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Five thoughts on last night: Rockets 107, Raptors 95

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Playing one good quarter is rarely enough to win a basketball game, and it definitely isn’t enough against the Houston Rockets.

Five thoughts recap: Houston Rockets 107, Toronto Raptors 95 Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After a disastrous second quarter last night, the Raptors turned things around in the third, and it looked like we might be headed for a third straight late-game thriller, following the two-point win against Portland and the OT loss in Detroit.

Alas, the Raptors fell apart in the fourth and came out on the losing end, making it two straight losses and dropping them to a (still very good!) 46-19. Let’s get to the thoughts:

The Leonard-Lowry PnRs are Creeping In

Something we’re seeing a little bit more of — just a little bit! — lately are some Kyle Lowry-Kawhi Leonard pick and rolls. We got one early one last night, that freed Leonard for a drive, and we got one on Leonard’s game-winning shot against Portland the other day.

This is something I’ve been wanting to see more of, but I also understand why Nick Nurse might not want to show it too much — you don’t want to give away too much of what might be your best late-game offense. Similarly, the Golden State Warriors can unleash an even more devastating combo — the Kevin Durant-Stephen Curry pick-and-roll — but Steve Kerr saves it for high-leverage situations.

If you can get a smaller point guard to switch onto Leonard (like Lillard in that Portland game) or a slower big to switch onto Lowry, obviously, that’s hugely beneficial to the Raps. So let’s see how much more of it we see down the stretch, and into the postseason.

Gotta Chase the Long Balls

Jack Armstrong mentioned it, and it’s true — when you’re playing against team that launches a lot of three-pointers, you have to be willing to expend the extra energy on the defensive glass. Threes mean long rebounds, and hauling those in requires extra awareness and extra effort. All to often last night, especially in the first half, the Raptors didn’t bring it.

We even heard a few (deserved) boos when Serge Ibaka didn’t even bother to jump on one rebound late in the second quarter — a rebound Clint Capela easily snatched out of the air (thankfully James Harden missed the ensuing three-pointer)

This is something to keep an eye on should the Raptors face Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs; the Nets take 35.5 three-pointers per game, good for fifth in the league.

Pascal Siakam, Making the Smart Play

When you think of the Raptors and basketball IQ, the first name you think of of course is Kyle Lowry. Then maybe Fred VanVleet, and Danny Green and now Marc Gasol as well. I’m not sure where Pascal Siakam would rank on the list, but, like everything else we’ve seen from Siakam this year, he’s getting better and better at making the right play.

As the Raptors were rolling to start the third last night, off to a 12-2 run, Siakam brought up the ball as Kawhi Leonard attempted to establish post position on the right block on the smaller Chris Paul. With all the attention focused on Leonard and Paul, Danny Green snuck behind them, and into the right corner. His defender, Harden, stuck behind Leonard, fearful of the Leonard-Paul mismatch. Because Siakam had the patience to not force the pass into the mismatch, it was a simple dump off to Green, now open in the corner. Green nailed the triple and it was a 15-2 run.

I loved seeing that patience from Pascal, loved seeing him wait for things to develop and make the smart play.

Let the 2-for-1 Master Cook

Kyle Lowry is the 2-for-1 master, which makes it a bit frustrating to see him check out before the end of the first and the third quarters. Obviously, I understand the logic — getting him time before and after the quarter break extends his rest time — but the late-quarter offense isn’t the same without him.

To wit, last night at the end of third, the Raptors got the ball back with about 47 seconds to go, a great 2-for-1 opportunity. But Pascal Siakam took it too early; even though he scored, he gave Chris Paul — another 2-for-1 assassin — the opportunity the other way. Paul missed the front side, but preserved the 2-for-1 by taking his shot with 29 seconds to go.

It looked like the Raptors ruined his plans, though, when Norman Powell hauled in Jeremy Lin’s miss with 11 seconds to go. But, showing a silly lack of awareness, Powell went right back to the hoop! He scored, so hard to complain, but he gave Houston the ball back with five seconds to go; Paul got a clean look at a three, but it rimmed out.

It’s hard to call a botched 2-for-1 a failure when it results in a 4-0 run, but still — Lowry would never have allowed Houston to even have the opportunity.

Fred VanVleet has proven an effective apprentice, so hopefully he’ll command those end-of-quarter situations when he gets back.

What to do with the Bench

I’m trying to adopt a “don’t worry, it’s the regular season, it’ll be fine” mentality here, but man oh man, did Toronto’s second unit look horrendous last night — while playing against one of the worst benches in the league.

Norman Powell’s play has been devolving into something similar to his play from last year. Perhaps the GoDaddy Curse has transferred back to him, now that C.J. Miles is in Memphis? Jeremy Lin has looked awful the past three games. Marc Gasol looked old and slow. OG Anunoby was fine — he did his best agaisnt Harden, but barely touched the ball on offense as Powell and Lin took all the shots. McCaw would be fine in short stints as an energy guy, but I think he’s playing too much right now.

Basically this comes down to two problems: 1) both Gasol and Ibaka need to play with Lowry and Leonard to be most effective; and 2) any lineup with Lin, Powell, McCaw and OG together just isn’t good enough.

The second one should, ideally sort itself out in the postseason; Fred VanVleet will be back, and and the playoff rotation should — hopefully — shorten to eight guys, meaning Lin, McCaw and Powell will play only a couple minutes a night each, just to get guys breathers at the start of quarters. (Assuming “mad scientist” Nick Nurse realizes that that’s how playoff rotations work.)

The first? Again, this might sort itself out as the bench shortens, and Lowry and Leonard play more minutes. (Assuming Leonard actually plays in all the playoff games, something I don’t have much confidence in.) But one of the bigs still has to start and one still has to come off the bench. I don’t envy Nurse having to figure that one out.

But he’ll have to. Something else Armstrong said on the broadcast last night that rings true: The Raptors have a tendency to show a “lack of tightness” at times, because they haven’t had the continuity in their rotations. And that confusion will bite them in the ass in the playoffs, because you can’t compete with focused teams that have an established identity and where everyone knows their roles.

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The last two games have been rather messy, but the Raptors’ next six are all against opponents with (currently) .500 or worse records. It’s not all gonna be easy — four of those are on the road, there are two back-to-backs in there — but it’s a good opportunity for the Raptors to reset a few things before heading into the big home-and-home series against Oklahoma City on March 20 and 22.