Well, the Raptors still don’t have a win. And, in what has been a mostly uninspiring start for the team, they set a new benchmark for stinking like butt in the final moments of their 100-93 loss to the Sixers on Tuesday night.
Once again, a third quarter Toronto lead was erased, to be attributed this time to the Raptors’ utter lack of anyone not named Kyle Lowry who could drive positive play or, uh, run a cohesive offensive possession.
For a while on Tuesday, it seemed like Lowry might do the thing and carry the Raptors to a win even with a dearth of help. During his 38 minutes of action he was electric, orchestrating the offense, scoring when most needed, and bandaging up whichever wounds were opened by the bench-heavy looks that preceded him. He was a +14 in the game, unsurprisingly the best on the team by a mile, and was two boards and an assist away from a triple-double.
To say Lowry was entirely without help is a bit of OG Anunoby erasure on my part. After a couple games of feeling out his spot within the offense, Anunoby fully embraced the opportunistic scorer role that Pascal Siakam occupied during the championship season — all the while haranguing Ben Simmons en route to five steals and a couple other forced steals that he should but won’t get credit for. With a final line of 20-6-2-5-1 on 7-of-11 shooting and 4-of-7 from the field, Anunoby’s evening should offer a bit of comfort to anxious Raptors fans contemplating a night spent in the fetal position.
It’s beyond Lowry and Anunoby where the box score perusal gets a little more depressing.
Fred VanVleet’s now played poorly in two of three games this season, and this was probably his worst. His 35 minutes are just more padding for the pretty substantial sample that suggest VanVleet just ain’t the guy you want running the most pick-and-rolls on your team. But alas, the Fred creation experiment persists. Friend of the site Louis Zatzman had a great breakdown this week on the Raptors’ pick-and-roll attack, and it’s hard to leave that piece — and these first three games — feeling anything other than exhaustion at the team’s insistence on having VanVleet run the show both when Lowry is off the floor as well as on. If only the Raptors had a point guard on the bench whose entire reputation going into the draft was that he can run an offense like a competent adult...
Pascal Siakam had a far more stratified evening than VanVleet’s consistently dull output. Despite a bit of a wonky first half shooting line, Siakam looked pretty good, draining threes with confidence that was positively un-Bubble-like, and kicking off a few tidy possessions that didn’t end in Siakam assists, but ended in buckets as a result of his early-clock handiwork. His defense in the first three quarters of this one, as well, was freaking sublime.
But then the clock turned over to the fourth quarter, and it felt like Disney again, and not in a happy magic fun times way. Siakam lost the plot in crunch time, picking up five fouls in a less-than six minute stretch that put him out of the game for the final handful of possessions, not that he was helping all that much anyway. He finished the evening with 20 points on 8-of-23 shooting, hitting just four of his 14 looks from inside the arc, where he looked spooked by Joel Embiid — though it’s hard to blame anyone for that. Embiid’s a damn freak who basically won this game on his own in closing time, finishing the night with a 29-16-4-2-2 line. His countryman Siakam halted what was a mostly promising start to the year, particularly in the playmaking department, and it’s still unclear whether he’s completely shaken off the yips he picked up in the bubble. We certainly haven’t seen him look as frustrated as he did as he fouled out of this once since the Boston series.
With VanVleet and Siakam having rough evenings, the Raptors needed some loud bench contributions like the ones they’d received in the first two games from the likes of Matt Thomas and Chris Boucher. Those guys, however, weren’t even key cogs in Nick Nurse’s rotation on Tuesday. Up against the enormous Embiid, it was Alex Len who drew the assignment as the first big of the bench. He was perfectly fine in 21 minutes; deeply unexciting aside from one killer pass to Anunoby in the corner on the roll, but entirely passable as a rim protector — and in fact significant more effective than Aron Baynes, who has yet to embrace life playing with Kyle Lowry.
Joining him in the game’s first round of subs was ... Stanley Johnson? His 22 minutes, presumably in the interest of serving up beef and defense against the big boy Sixers, were .. let’s call them ... offensive challenged, aside from this play, which may be the best thing he’s ever done on an NBA court:
STANIMAL OUTTA NOWHERE pic.twitter.com/NksW126MUD— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 30, 2020
Would I say that I’m looking forward to Johnson playing extended minutes off the bench? Not exactly. His surprise appearance does however hint at Nurse perhaps having a little less rigidity in constructing his rotation than he’s previously implied. The next time he wants to get weird, maybe it’ll come in the form of, oh I don’t know, more Malachi Flynn and DeAndre’ Bembry? Optimism is a nice thing.
Look, this was an ugly loss for Toronto. It’s a game they had in the bag, in which they rediscovered the defensive identity that made them such a terror in 2019-20, and that saw Lowry continue to show his gas tank is still very much loaded up for a long highway ride. Siakam’s lifelessness, VanVleet’s discombobulation, and Nurse’s inability to find an offense that works without Lowry in the game were troubling symptoms tied to some of the biggest questions facing this team. Starting 0-3 does not and should not feel good.
But many things can in fact be true at once. Have the Raptors been mostly terrible out of the gate outside of some nice five minute flourishes? Absolutely. Are they still, minus the centers, essentially the same team as last year’s 60-win machine and more than capable of ripping off a win streak once things settle down and the players all, like, find places to live in their new adopted host city? Hell yeah! Losing streaks happen. Shit, last year’s team had two separate streaks as long as the one the Raptors are enduring now. The chronology is what makes things seem worse than they are; there’s no backdrop of strong and steady play from this season to help contextualize the relative insignificance of a couple Ls. Because of the stops and starts and extended layoffs since March, it’s a little easier to spiral into believing that this team is broken. We just haven’t seem them play enough. There are, however, seven whole ass years of Kyle Lowry-led Raptors teams, many of which boasting far less talent than this one, that were ultimately fine or significantly more than fine. Three games into a disjointed pandemic season wherein the Raptors have relocated to a different country is not the time to believe the charmed life Raps fans have enjoyed since 2013 is about to come to a crashing halt.
Save those feelings for if they lose to the Knicks on Thursday.