The Toronto Raptors finished up a pretty difficult stretch of schedule on Tuesday night, facing difficult circumstances on the road against the Indiana Pacers.

They arrived at 3 p.m. for a 7 p.m. tip after an extra two nights in Miami. Sleep schedules, practice schedules and game-day routines were sacrificed (and if you think those are small, take a circuitous route to work tomorrow and forego your morning coffee). It was anything but an ideal situation in which to try and slay the proverbial Goliath, for the second time in a week no less.

Six days after toppling the defensive behemoth, the Raptors fell 86-79 in a game that was at times ugly but never anything but entertaining. The past 15 games have been quite an experience for Raptors fans, flipping the script entirely from a tank-focused, blow-the-team-up attitude to a galvanized fanbase ready for a winning team.

No, the Raptors didn’t escape with a victory on Tuesday, nor did they in their Sunday visit to Miami. Make no mistake, though, losing two road games to Miami and Indiana – a combined 55-18 overall and 33-4 at home – by a combined 12 points is a major moral victory. They are confrontations lost but experience and confidence gained, and they’ve also shown that, even when not at their finest, this is a team that can compete with the best teams this league has to offer.

There is honor in that, insomuch as there is honor in regular season sporting events, and these two losses hardly hurt the 10-5 post-trade record. Statistically speaking, narrow road losses to elite teams portend future success. Morally speaking, this team is likely even more confident it “can hang” and – learned earlier – they can pull out tight games.

Before we get into some specifics, go check out Zarar’s quick reaction, which has pretty much all the detail you need.

Allow me two “key moments” if you will, moments that mattered little in the micro (individual plays, no big deal right?) but had a much more macro feel.

First, the game started out with Amir Johnson airballing a three and Roy Hibbert stripping the rebound from Jonas Valanciunas. If there was ever a bad omen to kick off a game, and an indication that Johnson and Valanciunas would struggle and Hibbert would be a force, this was it. All three of those things ended up being true.

Johnson would remain damn-near invisible for the night, missing a few easy buckets and losing his man on rebounds, uncharacteristic mistakes to be sure. He guarded David West well in one-on-one situations, but everything else seemed too complicated in this one. Everyone has bad days, and he’s been a house afire lately, so give him a pass.

Valanciunas, however, shirked in the Hibbert rematch. A few days after largely impressing, he let Hibbert’s physicality and the referee’s whistle get deep inside his head. Four turnovers are understandable and have come to be expected – and I really liked that Dwane Casey let him work through the struggles for 32 minutes, an absolute necessity as this team grows – but it was a bad, bad game. He’s getting the short end of the stick fairly often in post battles, but he’s a sophomore and, one would guess, developing a reputation as someone all too willing to let the ref know how he feels about that.

The other “key” was when, in the second quarter ,Kyle Lowry was fouled on a 3-point attempt and subsequently missed all three free throws. For a 78.7 percent career free throw shooter, this would be expected as a result less than one out of 100 times (assuming they are “independent” events and a binomial distribution, which is probably not 100 percent accurate but almost certainly 95 percent accurate).

I might be taking a bit of a journalistic liberty here, but I think that’s a pretty sound metaphor for the game the Raptors played here. They did the things that should lead to success – terrific defense, great effort, bench contributions, guys doing things beyond scoring if that wasn’t working – but the execution just wasn’t where it needed to be. Call it legs, credit Indiana or just chalk it up as a bad game, but shooting 37 percent (5-of-16 on threes) won’t cut it, even if you do a lot of other things well.

I thought Lowry had another excellent game, by the way, and at some point soon I may just re-post this ode to him I wrote at the beginning of last season. It’s actually hard at this point to remember Lowry as a “bad teammate,” especially when there’s no louder cheerleader from the bench and absolutely nobody who wants to win each possession more than him.

It’s probably a bit repetitive with the quick react from Big Z, but allow me a few notes on a couple of others as well.

DeMar DeRozan – Shot’s not falling? Get to the line. That’s a pretty simple formula for efficiency when the jumper dries up, and he also added six assists which is now becoming more the norm than anomaly (he’s averaging 4.5 assists since the Gay trade, having never averaged more than 2.5 before). On one play, he drew extra attention driving into the paint and hit 2-Pat with a perfect pass for an open corner three. His vision off the bounce has improved a great deal, something I’m hoping to talk to him about sometime soon.

Terrence Ross – One of our biggest criticisms of DeRozan in prior years was not being able to contribute if the shot wasn’t dropping. Ross went one-for-eight on Tuesday, so what’d he do? Impressed with his defense yet again, broke a few dishes in Paul George’s kitchen and grabbed eight boards and three steals. Shots won’t always fall, but if Ross can consistently contribute in other ways, they won’t always need to.

Patrick Patterson – 2-Pat has been a nice treat so far, a great addition to the bench unit. Will I ever get over the fact that he looks 40 years old? Probably not.

Greivis Vasquez – All I’m asking is for some patience with him. The jumper’s not falling, there appears to be an ankle issue, and he’s just better than this. He’s not a starting caliber point guard, mind you, but he’s better than this.

If you’re wondering why I’ve fragmented this post, it’s because I’m currently at 1,300 words and haven’t broken down a single play, something I (we?) normally like to include in post-games. However, with a pre-game bumping this at approximately noon, I’m going to forego that part of the analysis and pocket those for something on Thursday, perhaps.

If there are any plays in particular you found to be highlights or lowlights, pass them on to me on twitter (I’m bad for not reading comments).

With that “moral victory” of narrow defeat on anything but their best day to one of the league’s best team behind us, rest assured the moral victory claim is at its end.

