It wasn’t supposed to go like that last night, not for the Toronto Raptors. The schedule finally eased off. They had practice time. The lineup was almost back to full strength. They had a nice big story in a U.S. media outlet and had a chance to tie the season series with their closest rival in the standings, on U.S. national TV.
Instead they came out and laid an egg against the Milwaukee Bucks and showed everyone all the damn warts that have been plaguing the team all season long, that have been masked by their impressive win total.
This Team Can’t Shoot
I wrote about this last week, how I’d lost faith in the team’s ability to shoot the ball. We’re seeing the occasional good night (like against Dallas) and good performance (Danny Green against Memphis) but overall, as a team? It’s just not there.
Here’s another way to look at it. Do other teams (including their fans) fear any Raptors shooters?
Every good team has a two or more players where anytime they take an open three, you just shake your head — how did my team leave that guy open from downtown? The Bucks have, like, five — Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Tony Snell (against the Raptors at least, and hey, Thon Maker too), Malcolm Brogdon, and now apparently someone called D.J. Wilson.
Who do the Raptors have? Danny Green, maybe? That’s it. Kawhi Leonard, obviously, is a good three-point shooter but he’s not a knock-down specialist (and he’s such a focal point, and has the ball so much, he’s not in position for open catch-and-shoot looks). Kyle Lowry and C.J. Miles are no longer threats. Fred VanVleet’s confident, but inconsistent. Everyone else is shaky.
All of those Bucks players shoot the ball with confidence and the team’s offense is designed for them to take those shots. It’s just not part of this Raptor’s team’s DNA, it seems.
Easy Buckets. Remember Those?
The Raptors have been one of the best fast-break teams in the NBA this year, but outside of those transition opportunities, damn does this team make scoring seem difficult. OK, there’s one thing — the Kyle Lowry-Serge Ibaka high pick-and-roll regularly produces clean looks. But every other possession it just seems like it’s a challenge for the Raptors to generate good looks at the basket.
Even Kawhi Leonard, for all his gifts, just seems to expel a lot more energy getting into the lane or creating space for jumpers than a guy like Kevin Durant or LeBron James, or even Giannis Antetokounmpo. I hate to say it, but at times I really have been reminded of DeMar DeRozan, watching Leonard play — just a lot of dribbling towards the rim at an angle, pump fakes, short fadeaways and so on. And frankly, DeRozan is a much better passer.
I love everything Kawhi’s brought to this team, he’s obviously having a great season and it’s probably not fair to compare anyone to LeBron, KD and Giannis. And I can’t blame it all on him; he hasn’t gotten the consistent support from the team around him (hitting some damn threes sure would help open things up).
But watching the Raptors try to score is just exhausting sometimes.
The Bucks, Doing What Good Teams Do
Jordan’s Bulls used to do it. LeBron’s Heat Did It. The Warriors do it. They come out of halftime of a game where the outcome is still in doubt, and they systematically erase those doubts over the next six minutes or so.
Early in the season I thought the Raptors were developing into that sort of team. There were a number of games where they just seemed to flip the switch and run away with a short burst after halftime.
But those moments are gone now, and instead, we saw the Bucks come out and handle their business in the third last night. They had 7-0 and 12-2 runs over the course of the first 6.5 minutes of the frame, and although the Raptors managed to cut into the lead by the end of the third, they’d lost too much ground to catch up.
And what’s worse, is the Raptors had the opportunity to swing things their way and dropped the ball! Lowry drew a charge on Giannis four minutes in to the third, sending him to the bench with four fouls.
The Bucks immediately scored eight straight.
The Raptors were sloppy-but-not-completely-terrible in the first half, and showed some fight over the final 17 minutes. But the Bucks won this game in those first seven minutes of the third. That’s what good teams do.
The Raptors are Scared
”Scared” is a bold word, but hey, gotta make those subheads work! Hesitant is probably more accurate, but either way, this tentativeness (I’m like a human thesaurus over here) is killing this team.
Three times (at least!) in the first half last night, a Raptor drove to the rim, got intimidated by either Giannis or Lopez, and tried to dish out from mid-air. As you’ve heard a million times on a broadcast or from your high school coach, you don’t leave your feet to pass. Of course, you’ve likely seen such a play wind up in a bucket and certain broadcasters going on to praise the pass, but trust me — it’s a mistake, the pass was a bailout and if the result ended up in a positive, that’s dumb luck, not a good pass.
Of course, it’s not just passing out. Kawhi took an awkward reverse in the third, scared to go up on the same side of the rim as Lopez; Delon Wright later did the same, and Kyle Lowry rushed an open layup and blew it.
And it’s not just one game. How many three-point shots has Kyle Lowry passed up? How many times have OG Anunoby or Delon Wright hesitated to shoot?
Like those third-quarter smackdowns, good teams are decisive. They know who they are on offense, and they know what to do. Do the Raptors even have an offensive identity? Who are they? Even on the TNT broadcast, Chris Webber said that “the word around the league... is that the Raptors go into long offensive droughts.” Is that who this team is?
Say Something Nice!
OK, fine. Nick Nurse was quick to adjust when needed (pulling Greg Monroe from facing the Giannis/Ersan Ilyasova front line) and slow when needed (let the Siakam+bench group, that closed the third well, run long in the fourth). Siakam, obviously, was brilliant on offense. As was Norman Powell (and did you see the perfectly executed pick-and-roll Norm ran with Ibaka late in the first quarter? Maybe Powell has some emerging playmaking chops!).
But my favourite moment came pre-game, during the Bucks intros. Raptors PA announcer Herbie Kuhn pronounced Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s name with (what I presume is) the correct German pronunciation (a harder “u”, softer “d” and a ”tz”) and got a nice point-and-nod from Coach Bud, who clearly appreciated it. Who doesn’t love Herbie? He’s the best.
All right, so this team has things to fix. They have two full days off before playing the Clippers on Sunday, and although I know the team has been taking it easy on the players, preferring to keep them fresh for the long run, I’d say it’s time to ramp up the practices a little bit. We’re two-thirds of the way through the season, and it’s time to get this offense in gear!