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Tired Raps fight to the end, but lose to Mavs 102-98

With no trust in his bench, the Raptors are relying on big minutes from the starters — and it’s coming back to haunt them in close games.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors once again fought hard against a top-shelf opponent, but once again came up short, this time losing to the Dallas Mavericks 102-98.

In a tightly contested affair — 22 lead changes — the Mavericks just had a deeper bench and fresher legs, and made just a few more plays down the stretch. The effort is there, the talent is there for this Raptors team. But without Khem Birch and Gary Trent Jr., and with no semblance of a bench, it’s a tough task for Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam — 42, 43, and 43.5 minutes, respectively — to carry the team every night from start to finish.

Luka Doncic, aka “the struggling Luka Doncic” of late, came through with 41 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists for Dallas, an all-around spectacular performance that was a pretty solid reminder of why he’s an All-Star and MVP candidate. Kristaps Porzingis chipped in with 18.

Siakam led the Raptors with 20 points and eight boards. Chris Boucher — one of two Raptors reserves to play, along with undrafted rookie Justin Champagnie — came off the bench with a 15 and 12 double double, and he added three steals two. But he also missed two clean looks late that could have been huge difference makers for the Raptors.

The first came with two-and-a-half minutes to go and the raptors trailing by two; after a defensive stop, the Raptors worked the ball around brilliantly, and it ended up in Boucher’s hands in the corner. Wide open, his long two bounced off the back iron.

Then, with the Raptors still trailing by two but only 20 seconds to go, Fred VanVleet missed a three, and after a Scottie Barnes offensive rebound, the ball found it’s way back to Boucher on the right wing — but his three-ball was long again. The Raptors had to foul with seven seconds to go and that ball game was over.

VanVleet had an uncharacteristically cold night, shooting just 4-for-20 and missing 12 of his 15(!) three-point attempts. He still finished with a double-double of 18 points and 12 assists.

The Raptors, small but long as usual, opened up the night by putting OG Anunoby on Porzingis, a 7’3” giant who absolutely dwarfs Anunoby — who’s not exactly a little guy. OG got the better of KP early, scoring seven of Toronto’s first 14 points, including two dunks. (Porzingis would get his back soon enough.)

On the Mavericks’ side, they owned the paint early, scoring on six of their first seven attempts. The parade to the hoop started when Jalen Brunson and Doncic scored on back-to-back layups; that was followed soon after by a Porzingis dunk, and punctuated by a no-look alley-oop from Doncic to Dorian Finney-Smith that gave the Mavericks a 13-10 lead. Tim Hardaway Jr. soon came off the bench to continue his reign of terror against the Raptors; he scored nine in the opening quarter, including a triple and a drive on which he treated Chris Boucher like a traffic cone. He finished the night with 16.

The Raptors countered by once again making a living on the offensive glass. They hauled in six in the opening frame, leading to eight points, including one tip-in from Scottie Barnes, and one from Chris Boucher. OG Anunoby capped the quarter by tipping in his own miss, giving the Raptors a 31-27 lead after 1.

The second quarter belonged to Doncic and Porzingis. The whole frame was really the vision that Mark Cuban must have had when he and Donnie Nelson acquired KP bak in 2019. Porzingis was using his size to get into the paint and calmly knocking short jumpers in over shorter opponents, while Luke was doing it from inside and outside. The two combined for 22 of Dallas’ 28 points in the quarter, on 8-for-12 shooting from the field and 6-for-6 shooting from the foul line.

The Raptors didn’t do themselves any favours with a sloppy offensive quarter. Bad decisions (like Precious Achiuwa taking a one-dribble three early in the clock, or Siakam trying to drive though a clogged lane) cost them several possessions, and the team was lucky to be down only one point at halftime.

Sloppy is often a sign of tiredness, and the trend continued in the third; at one point early in the frame, the Raptors turned the ball over three straight times, and two Porzingis free throws gave Dallas their largest lead at 67-63. Taking advantage of Toronto’s tired legs, Doncic attacked repeatedly in the frame, catching the Raps on their heels again and again.

Here’s where I give my bench take: Nick Nurse needs to play Svi Mykhailiuk and Yuta Watanabe. And maybe Dalano Banton too. Not for 20 minutes a night; but 3-5 minutes around quarter breaks and timeouts, to give VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam just a couple extra minutes of rest, has to happen, at the least.

I get that Mykhailiuk and Watanabe haven’t played well enough to “earn” those minutes, but at the same time, the starters have earned some rest. I appreciate that Nurse is playing the guys that keep the Raptors in games, but if they don’t have the legs to finish — to make solid defensive plays, to rebound, to put their legs into their shots down the stretch — then what’s the point? You’ve just exhausted your guys and came out with the same result.

And that exhaustion made it clear down the stretch of this game. Twice, the Raptors defended their butts of on Dallas possessions, and forced tough looks that missed — and twice, Dallas got the offensive rebound and made three-pointers. And with a minute to go and the Raptors trailing by one, Doncic used a shoulder fake to shake Barnes, and Barnes didn’t or couldn’t recover, and Chris Boucher didn’t step up to help, and Doncic nailed a three-pointer.

The Raptors are in Washington on Friday to take on the Wizards. We can only hope that Gary Trent comes back, or that Mykhailiuk and Watanabe have, like, really good workouts tomorrow or something, because the Raptors starters need some help.