Adding insult to injury, we had to wait forever for tonight’s Raptors vs. Jazz game in Utah. We can thank the Pacific time zone for that, but we have to blame Toronto for the eventual anticlimactic nature of the evening. After three quarters, we were having fun as the Raptors were — yes, once again — finding their best selves. The team’s defense looked amazing, the ball was moving around the court, the shots were falling, and everyone was playing their part. That it was happening against the Jazz, one of the best teams in the league, was a nice bonus. But all that good work was undone by another sub-arctic quarter and another loss, this time 106-102 to the Jazz.
With heavy minutes from the starters, Toronto saw Fred VanVleet put in 30 points, with seven assists and six rebounds; his output matched by Khem Birch who seemed to be approaching a triple-double with 17 points, ten rebounds, and six assists of his own. Meanwhile, Malachi Flynn stepped into a bigger role on the night with a 10-6-5, buttressed by OG Anunoby’s 17 points and Pascal Siakam’s 15-and-7. On paper, it sounds pretty good — but Toronto’s bench managed just 13 points and everyone looked gassed by the end.
To start, the Raptors knew they’d have to keep up with one of the best shooting teams in the league. The Jazz are tops in three-point attempts and makes this season, and third in three-point percentage — so Toronto also knew they’d have to defend the perimeter. Of course, Utah is a top team for a reason and to a certain extent, the best defense for the Raptors was going to be their offense. Case in point in the first quarter: while Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic was going off for 17 points in those opening minutes, Toronto was doing their best to attack him on defense. Along the way, Siakam was able to chip in seven points, and a returned VanVleet put up 11 of his own. In all, Toronto survived one 9-0 run from the Jazz and took a four-point lead into the second.
While Toronto’s three-point shooting slowed — from 50 to 30 percent on the same number of attempts — their defense picked it up in the second. After his explosive first frame, Bogdanovic had just four points in the second (all on free throws). Elsewhere, DeAndre Bembry’ jumped a passing lane to ignite the break, Birch corralled a rebound to run the break, and Freddie Gillespie blocked Bojan at the rim. There was also the curious case of Jordan Clarkson getting hounded into a pair of three-point airballs. In all, Utah’s shooting splits fell from 54%/50% in the first to 40%/36% in the second, and it was easy to see how Toronto was contributing to that slide. (Even little-used rookie Jalen Harris was a plus on the defensive end, pulling off a nice +4 for his short stint.) At the same time, Utah had no answer for VanVleet, who had 21 points at the half (now equal to Bojan’s 21), and looked in firm command of his game.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, Bogdanovic found himself again in the third and Utah got Toronto into something of a shoot-out. The shooting percentages started creeping back up — and it looked like we were in for a battle of wills and execution. Toronto’s opening eight-point lead in the third quickly disappeared and, despite leading the entire second quarter, Utah made it into another seesaw affair too. Still, every time Utah made some push to take control of the game in the third, the Raptors were able to respond. When two free throws from Rudy Gobert gave the lead back to the Jazz, Siakam and VanVleet swung a pair of steals and the momentum flung back the other way in Toronto’s favour.
In this, it really did feel like the Raptors had the upper hand tonight. They managed 52 points in the paint, scattered Utah into 20 turnovers (to their mere ten), and managed more second chance and fastbreak points. Toronto even put up 16 more shots in total, which often leads to a win — even if some of the other math doesn’t go a team’s way. But the math didn’t just go the Raptors’ way, it pushed them off a cliff. In the fourth, after doing battle with the Jazz for three quarters, the Raptors shot 25 percent from the field (and 17 percent from three). Suddenly the ball wasn’t moving so well anymore, and the smoothness of the team’s offense couldn’t quite be found. The Jazz, meanwhile, did what they usually do: they kept shoot threes (hitting four in the frame); and when those missed, they counted on Gobert to gather the rebound.
After VanVleet hit what was Toronto’s penultimate basket in the game — their first points in over three minutes — the next play down saw Joe Ingles try to hit a three right back. He missed but Gobert batted it in, and the Raptors were down five points with less than 30 seconds left. In all, despite waiting and waiting for this game to start, the ending snuck up in a hurry: another disappointing loss for the Raptors.