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What ails the Raptors? Here are some takeaways from the letdown in Philly

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The Raptors have started the 2020-21 season with three straight losses. Using Tuesday night’s game against the Sixers, let’s look into what’s going on.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Last Tuesday night, the Toronto Raptors thought they had the Philadelphia 76ers on the ropes midway through the third quarter. They went up as much as fourteen points, Joel Embiid headed to the locker room to get some medical attention, and they were poised to step on the gas and perhaps put this game out of the Sixers’ reach.

At least, that’s what would have happened last season.

This season the Raptors faltered and lost again — their third time in as many games, leaving them winless on the year. Kyle Lowry did his part to keep the Raptors in front, but when he was subbed off, the absence of his scoring and playmaking — particularly from the team’s second unit — hit Toronto hard. In this, Norman Powell was supposed to star, but he’s been cold and out of sorts. Meanwhile, Fred VanVleet has had his own woes — especially when in a Lowry-less lineup — and Pascal Siakam has managed to find himself either. Lowry can also only do so much. Even a “Lowry plus the bench” lineup, which has long been a staple of these Raptors, hasn’t shaken the team out of their troubles.

The last five minutes of the third quarter against Philly illustrate Toronto’s struggles. Up until this point, the Raptors ran with most of their starters, save for Alex Len at the pivot and Stanley Johnson at the small forward position. They went up by as many as 14 points, and looked relatively in control until there were about five minutes to go in the third, after Siakam hit back-to-back three-pointers.

Then it all went downhill as the Sixers closed out the quarter with a 13-0 run. Yes, that’s correct, the Raptors went scoreless for five minutes. Let’s review what happened.

Q3 5:00 - Defensive (Mis)communication

As you can see in the video above, VanVleet is cheating off Ben Simmons, floating towards the strong side. OG Anunoby leaves Shake Milton and switches to Simmons who is sliding into the dunker’s spot. Anunoby wagers that Danny Green will swing the ball to Milton, so he goes to close out on Milton. Pascal Siakam’s overly-aggressive closeout on Green forces him to put the ball on the floor — not a bad outcome — but VanVleet gets caught guarding nobody instead of cutting off Green’s drive. Green makes the floater, and the Raptors are now up 76-65.

The ensuing play sees VanVleet calling for a pick-and-roll with Len. A solid idea, however, we see one of the frustrating parts of VanVleet’s playmaking game. He often misses a rolling big and instead bets on himself. In this case, VanVleet clanked a three-pointer from the top of the key. (No video footage required, just take my word for it.)

After a Simmons turnover in transition, Powell enters the game for Lowry, which means the Raptors’ playmaking is now in the hands of VanVleet and Siakam.

Q3 4:21 - Issue: Norm’s Decision-Making

The Raptors followed this up with a nice set play involving movements on both sides of the court. Unfortunately, all of the team’s passing on this possession didn’t get them closer to the rim until the ball found a cutting Powell. Norm had no problem driving down the middle of the lane, drawing all five defenders to him. He also had three teammates wide open around the perimeter, plus a dump-off chance to a cutting Chris Boucher. Instead, Powell tried the brute force the play and got blocked.

Q3 3:33 - Issue: Siakam’s Passing and Finding Teammates

Siakam was gifted with a steal after Simmons’ inbound pass landed right in front of him. Naturally, Siakam got the Raptors moving in transition and took the ball straight to the post to back down Matisse Thybulle. Then things went sour as Siakam tries to dump the ball to Len. Again, not a bad idea, except all five Sixers defenders are zeroing in on Siakam, and there’s minimal (if any) space to make a pass to Len.

All the while, Siakam fails to recognize the situation and see he’s got three teammates open on the perimeter. This play should have been an easy drive and kick. Instead Siakam tries to force the issue and the Sixers turn it into opportunity, making a three at the other end. The Raptors still lead though, 76-68.

Q3 2:50 - Issue: Len’s Defense

After the Raptors run another unsuccessful play away from the paint, the Sixers set Embiid up on the post. It wasn’t in transition, so there’s no excuse here for Len. He essentially let Embiid get to his spot and then haphazarding tries to front him. This allows Tobias Harris to thread a high-low pass to Embiid for a bucket and the foul. The Raptors get a break though, as Embiid misses the freebie. Toronto still up, 76-70..

The next play sees Powell again successfully collapse the Sixers defense with a drive — and kick. The Sixers were on their heels after a swing pass to Anunoby saw him drive to the basket too. OG got the ball to Len under the basket. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a clean reverse dunk for Len, and he was called an offensive goal-tending. Sometimes those are the breaks.

