To open 2021, the Raptors were coming off a win and hoping to turn their young season around. However, for the third time in four contests, they let another one slip away, as the New Orleans Pelicans survived Toronto’s late rally to beat the Raps by a score of 120-116. The Pelicans drew excellent performances from Brandon Ingram (31 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) and Zion Williams (21 points, 7 rebounds) and welcome Eric Bledsoe’s two-way contributions which put them on top.
On the night, Bledsoe was instrumental in breaking down the Raptors’ zone defense in the second half, repeatedly getting into the paint and finding open teammates. He also managed to lock up Fred VanVleet down the stretch and came up with a steal to crush the last of the Raptors’ momentum. To make matters worse, Bledsoe hit four three-pointers, including the game-winner. That’s just the kind of night it was for the Raptors, a game in which they also saw the Pelicans shoot 20 more free throws than them (including a record-setting 28 in the fourth quarter alone).
The game started off similar to the first meeting between these two teams — there was much up-and-down play and a lot of three-point shooting, except this time the Pelicans were hitting the net and the Raptors couldn’t buy a 3. OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and even Kyle Lowry’s perimeter shots were just not falling. Ingram, meanwhile, torched the Raptors in the first quarter, casually dropping 12 points in the opening frame. After a Nickeil Alexander-Walker three-pointer, the Pelicans’ lead was up to 25-16.
At this point, VanVleet was done picking his spots and started to take over, dropping 14 points and picking apart the Pelicans’ defense. VanVleet and the spry efforts of Chris Boucher were complemented by the Raptors’ zone defense that confounded the Pelicans for a time. In the process, the Raptors took a lead that got as large as ten. A late run by the Pelicans cut it by half heading into halftime, however.
JEEEZ! Took it left like he's ambidex' pic.twitter.com/ob4pBBOPLt— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 3, 2021
The Raptors’ offensive struggles came back in the third quarter, as they continued to shoot abysmally from behind the arc again. Meanwhile, the Pelicans started attacking the zone by getting in the paint, with Zion and Ingram leading the way. By the fourth quarter it felt like the game was slipping away entirely from the Raptors. Lowry was called for a flagrant foul, and then, somehow, Pascal Siakam fouled out with just under nine minutes left in the game. Afterwards, Lowry got himself technical foul too, for good masure. The Pelicans had the momentum and a nice 101-89 cushion to put the game away.
One of the mantras of last season’s Raptors — the crew we all loved — was that old Rudy Tomjanovich adage: “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.” We all know that look and how Lowry in particular can get into turbo mode to impose his will on a given game. In this one, he led the Raptors’ small lineup of Lowry-VanVleet-Powell-Anunoby-Boucher and got Toronto back into it, by way of a 9-0 run, with a chance to win. With under three minutes to go, the Raptors even took a two-point lead, 113-111.
Unfortunately, the Pelicans’ size and continuous ability to draw fouls in the fourth quarter cost the Raptors the game. They failed to grab the rebounds in multiple situations, despite sometimes stringing together some stellar defense. At the same time, the Pelicans zeroed in on clamping VanVleet and Lowry, which meant they had to rely on Anunoby to do a bit too much. The outcome of these possessions: one ended with a turnover, and another saw Anunoby hit a free throw. Not exactly the points-per-possession outcome you’d like to see down the stretch.
The Raptors were paced by VanVleet (27 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists) and Boucher (24 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals) who had another stellar game off the bench. Lowry slugged his way to 16 points and eight assists, but the lack of production from Siakam hurt the team in the long run. In all, the game just had a bad vibe for the Raptors, as Pascal’s return to the court did not bring the smiles and bounce-back effort for which we’d all been hoping. Instead, he had a quiet 10 points, four rebounds, and three turnovers before fouling out in 25 minutes.
Right now it looks like coach Nick Nurse is still giving Siakam the tough love approach, as he repeatedly left Pascal on the floor despite his foul trouble. To his credit, Siakam did not force many of the touches he had, and did try to pick his spots in the flow of the game. If anything, it often felt like he was too passive. And while it’s nice that Siakam is looking to facilitate in the face of the increased defensive pressure he now draws, he does have to try and force the issue more often.
If there’s a silver lining to be found here, it’s perhaps this: the adversity the Raptors are now facing is not really something they’ve had to deal with in the regular season in some time. The hope is that the team will come to understand that challenge together and rise to the occasion. This feels particularly true for Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby — all of whom have only every been on Raptors’ squads that have won 50 or more games as a matter of course. There time has come, as the core of the team, to be now put to the true test. With Lowry already averaging upwards of 39 minutes a game, there’s no one else on the way to save them — or the Raptors.
So yes, while it’s still early, and there are still things for the Raptors to figure out on both ends of the court, it’s clear the expectations have shifted. At 1-4 and surrounded by some bad vibes in the new year, the “fun” times may indeed be over for Toronto — which means, now the real work begins.