The Toronto Raptors are loathe to experience a total meltdown. This is a team that’s been built with hustle in mind. You don’t assemble entire lineups of undersized centres without the trust that their effort will play above their height. It’s been a part of every great win (and contested loss) the team has had this season.
Every NBA squad experiences stinkers, though, and tonight appears to have been Toronto’s time.
The Raptors were down from square one on Monday in New Orleans, as the Pelicans took a decent lead — added on a 9-0 run right out of halftime to make it a huge lead — and ran Toronto out of their gym, winning 120-90.
While the offense was an issue, this game was lost for the Raptors based on defensive effort. The starting lineup was more flat-footed than usual, with all five players showing different levels of struggle against a Pelicans team that boasted size in their starting lineup (Jonas Valanciunas) and a lot of hustle off the bench (Jose Alvarado, Jaxson Hayes).
Fred VanVleet was the sharpest player for the Raptors, if only because all four of his three-pointers came at perfect times to stop New Orleans runs.
Freddy All-Star putting in work early pic.twitter.com/NqncCACN9d— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 15, 2022
It never materalized into consistent effort on the other end, though. Gary Trent Jr. and Scottie Barnes especially looked a step slow for the Raptors today, as Nick Nurse tried and failed to mix up the lineups to cover up their mistakes.
VanVleet led the Raptors with 20 points, but left the game in the third quarter (with the win well out of reach, mind you) with knee soreness. Pascal Siakam also left the game briefly after getting poked in the eye, but played through it — finishing with 18 points, five rebounds and an assist.
Pelicans newcomer CJ McCollum led all scorers with 23 points. Jonas Valanciunas had 18 and dominated the Raptors on both ends — taking away preferred lanes in the paint on defense and passing ably out of pressure on the other end. Nine rebounds and four assists don’t quite tell the story of how he owned those aspects of the game tonight (a game-high +28 does, though).
The offensive struggles for the Raptors started early. The team started 2-for-12 from the field, missing two layups under pressure from Valanciunas. The former Raptor created the first three New Orleans buckets too, two for himself and one to set up a McCollum three.
Down 22-8, the Raptors got a boost from VanVleet, who scored seven of a 9-0 Toronto run to get the game back within a pair of possessions. That progress was chewed away at, though, when the Raptors’ first bench lineup — a supersized look with Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and Khem Birch all in the game at the same time — scraped all the space away for VanVleet and Trent Jr. to create.
Thus, it was time for Thad Young; the new Raptors forward made his debut to start the second quarter. It was a good first shift for Young, who got a couple deflections on defense and got two feet into the paint to set up OG Anunoby for a three. On top of that assist, he also had three rebounds and this pretty bucket in his first stretch off the bench.
Admittedly, the Raptors defense was better overall in the second quarter. Toronto’s effort level improved and the Pelicans looks got tougher — the result remained the same, though. Brandon Ingram made two tough fadeaways, McCollum made a long distance three, and the home side just kept pouring it on, taking a 60-44 lead into halftime.
After that, the stretch coming out of the break lost the game for Toronto. A 9-0 run for the Pelicans put their lead out of reach, as the Raptors starting unit once again looked lackadaisical together. As the minutes wound down in the third, Nurse started to mix in Dalano Banton as a flyer — it just wasn’t meant to be on Monday.
The Raptors are human after all, it turns out. Every NBA team has bad games in them, and Toronto ran into an outlier performance from a team that’s got some post-trade glow to it.
McCollum was a good energizer for the Pelicans tonight, as their team shot 58.4% overall, including 16-for-36 from three — out-scoring the Raptors by 24 (!) in that category. This more or less nullified the advantage Toronto had going to the free throw line, as they had ten more charity stripe makes than New Orleans.
All that’s left to do now is shake it off and move on. The Raptors finish their pre-All-Star schedule in Minnesota on Wednesday night.