Coming into the season, we knew the Raptors’ margin for error had slimmed. Losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in the off-season left the frontcourt thin, and put even more pressure on the backs of Toronto’s wings and guards. What we didn’t expect is that those much-needed bodies, the ones the team needs to score 20 a game, force turnovers, and dictate on the defensive end, would also have to deal with a plague — one that continues to disrupt an NBA season like no other.
Between the last two weeks, rehoming in Tampa, and facing a tough schedule, the Raptors haven’t had it easy. Its required patience from observers, and if tonight was any lesson, it’ll take some more patience before a return to “normal” is possible — even in an abnormal season.
Despite having both Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam back in the lineup tonight against Detroit, both looked like players still getting over a serious illness. The two competed admirably, and while their jump shots were clearly affected, the Raptors’ offense more closely resembled in form what we’ve come to expect: drives, swing sequences, and working the weak side as often as the strong. Unfortunately, the execution and scoring just couldn’t come together — only Norman Powell really clicked against the Pistons on Wednesday, and while Toronto went for it in the second half with an aggressive rotation, they still came up short, losing 116-112.
The loss is the Raptors’ sixth straight, as they fall to 17-23 on the season and remain 11th in the East, half a game out of the play in round.
Let’s start with Powell, who was once again phenomenal in a stretch of phenomenal performances. The buzz among writers now is that Toronto would be smart to cash in on Norm, whose trade value will never be higher on his current contract. The team could be heading to a scenario in the off-season where Powell commands more money than the Raptors can stomach paying him, and we know that teams are lighting up the phones about his availability.
Consider the audition nailed. Powell recorded a career-high 43 points on Wednesday, making 14-of-18 from the field and a blistering 8-for-12 from three.
Powell could be seen at different points yelling at himself, encouraging his team to get behind him and bring some support. He was making a fair point — where would the Raptors have been tonight without Norm?
The returning VanVleet and Siakam couldn’t find the range, combining to go 5-for-24 and 1-for-10 from three (I can safely give this a pass, all things considered). Kyle Lowry was underwhelming, missing all seven of his threes — most of them wide open — to score just eight points on 2-for-13 shooting. The entire Toronto bench had just 15 points, and just two of those players, Aron Baynes and Paul Watson, even cracked 20 minutes. Nick Nurse decided after halftime that he was just going to ride the old crew and try to get a win. It didn’t pan out.
The Pistons, meanwhile, were workhorses. After a game two weeks ago where they couldn’t seem to miss from distance, the three-point shot was once again favourable to them, as they went 12-for-29 (41.4%). Even more, they destroyed Toronto on the glass, out-rebounding the Raptors 54-30. If it wasn’t for 20 Pistons turnovers, the Raptors may never have been in this game, as Mason Plumlee and Saddiq Bey combined for 26 boards. Bey also led the team in scoring, shooting 8-for-14 for 28 points. Jerami Grant supported with 23, including a late jumper in the closing seconds that kept the Raptors at arm’s length.
The dominance of Detroit on the glass meant that Nurse had to keep Baynes out there for significant stretches, which hurt Toronto’s creativity on offense. Their most effective looks on that end came with Boucher at the five, but they just couldn’t sustain defensively against the Pistons’ effort inside. It put the Raptors in a difficult position, and even though Boucher had 21 points, the missed rotations and inability to box out hurt Toronto more than his points helped.
At the outset, the Raptors immediately looked sharper than they had without VanVleet and Siakam. Fred’s passing was certainly welcome, as he set up this early dunk for Boucher.
It was Powell who really carried everyone, though, scoring eight of the first 17 Raptors points and nailing two corner threes. Detroit had an answer, making five of their seven three-point attempts in the frame, to take a 37-31 lead into the second.
Watson and Matt Thomas were the first (and only) guards off the bench in the second quarter, which ended up being the only time Nurse went past seven guys in the rotation for the rest of the game. Thomas made his first three point attempt, which was a nice sign, but a VanVleet-led bench group just wasn’t getting enough from its focal point, which hurt. Detroit really started dominating the glass in this frame, opening up a 26-12 rebounding advantage by halftime with a 63-58 lead.
In the third, VanVleet got to the free throw line to narrow the Pistons lead, and Norman Powell busted through — going on an individual 5-0 run to give Toronto their first lead since the opening moments.
Norm would have 36 of his 43 after three quarters, but just didn’t get enough assistance on the defensive end. Nurse anchored his late third quarter lineup with Lowry, but the veteran guard couldn’t get any shots to fall, and the Raptors squandered their opportunity; Detroit went into the fourth leading 88-81.
Toronto’s last good run came midway through the final frame, as the team went on a 7-0 spurt to cut the lead to six and force a Pistons timeout. Out of the break, though, former Raptor Delon Wright dropped two straight layups to stretch the lead back into double digits. A late rally of Powell jump shots extended the game in time, but wasn’t enough to climb the Raptors back.
It’s a tough loss, especially considering where the schedule goes next. Three of their next five games come against Western Conference powerhouses in Utah, Denver, and Phoenix, as that margin for error will look even thinner against tough competition. Hopefully, they can find a way to continue some sort of march to normalcy.