Reality Check: Cousins, Kings crown Raps

A dismal effort in a trap game. Still… 8 of 10 isn’t so bad, right?

Ah, so that’s what it feels like to watch our team lose ugly. And I’d almost forgotten…

Kidding aside, tonight’s game seemed on paper to be a prototypical trap game for the Raps, what with the increasingly impressive string of wins, being favoured by 6.5 in Vegas (their best odds of the season), and a measuring stick game with powerhouse Oklahoma City looming on the weekend. Even Blake couldn’t hide his enthusiasm in our pre-game post, picking the Raptors to win by a comfortable margin. Suffice to say, things were so good in RaptorLand that even the most jaded of fans (and I absolutely include myself) had forgotten for a second that we were watching a 12-20 team, albeit one on a great run, as of late. Tonight, then, is what we call a “reality check,” and not a pretty one, unfortunately. Before I go any further, click here for the Quick Reaction and some brief comments on each of the Raptors’ individual performances.

The elephant in the room tonight for the Kings, quite literally, was DeMarcus Cousins, and he really did run rampant over the Raptors frontline in just about every fashion imaginable, ending up with an insane 31-20 line that really does do justice to the extent he loomed over everything in this game. The Raps began the game by rotating both Gray and Davis on him, both with no success for different reasons – Davis for his lack of strength, and Gray for his slow feet. Within a quarter, both Amir and Gray were in serious foul trouble and Davis had been largely neutered on the defensive end, and that was all due to Boogie in the early going. As we’ve seen during the season with Monroe, Duncan, and now Cousins twice, this Raptor teams’ kryptonite is a big man with a varied offensive game, as every Raptor big has different flaws on the defensive end, and any player who can exploit a few of them is bound to have a big game against us until Jonas puts on some strength, unfortunately.

One more quick note on Cousins: man, oh man, does he have a quick first step for a big man. The way he was able to blow by Davis from the elbow was really something to see, and if he does get moved, as the swirling rumours have indicated, the Kings had better get an absolute haul for him.

Don’t take that last paragraph as an indication that the Raptor bigs played well, but were helpless due to Cousins’ impressive play, though. The first half for Toronto was largely defined by inconsistent defence, punctuated by a lack of blocking out for our post-players. Sure, Davis wound up with 13 rebounds on the night (10 in the first half), but a lot of those were due to his energetic play during the Raps’ second quarter stretch of strong play, when he was the only big on the floor, as well as a healthy amount of offensive boards (5 in total). Multiple times, the Raptors seemed to forget that the play wasn’t over after the shot went up, and Cousins was simply left alone to slip into position underneath the hoop and grab the offensive board.

Even early on, though, it seemed apparent that the Raptors were going to have to let Cousins get his and focus on stopping the rest of the Kings, and the effort by our wing defenders tonight was inconsistent at best, as well. I spoke in the Quick Reaction about the Raptors looking to go one-on-one on the offensive side of the ball, and, for the most part, it seemed like they were content to do that on defence, as well – the help D was really lacking tonight, which is unfortunate given the great effort the team’s put forth on that end recently. As Casey has said, a team’s identity is established on the defensive end, and early on, the Raps looked sluggish and disinterested there – and it slowly permeated to the other aspects of their game. Maybe they were caught up in the hype, too.

We did go into the tunnel only down 1, though, and you couldn’t help but feel watching the game that if the Raptors could keep the game this close playing this poorly that a quick swing would put them over the top. The Raptors’ success on offense in the first half can be largely attributed to a great run by the bench in the 2nd quarter (which, fittingly, coincided with Cousins’ only extended stretch on the Kings bench until garbage time) that was fueled by the Raps deciding to settle down, play team ball, and, most importantly, take the ball through the lane. Alan Anderson and the resurgent Landry Fields were the primary culprits, with Lowry playing his now-expected distributor/outside threat role to a T. Here’s Fields and Anderson’s shot chart in the 2nd quarter, which is a pretty solid indicator of what I’ll always say is this team’s best chance to win ball games when outside shots aren’t falling consistently:

Really, this was the only time in the ball game that the Raptor wings were able to take the ball to the hoop with any consistency – I don’t know if that was due to imposing presences in the lane like Cousins and Thompson, but it sure seemed like poor choices on O were the name of the game tonight. DeRozan in particular had a couple of really ugly drives early on which made me cringe, though he was far from the only culprit.

