaving his feet, mainly) but overall I thought he was fine as well.

So that’s two straight games of heavy minutes for Fred VanVleet (38 last night) and Kyle Lowry (41!) and that doesn’t seem sustainable. Especially since I haven’t seen anything that would indicate Hollis-Jefferson or Davis don’t deserve a few more minutes. And I’d like to see that chemistry continue to develop and improve with those two and Lowry and Serge Ibaka, who haven’t played together much yet, and they’ll need minutes for that to happen.

I’m not a coach of course, so I’m sure Nick Nurse is seeing something I’m not, and obviously he’s earned the benefit of the doubt with his rotations. But I like the way RHJ and Davis play, and I don’t want to see Lowry and VanVleet worn out by January.

Be More Passionate than Ambitious

That’s something Masai Ujiri said on Bill Simmons’ podcast a few years ago, and I thought of it last night when Ujiri was interviewed by Rod Black in the second quarter. Masai’s passion for his Giants of Africa program is absolutely inspiring. You can feel, in every word he speaks about the program, about his homeland, about players like Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid, and about Nelson Mandela, how much he cares.

I think there’s something instructive there for all of us. Certainly, there was ambition on the part of Ujiri in building out Giants of Africa, but it was a selfless ambition — an ambition to help others, both the young people in Africa, to help bring them together and give them opportunities through basketball, but also to help the rest of the world see what Africa has to offer. But the passion behind it is what drives that ambition. It’s so personal and meaningful to him, that it’s almost like he cannot help but be driven by it.

We should all find something in our lives that drives us in the same way that Giants of Africa drives Masai Ujiri.

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Two straight losses, at home, to two good teams isn’t a great look, obviously. But I like the way the Raptors fought in both, and with a little more consistent shooting, which I’m certain will even out, the Raptors will be just fine.