The last few days in the NBA have seen some truly bizarre scores and outcomes, but one thing has been consistent thus far in the young 2020-21 season: The Raptors cannot hold on to leads.
After winning the first quarter 28-17 last night, the Raptors lost the next three, falling 100-93 to the Philadelphia 76ers and dropping to 0-3 on the season. In each loss, the Raptors had second-half leads that eventually withered away behind defensive mistakes and a lack of scoring punch.
What’s going on with this team, that last year made few miscues and showed an impressive amount of mental toughness? Let’s dig in.
Spin Cycle Broken
Pascal Siakam’s spin move is no longer working. He was 2-for-9 in the paint last night, and is now 10-for-26 on the season.
Whether it’s because defenses have figured it out or because he has lost something on his timing, I’m not sure — although I suspect it’s a little bit of both. He rarely seems to get to the rim with it anymore; he’s either got a bad angle to put it off the glass or he’s moving away from the rim. And in either case, he’s going away from contact, and isn’t getting to the foul line — he’s got just six attempts on the season, and had none last night. (To be fair, he probably should have had at least a couple. But that again speaks to the same issue — when the calls aren’t going your way, what else can you do to generate offense and help your team?)
To add insult to injury, Siakam didn’t tally a single assist last night, after racking up 14 in the first two games, and fouled out (and went straight to the locker room!) with 20 seconds to go.
His shot looks great. I even like the little step-back he’s doing. But he needs to be able to put pressure on the defense too, and generate offense at the rim and at the foul line. Kyle Lowry can’t do this alone.
Give Kyle Some Help
I wasn’t particularly impressed with Kyle Lowry’s execution down the stretch last night; he had a bad backcourt turnover and forced two poor shots without moving the ball at all.
But at the same time, I can’t blame him for trying to do it all himself. No one else seems to be on the same page as Lowry at this point, as was clearly evidenced by the frustration he’s showing in his teammates — whether he’s on the court (when Aron Baynes isn’t ready for his pocket passes) or when he's on the bench and watching stuff like this:
Possessions since Lowry left:— John (mentally, I'm in Tampa) (@johngaudes) December 30, 2020
Norm gets stuffed
Fred dribbles off his foot
Pascal missed three
I’m not sure what the solution is, other than “the other guys have to be better.” Siakam needs to be better, as noted. The chemistry with Baynes just isn’t there, yet. Fred VanVleet is shooting well enough, but, like Siakam, isn’t bringing enough offensive versatility, and his playmaking seems to have taken a step back from last year. Norman Powell finally made a couple threes last night, but still looks like 2018-era Norm.
Kyle will burn out if someone else doesn’t step up soon.
Malachi Flynn Will Not Save Us
OK, so: Raptors Twitter clearly wants Malachi Flynn to play. The arguments for it are pretty clear: he seems, from his preseason and college play, to be a more natural playmaker than Fred VanVleet, and should in turn allow Fred and Kyle to rest more without the offense falling apart. Fatigue may very well be a factor in the Raptors losing those leads, so extra rest for them surely wouldn’t hurt.
And the team is 0-3. Clearly something isn’t working and changing something up can’t hurt, right?
But… that’s a lot of pressure to put on a rookie, especially one drafted so late. Rookie PGs need to be able to make mistakes, and with the Raptors now desperate for a win, I think Nick Nurse is probably waiting until the team is in more of a groove to get Flynn some PT. I also think it’s more important at this point in the season to let the other guys find their rhythm first — and VanVleet, Powell and Siakam clearly haven’t found theirs yet. So I get it, and I think it’s the right call.
That said — if you’re turning to Stanley Johnson to help shore up your bench, it gets harder and harder to justify leaving Flynn off the floor.
Help Me Stanley
So, I’m trying to figure out the Stanley Johnson minutes here.
Alex Len, I get, his size was necessary against Embiid and Howard (and I think he played just fine). And I suppose I get the size argument with Stanley too, as the Sixers are big all over the floor… but Stanley? Does he bring enough to the table to justify him getting three times the minutes as Matt Thomas? If size is the concern, what about DeAndre’ Bembry? Heck, even Terence Davis — who, let’s remember, was ahead of Johnson in last year’s rotation as a rookie — probably would have been a better choice.
To be fair, Johnson was solid defensively. But he’s a non-factor on offense, and this is a team already struggling to score. He played seven fourth quarter minutes! He took as many fourth quarter shots as OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet combined! (He did play seven more minutes than Norman Powell, which is fully justifiable at this point.)
I’m all for giving guys second chances, and honestly, Johnson showed enough that he probably deserves a third chance — in the right situation. I don’t think that situation comes in the final quarter of a close game.
0-3 is Bad, But…
I am, generally speaking, not one to panic. These three losses are concerning, in that the same bad habits are shown up over and over. But! It is still early; there are still 69 games to go.
And while you can say “they blew leads in three games!” I think you can flip that around and say: they had leads in three games, that they only squandered when they started making sloppy mistakes that are uncharacteristic of this team under Nick Nurse.
It’s a weird season, as noted. The Clippers lost by 100 points to the Dallas Mavericks the other day. The Milwaukee Bucks made 200 three pointers last night on their way to beating the Miami Heat by 500 points. (All numbers approximate.) I have to believe that the weirdness of the offseason and of moving to Tampa and of playing in empty arenas is throwing things off for these Raptors.
They have to be better, to be sure. Nick Nurse has to be better. But I have to have faith that they’ll clean those mistakes up, and settle into a better groove.
The good news is, there’s no better team to find your rhythm against than the New York Knicks.
If the Raptors lose to New York? I won’t blame anyone for hammering the panic button at that point.