Give the Toronto Raptors this much: They sure are finding some interesting ways to lose! Last night gave us another Pascal Siakam buzzer-beater that rimmed out, his fourth of the season if I recall, and much like last week’s Atlanta Hawks game, the Raptors had a late lead against the Utah Jazz that they just couldn’t hold on to.
But the good news is: The team is healthy, and despite the loss, they looked good for the first time in weeks.
1. Five Up
I think last night’s game crystallized who these Raptors are when healthy: Five really talented guys, a solid sixth man with some limitations, and a bunch of spare parts.
The starting five is small, but that’s a darn good group. They held their own and more against a big Jazz team. Chris Boucher did his thing, scoring well and blocking shots but often finding himself out of position and giving up a lot on the glass.
Beyond that, the bench… oh boy, the bench.
In the minutes the starting five played, the Raptors won 55-44. In the minutes any sub was in, the Jazz won 71-57.— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) March 20, 2021
I honestly thought Paul Watson and Malachi Flynn were okay, and Aron Baynes was, well, Aron Baynes, and I generally liked the team’s substitution patterns last night. But the Raptors need just more from the back end of the roster: more shot creation, more scoring, more defense.
This is where some of Nick Nurse’s earlier-season rotations might be coming back to bite them. If Flynn and Watson had played more at the start of the year, maybe they’d be in better position to contribute now.
2. OG the Difference Maker
Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how much any one basketball player can impact the game on defense — I know I struggle with it. But just look at this Raptors team on Wednesday (against a very bad team) and compare it to last night’s (against a very good team). That’s the difference one good defender like OG Anunoby can make.
This dude hasn’t stepped on the court in three weeks, but racked up four steals and a block, along with excellent man-to-man defense and help defense, in 34 minutes. And that block was pretty sensational:
One game doesn’t indicate that everything is fixed, but the Raptors held the Jazz — the third-best three-point shooting team in the league — to just 12-of-37 from downtown. That’s a major step in the right direction.
3. Do Not Trade These Men
Chalk up another one for the Kyle Lowry Winning Plays montage:
It’s not just the offensive rebound, but the awareness to spot Norman Powell, open, and dish Powell the ball before his own feet even touch the floor.
Lowry and Powell combined for 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the fourth, and Lowry added three assists.
Do not trade these men.
4. Game of Droughts
Even with all five starters back, the Raptors’ bad habit of going into offensive droughts continued last night. At the end of the second quarter they went four minutes without scoring before Fred VanVleet’s buzzer beater, and at the beginning of the fourth they went two minutes without scoring (and built a 10-point deficit) before storming back.
Most of this comes back to the bench, but there were still two starters (at least) on the floor for the entirety of those two stretches. Halfcourt offense was a problem for the team last season, and it’s one that hasn’t been fixed this year, and in fact has been made even worse by the lack of depth.
Should this team make the playoffs or even a play-in game, when the pace slows down, these dry spells could be their doom.
As much as I thought the rotations looked good for the Raptors last night, Nick Nurse still made some very strange decisions down the stretch. Primarily, the decision to challenge an obvious foul call with 1:25 to go, wasting Toronto’s last time out was… well, head-scratching, to be generous. Norman Powell clearly raked Donovan Mitchell on the arm on that play, so there was little chance it was going to be overturned. But even if it was deemed to not be a foul, the Jazz still would have had the ball! There was literally nothing to be gained from that challenge, and a lot to be lost — namely that timeout.
A few plays later, after the Raptors dug themselves a three-point hole, the team then made the the decision to go for two — again with no timeouts left — and less than 12 seconds on the clock. They scored, sure, but that left them down 1 with six seconds to go and more importantly, they also failed to recognize that the Jazz still with a foul to give. Which meant they had even less time to make up the three points after Mike Conley sank two free throws to push the lead back to three.
Now, it all very nearly worked out, with Conley’s take foul allowing the team to inbound the ball and run a set play, and Siakam’s three rimming out at the buzzer. But still, that’s some pretty questionable clock management by Nick Nurse.
So I guess we’ll talk about the free throws before we go? Look, the Raptors just don’t have the personnel that puts a lot of pressure on the defense to commit fouls; they don’t drive a lot and Pascal, Fred and Norm in particular often shy away from contact when doing so. On the other the end, the Raptors are very aggressive on defense, with their hands and with their closeouts.
In other words: The way they play should result in them losing the free throw battle pretty much every game.
That said: Losing the free throw battle by 27? Nope, that’s not right.