As much as the Raptors are battling circumstance, they’re also going to war every night with themselves. That was obvious in their 117-99 loss on Monday night to a Houston Rockets team that had been on a hapless 20-game losing streak. Toronto stayed in the game for about 3.5 quarters, but merely staying in this game would never be enough. They had to do something to make us — and themselves — believe they could still turn this bizarre 2020-21 year around. Instead, in the micro, it’s a deeply disappointing loss to the Rockets, Toronto’s ninth in a row; and in the macro, it may just be the summation of an entire lost season. As least we’ve reached the singularity here: the small and big becoming one and the same, and reaching a similar end.
To confirm this notion, the teams looked disturbingly evenly matched through one quarter. The Raptors missed threes, but pushed the pace and jumped on Houston’s turnovers. They also got in their own way sometimes and didn’t get much separation on the Rockets, even with an 8-0 run in the frame. Once again, this serves now as convenient foreshadowing. In the moment, some players seemed to be playing well (the regular starters, Paul Watson, Malachi Flynn in spurts on the defensive end), and some looked less than good (an out-of-control Stanley Johnson, an entirely off-world Aron Baynes). And then Toronto tumbled into the second, when everything looked a tad too laboured — for lack of another word.
Still, some credit first: by halftime, the Raptors had an aggresive Pascal Siakam at 17 efficient points (on 7-of-11 from the field), Norman Powell with 15 (on 6-of-10 shooting, including one delightfully responsive backdoor alley-oop), and ten points from Fred VanVleet (on a neat 3-of-6). This was what the Raptors’ offense had been missing, numbers-wise, for the past few weeks. And yet, there were negatives. Despite shooting 16-of-18 in the paint — and despite getting into the paint sometimes in comically easy fashion — the Raptors found themselves down by five at the half. (A deficit made worse by a wild half-court buzzer-beater from Danuel House) This time around, despite another lacklustre opponent, the Raptors couldn’t seem to make their threes (shooting just 32 percent in the half), while watching (sometimes quite literally) Houston bomb in 45 percent of theirs as part of a 20-8 run.
Toronto’s problems continued in the third. After holding Christian Wood scoreless, the Rockets’ best young player started to get going, which spelled trouble for the Raptors. Even with VanVleet pouring in 14 points — with comically low support from anyone else — Toronto could only stand by helplessly as Wood dropped in 12 of his own, including a pair of an impressive threes and some forays to the rim. In the process the Rockets got their lead up to as man as 13. If not for VanVleet’s timely scoring, and coach Nick Nurse’s renewed search for lineup energy, which produced a combo that worked, Toronto would not have been able to put together a 7-0 run to renew our hope once again.
Down two heading into the fourth, the Raptors stuck with the lineup that got them there — DeAndre’ Bembry, Flynn, Watson, Chris Boucher, and VanVleet. The energy of that late third quarter run didn’t quite translate though, and even with Lowry on the court (in place of VanVleet), the Raptors were back down again by ten in a hurry. It didn’t help that Bembry, fresh on the floor, somehow earned himself an ejection in seven minutes — but that also fits in with the evening’s narrative. One of Toronto’s established players would do something good, one of their wildcards would do something inexplicable, and then we’d all go back to square one. Or in this case, a 13-3 run from Houston put the game back out of reach. It should be noted that this sequence ended with Siakam and Lowry tripping each other up and losing the ball. That’s when it became crystal clear that even with any other heroics, there would be no “winning” this game.
Houston’s run grew to 28-8, the lead grew larger, and despite any other efforts from the Raptors, there was nothing left to salvage. Lowry got a continuation call for three of his 17 points, VanVleet dropped in a team-leading 27, Pascal was quiet down the stretch but still had 21-and-10, there was a nice dunk by Norm in the mix too (two of his four second half points). But what are we even talking about here? While any of this was happening, the Raptors were sliding into defeat, the game done, the season totally off the rails. That sounds harsh, but there really is so little runway left to work with for the Raptors, who now sit at 17-26. Or to put it a different way: it feels fair to ask if it is fair to make the team continue in this way.