While the Toronto Raptors roared out to a strong start in the 2019-20 season, naysayers suggested that a soft schedule was the cause of their success. Raptors fans were aware that they had benefitted from playing lesser opponents and had circled the most recent four game stretch as an opportunity. Playing against the Utah Jazz, Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, and Philadelphia 76ers in that order, Raptors fans, high on the euphoria of a championship and hot start, did not necessarily even see these games as a test. Instead, once the Raptors came out of this gantlet 3-1 or, God forbid, 2-2 at worst, it would be clear that they were no fluke and this team was capable of hanging with the NBA’s best.
The reality, however, was much more alarming, as Toronto went 1-3 over this stretch. Against the Jazz, the Raptors made their opponents look about as out of place on an NBA court as, well, Jazz music in Utah, winning 130-110 after starting with a 40-point halftime lead. If you mention this game and don’t also utter the phrase “40-point halftime lead,” you will henceforth be banned from referencing this game. Raptors fans were riding high coming out of this game, but the next three proved to be the first real cause for concern this season. The Raptors trailed in the bulk of these games, and though they made a late push in each, they lost them all.
Losing three games is concerning in itself, but there were multiple aspects within the games that pointed to potentially more problematic issues than the losses themselves. Still, there are also reasons to keep that panic button tucked away for now. Here are the three biggest concerns (obviously, the biggest concern is Fred VanVleet’s health, but I’ll leave that to those with the requisite knowledge and information to comment) that arose from the three-game losing streak — with reasons for why they will not last:
1. The Struggles of Pascal Siakam
Let’s just say the timing of this recent slide by Siakam is, uh, not great. On the heels of myself calling him team MVP and citing him as a reason for hope about the Raptors playoff ceiling, Siakam has looked more like Andrew Wiggins than Kawhi Leonard over the past week — inefficient, passive, and allergic to playmaking. What could have initially been chalked up to the effect of Bam Adebayo, a tailor-made Siakam stopper, these struggles have carried over against a team with no real answer for Siakam in Houston, and a Philly team that he had success against earlier this season.
Over these three games, Siakam has shot 21-of-54 from the floor and 2-of-14 from three-point range. He has had five assists total, with six turnovers. Oof. Siakam’s stats do not tell the whole story either — he has not looked himself in general. One of the most positive signs of Siakam’s start to the season was his mentality. He had multiple starts to a game where he shot poorly, but kept attacking and making plays, grinding his way to a solid outing. Lately, however, he has looked shook after some early misses and afraid to make a mistake as the game progressed. Case in point: Siakam shot only one time in the fourth quarter and overtime against the Heat. What’s more, he’s lacked that energy and burst Raptors fans have come to expect from him. This is easily the worst we’ve seen of Pascal Siakam this season.
Why it Won’t Last:
When there is a significant statistical outlier in any direction, regression to the mean is a virtual certainty. For Siakam, who has proven to be a solid-to-good shooter, these numbers will pick back up. Additionally, there are only three other games this entire season where Siakam has only had two assists or less, meaning, once again, that these games are the exception, not the new norm.
As far as the energy and the mentality goes, this is much more difficult to assess and explain. Maybe the adjustment to life as a number one option has caught up with him. Known as a tireless worker off the court, perhaps Siakam is expending too much effort practicing, and his increased role with the team requires him to better balance his activities. Though not quantifiable, this aspect of Siakam’s struggles also feels like an outlier, and he is someone who has consistently said the right things, then followed it up with on-court results. Expect a bounce-back from Pascal Siakam.
2. Disjointed Offense
An impressive aspect of the Raptors this season was their connectivity on offense. A playmaker such as Fred VanVleet or Siakam would penetrate, then as defensive help arrived, they would move the ball to an open man. The ball would then hum along smoothly and efficiently until an open shooter or cutter was hit for an easy basket. The way the ball was moving, these Raptors looked like the gBeautiful Game Spurs, the 2014 NBA Champion.
Since the game against the Heat, however, this has been far from the case. Instead, the Raptors attack has been a series of ill-advised individual drives, often leading to a forced hoist at the end of the shot clock. Rather than looking like a well-oiled machine that located a weakness and attacked it, the Raptors more resembled a group of first-graders playing red rover against fourth-graders at recess, sending hopeless souls one at a time to a seemingly unbreakable link until the bell rings. When the ball did move, it looked like hot potato, with no Raptor willing to pull the trigger. The Raptors, over this stretch, have an offensive rating of 105.4, which would rank 26th in the league currently, according to Basketball Reference — a far cry for a team in the top five before the Heat game.
Why it Won’t Last:
This is clearly a slight adjustment period for Toronto. The return of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka has seemingly thrown off the offensive hierarchy. The Raptors really hit their stride with these two out, and a big reason why was an established offensive pecking order. Siakam and VanVleet were the lead creators, and the rest of the team would let their offense come to them. Lowry, another lead creator, and Ibaka, a willing shooter and occasional ball-stopper, are more forceful with their offense and therefore, add a few more wrinkles into the calculus of the team.
Before we get carried away with “this team was better when they were injured” takes, let us remember that these two were integral parts of a championship rotation, largely as a result of their ability to defer and be patient with their offense, then attack when the situation called for it. With the team looking much different than it did before the injuries rotation-wise, as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis II, and Chris Boucher saw little time at that point in the season, the players will have to adjust to the new lineups that are on the floor.
More than anything, the Raptors just need to work out the kinks that come with change. Masai Ujiri has built a team that is filled with high-IQ, good character players. Most of them have seen firsthand what accepting a different role can do for the team, and the culture of the team lends itself to successfully easing these transitions. Lowry and Ibaka are two of the team’s better players, and this team will be better in the long term with their presence. In turn, Toronto’s offense will stabilize as these players get a better feel for one another.
3. Defensive Regression
The Raptors rely heavily on their defensive acumen to give themselves a high competitive floor. It’s what allows them to beat the Orlando Magic by seven while only scoring 90 points, a rarity in the modern NBA. Defense, unlike shooting, should carry over game-to-game given the requisite effort from the Raptors.
Over the three-game losing streak, the Raptors defense has not performed like the top-five defence that they should be this season. Once again, the numbers from this stretch are unimpressive, with the Raptors performing like the 25th best defense in the league with a defensive rating of 114.1, according to Basketball Reference. Granted, these numbers come against three of the better teams in the league, but for a Raptors team where the offense may come and go, their defense needs to be consistent to be competitive with the league’s best.
Why it Won’t Last:
The Raptors continued to deploy their star-stopping strategy in these games, which has largely been successful. Unfortunately, against the Heat and Rockets, Jimmy Butler and James Harden stayed poised under the pressure the Raptors sent, and made smart, effective passes. Their teammates canned the shots that came as a result as well. That strategy differed against the 76ers, as they do not have a perimeter creator like the former two, but instead run their offense through their centre Joel Embiid. Nonetheless, Philly moved the ball well too, and each of the three teams outperformed their usual three-point shooting percentages.
Specificall, against the Rockets, where the Raptors’ pressure on Harden was as extreme as its been all season, the Raptors hoped that the likes of former Raptors P.J. Tucker and Ben McLemore wouldn’t beat them. Unfortunately, they did, combining to shoot 13-of-27 from three. It is unlikely that the Raptors will change their defensive philosophy after a couple of games, just as it is unlikely that teams will shoot better against the Raptors than they do other teams. They still have a team full of talented and smart individual defenders, with a coach in Nick Nurse who has proven to use innovative, savvy defensive schemes. The Raptors will continue to do what has been working, and the defense will likely continue to stifle teams.