The Toronto Raptors fell to 13-14 on the season and 3-11 on the road on Sunday night, losing 111-99 to the Orlando Magic at Amway Center. It was the second straight loss to the Eastern Conference bottom feeders, who improve to 8-20, and marks a new low in a month that’s left plenty of questions about the Raptors, their players and how the team’s been constructed.
With OG Anunoby missing Sunday due to hip soreness, and with Nick Nurse teasing he could be out a lot longer, Gary Trent Jr. stepped into Toronto’s starting lineup and looked sharp. The only Raptors starter to shoot over 50%, Trent Jr. went 8-for-18 for a game-high 24 points in 43 minutes. Fred VanVleet added 20 on 4-for-11 shooting, while Pascal Siakam battled foul trouble, but bounced back for 19 points, six rebounds and six assists.
Franz Wagner, while not quite meeting his 34-point explosion on Friday, led the Magic again with 23 points. Paolo Banchero had 20, while Mo Bamba hit all six of his field goals and scored 18 in 23 minutes off the bench.
With both effort and execution lacking on Friday, the Raptors came out of the gate on Sunday determined to solve the first half of the equation. They went 1-for-5 from the field at the outset, but energetic rotations on defense from the new look starters — Christian Koloko was the centre of choice tonight — resulted in tough sledding for Orlando. A Koloko dunk followed by a Scottie Barnes three were the highlights of an 11-0 Raptors run midway through the quarter, putting Toronto up 13-6.
The Rookie & Vet connection pic.twitter.com/PdJe9xBOvP— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 11, 2022
Team fouls became an issue, though, and persisted for both teams throughout the game. An eye-rolling 17 fouls were called in the first 16 minutes of the game, 53(!!!) in the game total, as both teams were disrupted from offensive momentum. For a team in a shooting slump, that’s going to hurt more. The Magic got into the bonus with five minutes remaining in the first, then ripped off an 8-2 run of their own to give a depressing first frame a 19-18 finish in favor of the Raptors.
Orlando got another boost early in the second, as Siakam picked up his third and fourth fouls in quick succession, and was forced to check out with 7:14 left. With the Raptors running a slighter frontcourt, the beastly Mo Bamba made his presence felt. Back-to-back drives resulted in points, then a Bamba triple put the Magic up 37-29. A back-and-forth Raptors miss, Magic make stretch highlighted the so-sad-all-you-can-do-is-laugh slump Toronto is in right now, as late in the quarter another Bamba three gave Orlando their first double-digit lead. In total, the Raptors went 2-for-13 from three-point land in the first half, and not one of their players got into double figures. The Magic went into the break up 47-39.
Khem Birch, who at least presented some muscle to a monstrous Magic frontcourt tonight, started the second half in place of Koloko — and the move paid off some. Birch, who ended the game 4-for-5 for nine points, had a couple cleanup baskets thanks to the Magic honing in on a returning Siakam, and played good switching defense on the other end.
The long balls that could really cut into Orlando’s lead, though, just wouldn’t fall to keep a Raptors run going. A big three from Trent Jr. cut the Magic lead to six late in the third, but two defensive miscommunications early in the fourth allowed Orlando to stretch their lead again. Two triples from Franz Wagner in the first four minutes of the fourth put Orlando up 16 — the Raptors didn’t make a field goal in response for another three minutes.
That’s the kind of night it was. The Raptors ended 6-for-25 from three-point land — Fred VanVleet was 2-for-7, Trent Jr. was 3-for-8, and the rest of the team was 1-for-10. Big oof.
Now, a couple stray thoughts.
Time to re-evaluate
While every team goes through tough stretches like the Raptors are in right now, the reality is that Toronto opponents — even those as low in the standings as Orlando — are finding it way too easy to take their main offensive weapons out of the game.
While Siakam has been incredible in beating what other teams throw at him, VanVleet has had a larger body in front of him all season to force tough shots and Scottie Barnes has been forced into uncomfortable post-ups and pushed away from the rim by soft double teams.
If other teams can read the book on the Raptors this easily, then something needs to change from the top. That can come in the form of a trade — Toronto desperately needs a strong centre who can play 35 minutes a game, along with more shooting (but so does everybody!) — or in the form of shifting strategy.
It also might be as simple as digging into the bench and changing the expectations of this team. There is no world where the Raptors are going to get better defensively and peak their shooting playing their top guys 40 plus minutes a night. Barnes was 3-for-13 in 41 minutes tonight, grabbing at his knee in the second half, while VanVleet took just 11 shots in 42 minutes and was popped in the head no less than three times.
Trust has always been a big part of Nick Nurse’s coaching tool belt, but if the Raptors are going to make a late season push up the playoff rankings, they’ll need fresh bodies to do it. From what we’re hearing now about all the bumps and bruises, it’s not looking good.
The Magic... could be good?
It’s undoubtedly frustrating as a Raptors fan to watch your team get pumped by one of the worst teams in the association. Watching this Magic team for a weekend, though, you can plainly see a squad that will be good sooner rather than later. While the Raptors boast length at four of five positions, Orlando takes that hypothesis to an extreme conclusion. Bol Bol made a handful of eye-popping plays with smaller guys around him, while Mo Bamba simply out-muscled the likes of Chris Boucher for his interior scoring.
There’s also a mental toughness at play too. Cole Anthony and Markelle Fultz won’t sneak up on anyone with their offensive gifts, but both are sharp and patient point guards — and were on top of Raptors defensive miscues whenever they came up.
There’s not going to be a bandwagon to jump on this year. But with the continued development of Banchero and a wealth of giant humans beside him, this Magic team is an intriguing addition to a stacked Eastern Conference.