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Raptors let win slip away against Portland, lose 101-99

Despite leading almost the entire way, the Raptors’ wonky lineups wilted against the star power and superior shot-making of the Trail Blazers.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

There was enough name recognition for Tuesday night’s Raptors-Blazers game to make it at least appear as though it were a normal NBA contest. There were even a few one-name players — Melo, Dame, Serge, Lowry — on hand to flash their various skill-sets and entertain in spurts. But make no mistake, this was no ordinary NBA game. No, thanks to a combination of wacky rotations and an even wackier outcome, we can count Tuesday night’s 101-99 loss for the Raptors among one of the least normal games of the season.

To start with, thanks to injuries to both teams, the Raptors and Blazers have been hobbled for long stretches of this season. Before the game, Toronto added Fred VanVleet to the injury heap, tipping off tonight with three missing starters. Portland, meanwhile, had to sign Carmelo Anthony just to stay afloat, with things like a season-ending injury to Rodney Hood proving catastrophic. That puts things in perspective, and also puts the Blazers below .500 for the season. With their win over Toronto though, one almost unbelievable to describe, the Raptors are now 19-1 against such teams — teams below .500, bad teams. A bad omen.

That’s weird part number two. The Raptors controlled this game from the start. A brief 4-3 lead was the first and only time Portland was out front until there were three seconds left in regulation. Toronto’s offense didn’t always look so great, but they were able to hit enough 3s (15-of-42 or 35.7 percent) and grab enough boards (57, including 17 on the offensive end) to keep a lead for the rest of the game. Leading the way, as has usually been the case during this injury-plagued time, was Kyle Lowry, who thrives in off-kilter games like this one. It wasn’t an efficient night for Lowry, he shot 7-for-23 (and 4-of-16 from three), but he still put in 24 points with ten assists to pace the Raptors. Admittedly, it’s not ever strange to see Toronto play — and succeed with — Lowry and a combination of bench players, but tonight went to the extreme.

Which is unfortunately how Toronto ended up on the losing end tonight. The game’s fourth quarter saw Portland slowly creep back into it behind a 32-point scoring effort, against Toronto’s 21. And they did it through the one method the Raptors can’t quite replicate right now: star power scoring. Through three frames Damiam Lillard had just nine points. In the final frame he rung up 11, including the game-tying deep three (on, yes, an incredibly questionable screen from Hassan Whiteside). Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, managed 28 on the night, including 10 in the final quarter and the game’s winning shot, a smooth mid-range jumper with OG Anunoby trying to keep pace. Lowry got a decent look at a three to win, but he back-rimmed it, summing up the night for the Raptors.

Still, Toronto’s bench tried. The game actually looked out of reach for Portland after Chris Boucher exploded in the fourth quarter for ten of his 12 points, including his own personal 7-0 run. This happened while he played in a lineup of other bench players all at the same time. Yes, the Raptors went almost six minutes in the fourth quarter while playing lineups featuring Boucher, Oshae Brissett, Patrick McCaw, Stanley Johnson, and Matt Thomas — Toronto’s lead got as big as 12 anyway. It felt crazy enough to work, until it definitely didn’t. The final two minutes are a rundown of pure Dame and Melo to close the gap, a perfect picture of better players overwhelming lesser ones.

There’s blame to go around on the Raptors. It would have been nice to see Lowry knock in a few more shots, but he was carrying most of the Raptors’ normal offense so a letdown isn’t out of the ordinary. Serge Ibaka did his part, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds, and even completing a flashy assist or two, but was bested down the stretch by Whiteside’s mammoth presence. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s efforts amounted to only eight points and five rebounds, and he’s still breaking his back on every attempt at the rim (which explains the 4-of-13 shooting line). It says something too about the situation in Portland that the Raptors were actually able to make a pairing of Johnson and McCaw in the backcourt work for stretches. Before we compliment them too much though, Johnson still managed to drive into a few turnovers — and McCaw threw the ball away on the game’s key possession: tie game with the shotclock turned off. It feels like McCaw should know and do better.

Ironically, perhaps the most consistent player off the bench tonight was Brissett, who played a few clutch minutes and hustled his way to 12 points and six boards. It was also his huge three and late dunk that gave Toronto what felt like the breathing room they’d need to close this one out. Throughout it felt like Portland was giving them every reason to win, and all the Raptors had to do was step up. Ultimately, the stars make the shots though, and that was the difference. It doesn’t quite fit the abnormal feel of the rest of the game, one that had the Raptors playing from angles we haven’t quite seen before, but it is the truth.

I’ve been thinking lately about the narrative of this Raptors’ season, their first as defending champs. It feels like the story has gone one way, then another, then yet another again to where we are now. It’s been a lot to take in and we’re not even at the halfway mark. Along the way there have been some thrilling games, and some ugly ones — not to mention a ton of what ifs. There are still massive questions as to just how good this squad can be, or if they’ll even get healthy enough for it to matter. And yet games like tonight’s against Portland highlight something weirdly compelling about the team. Yes, even if this loss was frustrating to watch.

These limited Raptors were once again put in a situation where they had to exceed themselves. They had to labour to surprise. It was uncomfortable, and they failed, but it was also a learning experience, another rep to add to the professional resume. At this point, with no help coming any time soon, I’ll take the solace where I can.