After Friday night’s game against the Utah Jazz, Raptors coach Nick Nurse claimed his team was “twice the aggressor” than his opponents. It’s true Toronto looked stronger than they have in a couple weeks, a period that has seen them drop six straight games and fall right out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Unfortunately, as has been the case all season during both good times and bad, the Raptors looked far too weak down the stretch. This time, they put up a brave fight to take control of the game late, then watched it all get away from them in the final 90 seconds. The Jazz would go on to win 115-112 after Pascal Siakam’s buzzer-beater somehow hit every part of the rim — twice, it felt like — before harmlessly rolling off.
While it was emotionally satisfying in part to finally see the Raptors as they were supposed to be this season. It did not feel good to watch them lose like this again. One does have to wonder about Siakam’s mental well-being, despite being all-smiles on the evening. His heartbreaking misses at the buzzer are starting to feel like a misbegotten stress test experiment. Pascal did finish with 27 points to lead the Raptors, and it was a salve to see him out there with OG Anunoby, who dropped 15 points of his own while playing all-world defense, and Fred VanVleet, who chipped in 17 point, though with 15 coming in the first half — as sure a sign as anything that trouble was afoot for Toronto.
Still, with his roster intact, Nurse did get to introduce (or re-introduce?) a different eight-man rotation early. The starting lineup was back to its optimal small-ball configuration. And this time Chris Boucher and Paul Watson were in first, with rookie Malachi Flynn coming on afterwards. This trio replaced the three long-absent Raptors — Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby — and didn’t let the Jazz back into the game early on. Boucher dropped a couple threes — putting Rudy Gobert’s defense to the test — and hit a tough bucket on the roll. Watson, meanwhile, went to work with his long-limbed defensive efforts, which was something to see. And Flynn, despite being in and out of two different team’s lineups, looked solid too. The Raptors took a four-point lead into the second and if not for a few too many offensive boards given up to Utah, it could have easily been more.
The second quarter saw the Jazz reassert themselves thanks to a 12-0 run that had the Raptors go scoreless for almost the final four minutes of the frame. I say almost because thanks to a miracle buzzer-beater from VanVleet, which he took with 0.4 seconds on the clock and then watched bank in from near halfcourt, the Raptors were only down one at the half. While VanVleet started the game looking very much like the Fred of old, it did look like he was getting a bit too gassed as the game went along. But VanVleet alone wasn’t the reason for the Jazz’s minor comeback in the second quarter — or the game.
For that, we can thank Utah’s typical playbook — lots of 3s, pressure at the rim by Gobert, and later some hero-ball from Donovan Mitchell. Some hot shooting in particular from Joe Ingles, who went 3-for-3 from deep in the second, kept the Jazz around. Toronto also got less-than-productive minutes from Aron Baynes, who was good for one dunk, and a rebound, in almost seven minutes, but who was also mercilessly attacked on the defensive end. On the plus side for the Raptors, they got some vintage production from Anunoby, who easily transformed the defense and hit a few different shots — including his one-legged fadeaway. Siakam also began picking up steam as the game went along. After hitting the front rim with his jumper, Pascal amassed a varied seven points in the second quarter, including a three. In all, Toronto looked to be regaining their form.
And the break at halftime helped. The Raptors quickly retook the lead and held it for the majority of the third. On the offensive end, Siakam flashed the whole bag of skills, and did the job on defense too. He got help from Anunoby and VanVleet, both of whom were back to their everywhere-all-at-once ways on defense. With the defense locked in, Siakam had 11 points in the frame, doing it all on that end to put Toronto back in front. Nevertheless, as the minutes clicked down in the third, Utah clung to a two-point lead thanks to some of that aforementioned heroic shotmaking from Mitchell. And unlike in the first half, the Raptors’ reserves didn’t also respond, with only three points from Boucher in the frame.
The fourth quarter began and it looked bad for Toronto. It also provided a bit of foreshadowing for the rest of the evening. As has happened too often this season, the Raptors suddenly looked a step slow on everything, quickly falling behind by ten — which was Utah’s largest lead to that point. Maybe some of the calls that went against them were soft, but credit to the Jazz for getting a few quick first steps, and mixing it up at the rim for offensive boards. It got Utah back on top in a big way — even when they couldn’t hit threes — and it meant the Raptors had to dig deep. That they did, going on an 8-0 to get right back into the game, is a testament to the skills and toughness the Raptors do indeed possess. That they then lost their hard-fought five point lead in 90 seconds, scoring just one desperate bucket before the final buzzer is, well, a reality check.
I should mention here that the Raptors’ two stalwarts through this recent downer, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, continued on their steady way, with 14 and 17 points, respectively. The bench rotation played some solid minutes — with Boucher topping out at 16 points on the night — and it appears as though Nurse has found a winning eight or nine-man rotation that makes sense. Of course, it was also restorative to see Siakam, VanVleet, Anunoby back out there playing together at what looked and felt like a high level. What a relief that was.
But now: the Raptors just need to win a damn game again.