Q3 2:09 - Issue: Spacing and Lowry’s Bad Pass

Now Lowry is back in to replace VanVleet — and staunch the bleeding — and he runs a pick-and-roll with Len from the top of the key. This was a go-to play when Toronto had Serge Ibaka on the team — but even Ibaka would have some trouble with the pass here. It’s still early in the shot clock for Toronto, and Lowry probably should not have picked up the ball. It also doesn’t help that Norm and Stanley were buried in the corners with no passing angles. Maybe if one of them relocated, Lowry would have had alternatives with which to work.

The next play sees Shake Milton and Joel Embiid executing a pick-and-pop, which the Sixers’ centre cans with ease. The Raptors’ lead has shrunk to just four points.

1:43 - Issue: Len on the Roll Again

Lowry calls for another pick-and-roll with Len, who does head for the basket. Except Len also gets the ball a bit too early, and has to improvise — which, like Jonas Valanciunas before him, isn’t exactly his strongest move. Anyway, the Sixers defense collapses on Len and recovers the ball. In all, I just don’t get the play call here, and I also think the Raptors looked to Len too often as the game was getting out of control.

With a lineup of Lowry-Powell-Johnson-OG-Len, it can’t be on Lowry to do it all entirely. But it’s clear he’s the first option here. It’s also criminal that Anunoby was locked in with Johnson as the team’s last option during this stretch.

1:28 - Issue: Bad Team Defense

After Len’s turnover, the Sixers tried to set up Embiid from the free throw area. A kick out to Matisse Thybulle on the perimeter had Stanley Johnson closing out hard — perhaps a bit too hard. That move prompts Thybulle to go in for a layup attempt, during which Len fails to rotate over in time. Len bothers the shot, but there’s no one there to clean up the mess, which leas to Harris getting a putback over Lowry. The Raptors now lead 76-74.

The Raptors’ next possession saw Powell running a high pick-and-roll with Len — which already sounds risky. In the process, Powell missed a wide-open Lowry, who had flared to the top of the key. They reset, and Powell has to settle for a long-two with the help of Len’s screen. The Raptors stopped the Sixers on the next play, which set them up with what should have been the quarter’s final possession.

If you can believe this, there’s a fun part here. On the ensuing deadball, Nurse takes advantage by putting Matt Thomas in the game. But then we get a play we’ve seen before: Powell shooting a top-of-the-key three-pointer, which he misses. Maybe there’s a pass to be made there from Powell to Thomas, but Norm is not the type to recognize those situations. And unfortunately, we’re not done yet. The Sixers go on to take advantage of the Raptors’ slow transition defense, with OG in there late to foul Shake Milton on a lay-up attempt. And just like that, after Milton hits both free throws, it’s a tie game going to the fourth.

****

We already know about Siakam’s struggles as of late to be the go-to guy for Toronto. With the current roster, he still has to prove this wrong — while also operating with less spacing. Still, while Siakam’s assist numbers have been decent, it’s a bit alarming to see gaps in his awareness of where his teammates and defenders are once he’s decided to get in the paint to score. (To say nothing of his ability — or lack thereof as of late — to actually get into the paint to score.)

Meanwhile, VanVleet’s playmaking has also come under scrutiny while running non-Lowry lineups. Overall, he’s looked more comfortable finding himself buckets than for his teammates. The other Raptors seeing playing time right now are flawed in their way too. Boucher’s production can potentially replace Ibaka’s offensive output, but he lacks the rebounding and physicality that the team needs. Thomas has a sharpshooter’s reputation, but his inability sometimes to get open and his defensive limitations make the tradeoff almost not worth it.

Lowry is, of course, the only constant bright spot for the Raptors through three games. So much so, the team’s offensive execution relies on him too much — and falls apart when he’s not on the floor. Lowry is also missing his pick-and-roll partner in Ibaka and his fellow basketball genius and reset outlet in Gasol. We can lament that, but we also have to work with the players the Raptors have.

The Raptors’ system is not necessarily in chaos right now, but it’s clear that the changes to the roster have upset the apple cart. There are growing pains that we’re seeing not just from the newcomers but also from the veterans who are adjusting to new teammates. The coaching staff, meanwhile, is having trouble maintaining the balance between winning, making adjustments, and developing chemistry. All of these issues have resulted in a winless season thus far.

Is it time to panic? I say give it a few more games and then we’ll see.