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Raptors dig themselves in early hole, fall short against the Kings, 126-124

The Raptors came alive in the fourth, but three quarters of lackadaisical defense against Sacramento proved too much for them to overcome.

The Sacramento Kings entered this game with the 30th-ranked defense in the NBA, so even down OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, a big offensive night for the Toronto Raptors was to be expected. To that end, Pascal Siakam finished with an impressive 32 points and looked as aggressive as he has all season, Fred VanVleet scored 26 to keep pace, and five Raptors finished in double digits for good measure. But Toronto would still go on to lose 126-124 to those same Kings.

It was because of how Toronto played on the defensive end of the floor. Through the first three quarters of this game, the Raptors looked nearly hopeless on defense — getting beat off the dribble, giving up offensive boards, and failing to close out on threes. They missed Anunoby’s defensive presence (especially with Terence Davis in the starting lineup) but they were facing the 7-10 Kings, against whom moral victories are not an option. The Raptors gave it a good effort in the fourth quarter, getting into a close series of possessions right down to the final buzzer. But letting the Kings take an 18-point lead in the third quarter really did decide the outcome of this game.

Toronto got off to a decent start. Siakam looked good from the get-go (the Kings’ defense will do that for you), with an especially nice spin move that dropped Bagley on the perimeter and led to a big dunk. Aron Baynes, meanwhile, had his usual mix of good screens, bad turnovers, and one made three with a few misses. But as the game went along, it was clear the Raptors’ defense was just not up to the task.

The Raptors seemed uninterested in contesting threes, even when the player taking them was the dangerous Buddy Hield, who finished 5-of-8 from long-range. At the same time, the frontcourt situation was tough too. The Hassan Whiteside-Chris Boucher matchup, for example, was a tough one, and a reminder that, for all the good things Boucher brings to the table, he can be hard to play in certain matchups. Whiteside finished with a 16 points and nine rebounds — both season-highs — as he simply overpowered Boucher down low with his extra 65 pounds. As a result, Slimm Duck was limited to just 13 minutes.

The Kings opened things up in the second, but a VanVleet-led 7-0 run closed the deficit to 45-36. After hitting a corner three on the Raptors’ go-to inbounds play, Davis took a couple bad threes early in the shot clock on consecutive possessions and the Kings capitalized by extending the lead to 13. When it came time to close the gap before half, the Raptors once again failed to chip away — DeAndre’ Bembry wasted a great pass from Kyle Lowry with a missed dunk (Davis would miss a layup on basically the same play later on), a Siakam turnover led to fast break points for Tyrese Haliburton, and after a Matt Thomas three and a Siakam dunk, the Raptors defense disappeared again, giving De’Aaron Fox VIP access to the rim to make it a 10-point game.

Things got worse in the third for Toronto. The Kings attacked Davis off the dribble so much they could’ve rented a three-bedroom apartment in the paint. This sent coach Nick Nurse searching. As noted, Thomas got minutes, but Cory Joseph blew right by him on consecutive possessions, one of them resulting in an and-one — so, uh, we may not hear from Thomas for a while. Not only were they giving up drive after drive, but the Raptors failed both to collect defensive rebounds and to close out on shooters. On the other end, other than the occasional play by VanVleet or Siakam, the Raptors’ offense went completely dry. But after going down 104-86 (it gives me no joy to write this sentence), the Raptors ended the quarter with a perfectly executed two-for-one, with VanVleet’s 5-0 run making it a 104-91 game entering the fourth. The Raptors had a chance.

The fourth quarter looked drastically different than the rest of the game. Nurse found his solution on defense, settling on Bembry to infuse much-needed energy on that end; and Yuta Watanabe was an absolute game-changer, keeping possessions alive with offensive rebounds, forcing a huge jump-ball against Fox, hitting a big three during the Raptors’ 8-0 run, and making a left-handed floater that cut the Kings’ lead to just one. VanVleet and Lowry were both great down the stretch, with the former showing off his post footwork against Whiteside, and the latter running the offense for their aforementioned 8-0 run.

But for as active as Toronto’s defense looked in the fourth, their flatness through the first 36 minutes decided the game. Fittingly, the Raptors had possession down one point, but their small-ball lineup gave up an offensive rebound to Whiteside off his own missed dunk. He kicked it out, and no one was within walking distance of Tyrese Haliburton, who promptly iced the game with yet another wide-open three.

Haliburton’s shot made it a four-point game for the Kings, and the Raptors failed to catch up through the fouling game. It didn’t quite help that Siakam missed a free throw and the team settled for a quick two when they probably needed a three (though it wasn’t the worst decision). To add insult to injury, an odd moment came when the refs called a technical foul on Lowry — his second of the game, meaning an automatic ejection — just as Fox was about to take his second free throw, up three with four seconds left. The timing of the second technical was a bit extreme (he said afterwards he didn’t do anything, which seems a bit unlikely), but overall the refs did not cost the Raptors this game.

The Raptors’ opened their previous game against the Kings looking half-asleep on defense, before ultimately waking up and delivering their biggest win of the season. Tonight could’ve been the same story, but they’d let too many rebounds go and open threes fly by the time they shifted into that needed gear. As has been the case too many times this season, the Raptors showed flashes of being a competitive, hard-nosed defensive team. But even with Siakam putting up one of his best performances of the season, the Raptors just remain unable to be on the same page for 48 minutes. We’re now at the quarter mark of the season — if this team is going to gel, it’ll have to be soon.