The third quarter, though, was where this game was lost, and was also where the any semblance of ball movement on the offensive end seemingly disappeared. The Raps were outscored 28-10 in the quarter, and the eye test pointed to way too much one-on-one play as the culprit, while the numbers back it up. Here’s what I’m talking about:

  • One assist in the quarter
  • 8 missed threes (most of those thrown up early in the shot clock or contested)
  • 6 turnovers
  • The team’s shooting percentage in the game falling from 49 to 36

Add it up and you have one of the ugliest quarters of basketball Raptor fans have seen in a month. The whole thing was punctuated by a few plays where the Raptors just looked futile, throwing uncontested passes over halfcourt, or having four players go after a defensive rebound against zero Kings… and still losing the ball out of bounds. It was an ugly one, and despite a valiant effort in the fourth to bring the game back into range, particularly by Kyle Lowry, who showed his indomitable will once again tonight, the game was essentially over after that.

Even after a string of excellent performances such as the Raptors’ last month, a loss like this can have fans beginning to ask questions right away – was the streak really a product of the schedule? Was it a fluke? What can we take away from a game like this? Luckily, you’ve come to a Raptors blog, where we occasionally have answers to questions like this, so let me give you my quick thoughts:

  • Let’s not push the panic button just yet. Sure, tonight’s squad looked a lot like the Raptors of November, but we’ve still won 8 of 10 games and are in the midst of a push for a playoff spot. It’d be foolhardy to assume that a young, flawed team like the Raps will win every game they’re expected to, and, given their performance of late, they deserve the benefit of the doubt that this is the exception, not the rule.
  • Sure, the streak was partially due to a soft schedule, but it’s impossible to watch the games of the last month and not think that the Raptors are playing a completely different game than the ones that contributed to our awful start. Yes, tonight was a return to form, but chucking and lazy defence can also be attributed to a team simply taking a game off. I have a feeling our players’ egos may have been artificially inflated by success, and a game like this (as well as a coach like Casey) are good reminders that the Raps can’t expect wins, no matter the opponent. They have to earn it each and every night. As he reminded us at halftime, these Raptors haven’t accomplished anything yet, and a tough loss like this might be a blessing in disguise, as well as a reaffirmation of the style of play that has been working over the past month.

Finally, a couple of positive takeaways from the game, because I focused so much on the negatives earlier:

  • Kyle Lowry is a real leader. He might not know exactly when to do it just yet, but you couldn’t have asked for a better effort in the fourth quarter with the team down 19 and threatening to quit on the game altogether. Sure, he might need to pick his spots a bit better, but that’ll come with experience, and there are few guys in the NBA who have both the ability and the cajones to put a team on their back and try to drag them across the finish line. He’s a work in progress, like the rest of this Raptor team, but it’s an important piece for this team to have any sustained success, both in this season and down the road.
  • Landry Fields continued his impressive play after his return from injury, finishing with a 6 and 5 line that doesn’t really do justice to just how disruptive he was to the Kings in the 2nd quarter, when he finished 3 consecutive plays in the lane against the slower Chuck Hayes. He’s quickly morphing into a jack-of-all-trades player for the Raps, and it’s scary to think where the Raptors’ interior defence would be lately without his and Anderson’s contributions on that end.
  • Quincy Acy finally got into the game for more than 3 minutes, and provided some infectious effort that had the bench buzzing, even though he missed a couple of bunnies and was burned on defensive switches repeatedly. Where he does look very solid, even in the very early stages of his development, is with his man-to-man defence – he was able to stifle Cousins when he had position on him, which is far more than the other Raptor bigs can say. Sure, he’s a few years away, and a rotation player at best, but it was both a feel-good moment for him to get some run and nice to see him flash potential that he may be an above-average NBA player at even one single skill, which is all you can ask from your deep bench guys.

OKC is up next on Sunday. Bring ’em on.

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