The last few games have been frustrating for Toronto Raptors fans, and as the woes of this season have continued, the news that Jordan Clarkson would be returning for the Utah Jazz was certainly unwelcome.
Of course, they were still missing role players, but speculation continued, as questions of which version of this Raptors team we were going to get tonight lingered. Prior to the game, coach Darko Rajaković highlighted the need for energy from the team tonight, especially playing in the second game of a back-to-back after a frustrating loss to the Sixers.
What we got was initially a welcome and delightful surprise, with the Raptors engaging early, playing with pace and effort. They had the Jazz on their heels for most of the game, leading by 17 at one point, but the fatigue of playing for the second night in a row finally caught up with the Raptors by the fourth quarter, and fans found themselves looking at a totally different team, gradually losing their lead before falling behind to the Jazz, losing by 7 points.
Toronto won the tip, and immediately facilitated an easy 3-point bucket for Scottie Barnes at the top of the arc. It’s unclear if this shot got him going early or if it was just the start to the night he planned on having anyways, but his energy was apparent immediately, hustling defensively to secure 50/50 possessions and setting a quick pace while handling the ball.
It didn’t take long for him to get open after his first shot, draining two more long range buckets in addition to a short range jumper to have 11 points early, forcing the Jazz into a timeout to try and reckon with his early offensive spurt.
Out of the timeout he ran baseline to find himself open for a rim-rocking dunk. Despite his phenomenal play early, he was substituted out in regular fashion, only to return for the last three minutes to play with the bench lineup.
He finished the quarter with an efficient 17 points, and while this tied his career-high for points in a quarter, it is the first time he’s done this in the first frame of a game (instead of the first). O.G. Anunoby also found his scoring stroke early, with 7 points on 3-4 shooting to help put the Raptors up 34-31 to end the quarter.
Utah was able to stay within reach throughout the quarter, largely due to the offensive contributions of Lauri Markkanen who had a strong performance, draining a few of his own shots beyond the arc to have 10 points. Collin Sexton chipped in 5 points, and Clarkson, coming off the bench in his first game back from injury, was able to contribute 7 points as well.
To start the second, the Scottie plus bench minutes continued with Flynn, Achiuwa, Boucher, and Trent Jr. all able to get on the board. The Raptors seemed to pick up the intensity defensively as well, not letting anything too easy for the Jazz. A few missed shots by the Jazz allowed the Raptors to gradually build a small cushion.
About halfway through the quarter, the Raptors called for a stoppage to return the starters to the game. After the timeout, O.G. returned with an impressive steal and coast-to-coast dunk. The Raptors were able to shut down three consecutive Jazz possessions, and after a second dunk by O.G. out on the break, the Jazz called for their own timeout, finding themselves down by 16 as a result of the Raps’ run.
The Jazz looked more locked in out of the stoppage and managed to chip away at the deficit, led by Collin Sexton, but it wasn’t enough to bring them back into the game before the end of the half. In the fading minute of the quarter, Precious cut to the rim and caught a perfectly placed bounce pass from Scottie, posterizing Fontecchio in the process.
Scottie Barnes paused before a wide-open dunk a few seconds later, which may have drained the energy out of the Jazz because they were only able to cash in a few free-throws after that, with the Raptors heading to the locker room with a dominant 71-55 lead.
In the second half, Pascal came out looking to score, cashing in his first shot, but then having some difficulty finding the bottom of the basket on the next few. He didn’t give up, staying aggressive defensively and on the boards to prevent second chance opportunities for the Jazz.
Kelly Olynyk cashed in a 3 early to chip away at the lead, but despite their improved effort in the half, the Jazz were unable to make a meaningful dent in the lead still held by the Raptors. Pascal was able to get himself going finally, with a nice dunk to get the crowd going as well.
With more than six minutes remaining in the quarter, the Jazz found themselves in the penalty, creating the opportunity for the Raptors to dial up their offensive aggression, having committed only one foul of their own.
Utah certainly wasn’t willing to go away too easily, with continued effort from Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson to try and get within reach. Trent Jr. was able to connect on a pair of 3s as his improved shooting has continued in the last couple of games.
Fatigue was becoming a little bit apparent as the quarter came to a close, but they were able to hold on to a 13 point margin as time ticked away, ending the quarter 98-85.
The fourth quarter was rough, as it seemed like the Raptors were starting to lose their grit even before it started. After 5 quick points by the Jazz, Toronto called for a timeout to try and get reoriented.
Toronto did a good job of routing the ball to Scottie, but despite his early success, he had trouble making shots early in the frame. It wasn’t just Scottie though, as the shooting woes for the Raps plagued them once again, allowing Utah to claw back to within one possession after only a couple minutes.
Chris Boucher managed to keep the Raptors moving in a positive direction, with a much-needed 3-point shot and off-balance basket down low, but the continued disorganization from the Raptors led to another easy basket for the Jazz, tying up the game, and prompting an immediate timeout from Darko.
Unfortunately, the stoppage didn’t have the desired effect as the Raptors continued to let the game get away from them, shot by shot. With each 3-point shot drained by the Jazz, the energy continued to drain from the Raptors and the crowd.
With four minutes left, the Jazz called a timeout, and it felt like the Raps’ last chance to gain control again. A defensive stop and basket high off the window by Scottie offered some life, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the lead the Jazz started to build. By the end, a game of keep-away left the Raptors to fall for their third straight, heading into a four day break with plenty to think about.
Despite the tough loss, one of the most significant storylines of this game would be the Raptors’ improved shooting from beyond the arc. After a string of games shooting around or below 30% from long range, tonight was a significant and immediate need for the Raptors to regain form from distance.
The lack of spacing in those games continued to impact the offensive struggles Toronto has been having all season, and with the exception of the fourth quarter, the Raptors found some respite from that tonight as their shots started to connect more consistently.
Gary Trent Jr. was able to hit four tonight, as his shots continue to fall at a higher clip than earlier in the season, although his shot selection may still need to improve.
It was also an opportunity for us to see the potential of Scottie Barnes on full display, finishing the matchup with 32-14-7 to lead all scorers. He tied his highest-scoring quarter and career high in points.
He has continued to show improved shooting from beyond the arc, at a 50% clip tonight, along with a continuous energy defensively and securing rebounds which should place some hope in the hearts of fans as he continues to emerge as the obvious future of the franchise.
Despite those silver linings, lingering questions of lineups, the offence, and the direction of the franchise as a whole will continue to find their way into the conversation surrounding the Raptors.
After the game, Darko seemed to suggest that changing the lineup might be more cosmetic, rather than an actual solution, but as time wears on it is difficult not to question how trying something might be better than keeping the status quo.
Hopefully with a few days off, some rest and contemplation will help them bounce back. The next step for the Raptors will be to start a three game road trip in Washington on Dec. 27 against a 5-23 Wizards team where they will hopefully be able to secure a much-needed victory.