Even as the Toronto Raptors have thrown a life raft to a season that was drifting away, the fourth quarter remains an obstacle that is keeping the team from getting fully back on board. Watching games slip out of reach in the final frame this season has been excruciating for Raptors fans who had grown accustomed to execution and competence with the game on the line. That was the case once against the Indiana Pacers, as the Raptors allowed a close game to deteriorate into a blowout in the fourth, losing 129-114.
Early on, the problems for Toronto came on the defensive end. Although the Raptors’ defense has been trending up, setbacks are an inevitability. Tonight, the team was simply unable to carry over the defensive momentum from yesterday afternoon’s marvelous effort on that end. Throughout the first half, the Pacers were able to get to the rim with ease as the Raptors were without the grit that defined the first leg of their back-to-back with Indiana.
This softer defense from Toronto meant Malcolm Brogdon was able to get back to form after he was virtually shut down yesterday. He finished with 36 points on 10-of-17 shooting. Likewise, Jeremy Lamb worked on his application to become an official Raptors Killer in the first half, hitting tough shot after tough shot and keeping Toronto at arms length. Even Domantas Sabonis bounced back a poor game the night before, starting very strong before exiting early with a knee contusion.
Still, the Raptors were able to stay within striking distance by virtue of some individual excellence.
Fred VanVleet, fresh off the report of his selection to the Team USA 60-man player pool, showed why this was a very good decision by the national team. His 15 first half points kept the Raptors close. Norman Powell also continued his pattern of impressive play in the starting lineup, hitting a couple three en route to 14 points of his own in the half. Contributions from both were necessary with Kyle Lowry struggling to get started in his first game back after missing a couple with a toe infection, and OG Anunoby getting into some early foul trouble.
Stanley Johnson, who has been a revelation of late, came in midway through the first quarter and affected the game about as much as one could without scoring a field goal. He started by freeing up VanVleet for a three with a savvy hand-off and seal, then ripped the ball out of Lamb’s hand for a steal as soon as he got back on D. He closed an active first quarter with a superhuman transition block, gliding like an eagle until he absolutely demolished the ball.
This game had a bit of a school yard feel early, with the ball hitting the floor a few more times than usual. That said, the Raptors were the beneficiaries of some strange bounces on more than one occasion. In particular, VanVleet had back-to-back garbage man buckets, finding the ball in his hands with no one in front of him a couple times in a row. Nonetheless, the Raptors still entered halftime down 70-60, as a rare Paul Watson Jr. appearance to close the half turned out to be a failed chemistry experiment.
Fortunately Toronto’s defense tightened up in the second half, and the Raptors went on a 10-0 run to significantly close the gap. A flourish at the end of the frame, which included a Matt Thomas 4-point play and a couple Yuta Watanabe free throws, brought the Raptors within one point. They carried that momentum into the fourth, as Kyle Lowry put Toronto up 102-100 early in the quarter.
From there, however, it was a compounding of the same issues that have plagued the Raptors all season rearing their ugly head again. The squad was simply unable to muster any consistent offense as the game tightened up. From about 10 minutes left in the game, when Lowry put them up two, to one minute left, when the game was already put to bed, the Raptors scored nine (!) total points.
Toronto’s inability to penetrate and find a source of reliable offense was alarming. Aside from missed dunks by both Norman Powell and DeAndre Bembry, the Raptors offense consisted of desperate jacked up shots from deep. Almost half of their 21 shots in the fourth came from beyond the line, where they went 2-for-10. Overall, Toronto shot 29 percent in the quarter. Bleh.
They certainly missed OG Anunoby, who missed most of the fourth going through concussion protocol and getting his lip stitched up. But his absence alone is not enough to justify reducing the Raptors’ offense to chucking jumpers and hoping for the best.
Pascal Siakam, who sat out for a second straight game with a groin injury, hypothetically can alleviate some of these issues, as he is the most adept penetrator on the Raptors. That said, these issues have persisted with Siakam in the lineup too. Toronto needs a full overhaul of their offensive mentality in the fourth quarter. Until they change, this team will struggle against quality opponents, particularly those with strong defenses.
It gets no easier for Toronto going forward, as they face-off against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night.