The Raptors were always gonna be in tough to beat the Jazz without OG Anunoby, so it’s not terribly shocking that the wheels fell off of a pretty promising effort as the third quarter waned on Thursday night in Salt Lake City on the way to a 119-103 to one of the West’s top teams. Anunoby would have been the most critical defensive chess piece in the matchup had he not been ruled out, possibly for “a while,” in the hours leading up to the Raptors’ contest in Utah. Growing pains or not, he’s been pretty damn important on the other end, too.
Offense betrayed the Raptors late in this one, as some janky possessions, overzealous turnovers, and the worst Pascal Siakam effort since his return to action sapped the first half juice that vaulted Toronto ahead of the Jazz 63-61 at the half.
Those first 24 minutes went better than you could have reasonably expected considering the circumstances. Toronto dared Utah to snap out of its season long shooting slump with a hyper-aggressive trapping scheme and butter soft rotations on the back end, which the Jazz very much obliged. But even with a steady diet of open threes and Rudy Gobert’s six inch height advantage over any member of the Raptors roster, Toronto found enough scoring-wise to keep pace. Khem Birch’s floater game was money (6-of-7 for 14 points in the first half); Gary Trent Jr. heat checked his way to 16 first half points on nine shots; Fred VanVleet continued to do that thing where he throws the team on his back — a string of three-straight, increasingly brazen threes in the second standing the highlight of his night.
The second half brought with it a defensive shift that, in theory, was quite smart. Instead of trapping Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley 30 feet away from the hoop and daring the Jazz to pick them apart, the Raptors moved to a more relaxed scheme, working in switching and light hedging. Process wise, it was the move to make. Results wise, it didn’t quite hold up. Siakam’s still struggling with his lateral quicks since coming back, while Scottie Barnes has been an easy blow-by target for speedy guards all season. Without Anunoby, Toronto was forced to switch without its best switcher.
Utah’s push didn’t come in some Warriors-like wave, more so a steady stream of well-earned buckets from their half court machine, offset by a Raptors offense that came crashing back to earth. Once Toronto lost touch, it became clear pretty quickly they were not reeling it back in. On a better Siakam night, maybe they’d have had a shot.
It was certainly discouraging to see Siakam’s strong run of play come to a halt on Thursday, especially since the Jazz have been his lunch in recent seasons. Quin Snyder’s squad very clearly keyed in on Siakam from the jump, throwing loads of extra attention his way to prevent against another 30-piece from Toronto’s top option against the wing tandem of Royce O’Neale and Bojan Bogdanovic, which he has cooked with ease the last five or six times Toronto and the Jazz have squared off. Siakam was able to leverage that attention into good looks for others — he had four first half assists including a beauty to Scottie Barnes underneath to close out the first half. But any foray to the rim was met with two or three waiting sets of limbs. He finished with just four points, three boards and five assists on 2-of-14 shooting on a night where they could not afford such a stat line from their best player.
If you’re looking for saving graces from this game, it mostly begins and ends with Gary Trent Jr. With 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting, Trent at least kept things watchable until he subbed out for garbage time, and his overall polish on offense is a real bright spot in the early going. He may never have the explosiveness to become a true three-level scorer, but the counters he’s worked in to punish defenders that run him off the line or are prepped for his mid-range game are varied and effective as hell. Without Anunoby, he’s the most obvious choice to absorb a good chunk of those vacated field goal attempts. I say: bombs away, Gary.
This was a game to forget, and though Siakam’s clunker makes it feel like an ominous L, the reality is that the Jazz are a very good team, with an offense good enough to be ranked tops in the league coming in despite being ice cold from downtown for weeks. Anunoby or not, you probably weren’t banking on this win anyway.
That said, with OG out, the team’s defensive slide could be at risk of getting even more out of control, and the offense is down one very important creator. At some point, Toronto will need to find a way to look passable enough on both ends to pick up wins without their budding star. If not, this six loss/seven game stretch could get even uglier, and quick.