For the second year in a row, the Toronto Raptors’ faithful will experience Christmas Day with a slight pang of melancholy. Last year, it was the Boston Celtics who put a damper on our spirits as they played the Grinch on our home court, adorned in green and acting with the goal of stealing joy from the Raptors and their fans. This year, we were not granted a Christmas Day game. Apparently, the sole criterion for Toronto to earn that honour is to win an NBA Championship and literally nothing else.
Instead, we played the New Orleans Pelicans on December 23rd, a game where a disappointing third quarter led to the first sub-.500 record since 2014. With no game until the 26th, we are robbed of the opportunity to cleanse our palettes with a win and are forced to have this loss as the most prominent memory of the team as we go about our pandemic-adjusted Christmas festivities. For the many Raptors fans who don’t celebrate Christmas, it was simply a less than ideal way to begin the season, but the frustration, without prior success to point to from this season, nonetheless persists.
We learned much more than the fact that we are disappointed, however, and we begin 3 Lessons with an autopsy of the third quarter that turned the game.
1) The third quarter was the result of anomalies
The team lost control in the third frame, so let’s diagnose how the Raptors let the game get away from them. After a re-watch of that frame, it can be boiled down to two things: star quality shot-making by Brandon Ingram, and, rather shockingly, some disjointed transition defense by the Raptors.
Brandon Ingram’s game on Wednesday suggested that his ascension as a player will continue into this year as he looks to cement himself amongst the league’s best. He went 6-of-9 in the third, including 3-of-4 from 3 for 15 points, but it was the degree of difficulty that was especially impressive. He had a hand in his face as he hit multiple contested jumpers:
He was also able to use his lithe frame for a physical finish at the rim:
It is tough to fault the Raptors for this quarter, as you just have to tip your cap to Ingram on some of these makes. The transition defense, however, provides plenty of justification for faulting the squad. They don’t communicate and allow Zion (he’s not hard to miss!) to sneak behind the defense in one instance:
In a semi-transition chance off a VanVleet miss, no one picks up Eric Bledsoe, leading to an open three:
And, as multiple guys make a misguided jump at an offensive rebound, Matt Thomas is forced to try and recover to Lonzo Ball, who allows Thomas to fly by him to create space for an uncontested look:
In a quarter when the opponent’s star is an iota shy of a legitimate heat check, you cannot give up easy buckets like those. That these lapses are uncharacteristic is simultaneously disappointing and encouraging. This team has long hung its hat on hustle and communication, so it is hard to see this be a lasting issue. It is like when a reliable car temporarily breaks down. It is frustrating in the moment, but you trust the precedent of the past and bank on it being an aberration.
Additionally, it is hard to see players getting that hot against consistently tough defense, like Ingram did. If that combination wasn’t unlikely enough, Lonzo Ball went 3-for-3 from 3 in the frame! I’ll be expecting that lightning strike any moment now. I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in this loss. Speaking of justifying the loss…
2) The excuse mill is a churnin’
We all had visions of the Raptors roaring out to a great start and instantly making all those who doubted the team once again look like fools. Unfortunately, an opening night loss to the Pelicans will have to at least delay our annual tradition of throwing it back in the face of the US media. Instead, a disappointing and somewhat unexpected loss has led us to break out more excuses than a lazy third grader who apparently couldn’t find the time to stab a few Styrofoam balls with toothpicks and call it the solar system. Here is a collection of the best ones that I have either heard or have ran through my own biased head.
- “It’s not technically a home game if it’s not in Canada.”
- “They’re getting used to playing with new guys.”
- “You try moving your whole life to a new city in an entirely new country then playing professional basketball”
- “The Pelicans didn’t even make the playoffs so they’re fresher after a shortened offseason.”
- “Three-point shooting makes the variance so high in games that its hard to chalk this one up to anything more than luck.”
- “The court design in Tampa is different so it didn’t really feel like a home game.”
- “Wait until Malachi Flynn starts getting minutes.”
Obviously, this team has some kinks they need to work out, but I’m actually buying into some of these B.S. excuses to varying degrees. The Raptors are going through a lot of change! I consider this iteration of the Raptors to have one of the most mentally tough cores in the NBA, and that remains intact even without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. So, at least for now, let us buy into these excuses and assume that these competitive SOBs won’t make a habit of giving away games in the third quarter.
3) 7th man Matt Thomas?
Between the preseason and the season opener, Nick Nurse has been going to Matt Thomas early and often off the bench. This is a welcome sight for Raptors fans who have been clamoring for more floor time for the Iceman. In that time, Thomas has done much to earn a consistent role in the Raptors rotation.
The shooting is as advertised. He is lethal with a shred of space. A Matt Thomas open three ranks close to the top of the list in my “confidence while the ball is in the air” ranking of Raptors shots, up there with the Lowry PU3IT. What is keeping him on the floor, however, is his overall offensive game.
The Raptors half-court offense has a tendency to look clogged, but, as I’ve suggested before, Matt Thomas should consider making the nickname switch from the Iceman to the Plunger, as he unclogs that thing in a heartbeat. Opponents are now very aware of his shooting, and Thomas is quick and decisive in taking advantage of all that attention:
His ball-handling is good enough to attack effectively, and he’s shown a nice midrange bank-shot in the past. He is undoubtedly an offensive asset, and he can aid a Raptors offense that is occasionally, like the good people of the world, in need of a shot in the arm. At this rate, he looks like the second option off of the bench behind Norman Powell.
That’s it for this batch of lessons, check back next for what is hopefully a happier iteration!