Around this time last year the Raptors beat the streaking Rockets, hitting them with their one and only loss across a 29-game span. At the time it felt like perhaps the signature win of the season for Toronto, one in which they stuck to their game plan, staved off the relentless onslaught of eventual MVP James Harden, and rose to the level of championship contender by being their best selves. Drake cheered from his courtside seat; we were all ready for what was to come.
As it turned out, that game didn’t matter a lick. The Raptors continued on their way, building on an 11-game win streak as part of a franchise-best 59-win season, but they still got annihilated in the playoffs and never saw the Rockets again. In fact, it’s easy to forget the game even happened. Who cares now about such a regular season win? What did it matter?
Well for one thing, it sure as hell beats watching the Raptors lose to the Rockets. On Tuesday night, despite a solid first quarter and an insane comeback in the third, Toronto would go on to lose to Houston, 107-95. Oddly, this score feels both too close and much further apart than it actually was. For long stretches of this one, the Raps couldn’t hit shots, couldn’t create shots, and eventually couldn’t put up much of a fight to stop Houston from getting both the micro and macro results they wanted.
Still, that third quarter, man. The Raptors came out of the half down 55-37, after two sub-20-point quarters. There was absolutely no reason to assume things would turn around, not with Harden just warming up, and the Rockets bench beating up Toronto’s squad of subs. Except the Raptors’ defense picked up, and they actually hit shots, going on a 15-2 run in the five minutes before Houston’s first field goal of the quarter. For comparison’s sake: in the first half Toronto mustered 34 percent shooting from the field and 23 percent from three. In that third quarter? 59 and 38, respectively. The end result: suddenly, it was Houston’s turn for a meagre sub-20-point quarter.
The hero of those minutes was Pascal Siakam, who finished the night with a double-double of 17 points (15 in the third) and ten rebounds. Siakam also buzzed around on defense, helping to hold Harden to a 1-for-7 frame. At the same time, the Raptors were aided by Kawhi Leonard (contending with the fridge-like P.J. Tucker for most of the night), who muscled in 26 points while grabbing six boards. They also got a nice bounce-back half from Serge Ibaka, who started the game looking every one of his years, but finished with five blocks and a 10-15 double-double. For their parts: Danny Green hit some big threes for 14 points and Kyle Lowry whirred around the court, but finished with just 8-and-6 on 4-of-16 shooting.
If we could just talk about that third quarter there’d be no problem here. The Raptors were down 22, turned it around over those 12 minutes, and actually went into the fourth with a two-point lead. Gunning with the Rockets is no easy feat, not with with Harden juking his way to 35 points (on 12-of-30 shooting, but still), and not with the team shooting 15-of-34 from deep overall. And yet there was a moment when it felt like Toronto could get it done. Chris Paul was frustrated, Clint Capela was bottled up, Eric Gordon looked mortal — anything was possible. So then, what happened?
As has been the case throughout Toronto’s season, the bench is what happened. Despite changes in personnel, despite it being Marc Gasol’s turn to ride the pine, despite the addition of Jeremy Lin, despite even the hopeful recent signs from OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, the Raptors’ bench just did not have it tonight in the biggest of ways. Along with Patrick McCaw, Toronto’s five-man bench unit finished between -15 and -30 on the night and managed to help the Rockets’ blow up the game not once... but twice!
Now, it’s not all on the bench. Toronto could use better than an 0-for-5 night from three from Kyle Lowry, and Leonard’s forays to the rim against Tucker felt like they failed more often than they succeeded (he shot a mere 10-of-22). Toronto’s bouts of cold shooting also didn’t help their defense, as they’d lose focus for stretches and allow the likes of Gerald Green (18 points) and Austin Rivers (13 points) to get the better of them. Some combination of these things could have been avoided or overcome; or they are just unlikely enough to ever happen again. For them to occur all at once meant this was always going to be a tough one for the Raptors to win.
And when those things happen with Jeremy Lin getting brutalized into a 2-point, 2-assist night with three turnovers, Gasol managing only eight points and one rebound as the game sped away, and the chaos trio — Norm, OG, and McCaw — combining for just 10 points and not much else, well, then it becomes downright impossible for Toronto. It’s true that the Raptors will likely not need all of those guys playing well to go far in the playoffs. But it doesn’t inspire much confidence to see them play like this instead. Staggering their minutes can help, as when Toronto opened the fourth by playing the bench with supernova Siakam, but the reserves have to meet the starters halfway.
We’ll end on some good news though. Just as last year’s astounding, emotional, and deeply satisfying win against the Rockets didn’t ultimately matter much, so too does it go with this loss. I don’t mean to sound flippant here, or to just wave my hands and say all is fine. Losing doesn’t feel great, especially when the chance was there to win. Yet, just as we don’t go in for moral victories here anymore, we must not allow ourselves to be swallowed up by defeat. Remember: you probably won’t remember this game when the season is over. And if that’s small consolation, I’ll see you at the next Raptors win and remind you then.