The knock on the Raptors right now is an obvious deficit of talent — but not one of heart. Their opponent on Tuesday night, the LA Clippers, have supreme talent but often carry themselves in a casual way. With little to play for, Toronto had nothing to lose by going all out with the players they had to try for a win. The Clippers, meanwhile, could just continue to tune themselves up for what should be a deep playoff run. Could the Raptors’ hustle and heart overcome superior talent only half-pressed for a win? The answer was, unfortunately, a consistent no, as Toronto never led in this one and went on to lose 115-96.
The first quarter bore this heart vs. talent thesis out. The Raptors got off to a sluggish start, finding it difficult to execute a passable halfcourt offense. This wasn’t particularly surprising given the team was being organized by a rookie point guard in Malachi Flynn while facing down at least one defensive monster in Kawhi Leonard. (Paul George isn’t too sluggish on that side of the ball either.) On the plus side, we got to see Chris Boucher bounce back into the starting lineup with an eventual team-leading 16 points (on 5-of-15 shooting) for the night. However, while he did have one electric play early — a block at the three-point line for a breakaway dunk — Boucher does not always make for a stable offense.
But the Raptors, even reduced as they are, have more options — or at least more energy — than you’d expect. With a lineup featuring Yuta Watanabe, Freddie Gillespie, and Jalen Harris, Toronto was able to keep things competitive in the first. Toronto also saw some more settled play from Flynn (who finished with 11 points and four assists), who did find a bit of a groove with Khem Birch, putting both himself and the big man into positions to succeed. Flynn’s ability to run an effective pick-and-roll with Birch or any other Toronto big man will serve him well. Elsewhere, Gillespie blocked both DeMarcus Cousins and Ivica Zubac (after which he talked his talk a little bit). Harris was also able to catch the Clippers napping at least once for a few points as well (finishing with ten). And Gary Trent Jr. came alive late in the second a bit too, completing a cool four-point play — though that was a lone bright spot for him, as he’d go on to shoot a tough 3-of-16 from the field.
The Raptors still had to deal with the machine-like proficiency of Kawhi, a player who often makes any level of defensive effort and coordination look foolish. The Clippers star had 14 points at the half while shooting 5-of-7 from the field. Coupled with an onslaught of threes from Rajon Rondo (who was clearly enjoying himself picking apart Toronto’s inexperienced backcourt), the Clippers were able to maintain a comfortable lead — which got as large as 17 — for the entire first half, going into the break up 60-52. In all, Toronto’s intense egalitarian approach was either going to work in the second half or not, because it was clear there would be no real answer straight-up to Kawhi.
The answer came quickly: the Raptors didn’t score for almost the first three minutes of the quarter until a Birch dunk. Then managed just ten points for almost three-quarters of the frame. And even the casualness of the Clippers — like George throwing it away on a nothing play — could not get the Raptors back into it. If not for DeAndre’ Bembry’s sudden efforts for seven points, the third quarter could have looked much worse. There was a clear path foul called, a wonky sequence in which Birch picked up a pair of questionable fouls against George, and later Marcus Morris Sr. attempted an alley-oop pass by bouncing the ball off the floor. Thanks to a buzzer-beater (with some bounces of its own) from Watanabe, the Raptors went into the fourth down 14.
The Raptors came undone from there. While Boucher did get a chance to add 11 points in the frame, the Clippers lead stayed in the double-digits and they were never really challenged. In the process, Terance Mann got to show his stuff for 20 points, Kawhi finished with 20 of his own on an easy ten shots (and zero fourth-quarter minutes), and the Raptors just did not have the juice to battle back. It was nice to see Gillespie put up 10-and-7 with three blocks, and Flynn and Harris are showing signs of some usefulness, but that’s the extent of what’s to be taken away here. Talent tends to win out in the NBA.
The running gag that became worth watching was whether or not the Raptors could get the score closer to keep alive what is now one of the weirder stats we’ve seen as of late. As noted, the Raptors are now -6 on the year. They’d had a positive point differential to this point, which is remarkable given that they are now 15 games below .500. It’s been that kind of strange, unlucky, fake, unprecedented, or just straight bad type of year for the Raptors. Ah well, it’s almost over now.