Over the next several weeks, the schedule turns far more favorable. Five of the next six are at home, with only one of those coming against a winning opponent, and not until a west coast trip that begins Jan. 31 do the Raptors have any sustained adversity on the schedule (and even that five-gamer has non-back-to-back dates with Utah and Sacramento).

If this team is what we have started to believe they are – the third or fourth best team in the Eastern Conference, and a serious threat for the second round of the playoffs (in a non-evisceration, at that) – the time to strike is now. There is no greater value to be taken from a road loss in Boston or a home date with Orlando, no matter the circumstance.

It’s been a terrific 10-5 stretch, one that has reaffirmed the faith of many in fun, effort-driven, team basketball. The league has noticed that the Raptors may be for real, and these guys genuinely seem to trust and believe in each other.

Tight road losses to Miami and Indiana are worthy of a good ol’ ass-smoke blowing. Now it’s time to ride that moral high and put a collective foot on some throats.

  • mike, prague

    “Make no mistake, though, losing two road games to Miami and Indiana – a
    combined 55-18 overall and 33-4 at home – is a major moral victory.” … Didn’t you want to add something along the lines of “by a total of just 12 points” or something like that? Loosing is not a victory, unless if they hold on the whole ride.

    • BlakeMurphy

      Yes, of course.

  • afrocarter

    Perfect title. The last two losses have been very tough, and the team has gained a lot of respect around the league — but now the Raps need to get back to winning some games, especially on our home court & against “lesser” teams. If we’ve learned anything from Miami & Indiana, its that great teams (among other things) protect home court!

  • Quest

    you are right, the time to strike IS now, our next three are detroit, BK (sans dwill since espn says he is out for the week) and bucks. All at home. We could get 2 games above .500 and extend our lead in the atlantic, maybe even overtaking atlanta for 3rd seed in the conf. in the process!

    • Dr. Scooby

      I know I’m a killjoy, but the Raps have 1 more win than CHI, CHA & WAS, and 2 more wins than Detroit…why do Raps fan think that games against “the Pack” (13-17 wins) are likely wins for the Raps?

      • 2damkule

        probably because recent record is more relevant than overall record? if a team’s record is 10-10, but their 10 wins have been consecutive, then they’d be favoured in a game against another 10-10 team who wasn’t on such a winning streak, no?

      • Quest

        washington just ended a 3 game loosing streak, detroit has dropped 4 straight, charlotte recently ended a 5 game skid, chicago has lost what little offence they have in deng. raptors have won 10 of their last 15. recent success and momentum are very important in the nba. and since the raptors have had the hardest record in the east up till now and are better than those teams, puts them above the others by a good bit. this break in the schedule is therefore a perfect opportunity for the raps to win some games.

  • arsenalist

    I don’t like the term “moral victory” because if you look up the definition of moral and apply it to this context, it makes no sense.

    These are two losses where the team was tested against quality opposition and didn’t buckle like previous versions of the team have. The Pacers came into this looking to decapitate the Raptors and make a “statement” following their earlier loss. None of that happened and the Raptors were the ones that were up for this. Even though they weren’t at the best for reasons of fatigue or whatever, they still managed to stay in it through individual performances. DeRozan was superb in that third quarter, Ross’ defense was commendable, and Patterson was causing havoc for Scola et al.

    You look at how poor Johnson and Valanciunas were and it’s hard to see those two repeating this kind of performance in the same game. If they were even average last night (or if the Pacers weren’t so floppy), this could’ve been a win against all odds.

    On another note, I think Ross is doing a much better job of reading angles. He’s forcing guys to go on their weaker side, he’s anticipating their movement a lot better instead of just being up in their face, and he’s moving his feet instead of moving his arms. He missed a big three in the fourth quarter which would’ve cut it to six early with enough time, but hey, the fact that he took it with confidence and it rimmed out rather than air-balling it (which he was doing a month and a half ago) is a sign of progress.

    He’s obviously a good spot-up shooter but has suffered through nerves and a quick-hook so far in his brief career, good to see him paying back the coach.

    • BlakeMurphy

      So what’s the issue with the term moral victory, then? Most of what you described is taking positives from a loss…if that’s not the Webster definition, then we’re talking a case of the dictionary definition not necessarily matching the commonly accepted definition. Everything you described falls under the generally accepted category of a “moral victory” or whatever you want to call it.

  • SR

    Great point about the competitiveness/closeness of the last two road losses against two of the best home teams in the league.

    Also encouraging is that the reasons for the losses are easily correctable, as you mentioned. Everyone not named Lowry, DeRozan, or Patterson shot 6-32 against Indiana. That’s not going to happen again.

    Also, the Raps have managed to keep both games respectably close in spite of a terrible offensive 4th quarter in Miami and a terrible offensive game in Indiana. That’s a major development. The Raps haven’t been a team to do that in years.

    I’m very curious about the next stretch of the schedule. These guys have been fired up to play the top teams in the league over the past month (Spurs twice, OKC, Miami, and Pacers twice), which definitely lit a fire in the locker room. Will they be able to sustain the effort and intensity they’ve been showing in the coming weeks? The depths of January and February are the dregs of any NBA season – playing against a bunch of crap teams is really going to test the focus and professionalism of this new group. I think it’ll tell us just as much about this team as the OKC/Spurs/Heat/Pacers games.

  • ckh26

    So here we sit at the turn of the calender year and about 40% of the way through the schedule. Heres what I see.

    – We are a .500 ball club. Many did not see that in Sept/Oct. at this point in the season Checkmark
    – We are a younger ball club with upside. Not the case in Sept with AG and Rudeee and DJ. Checkmark
    – We have cap room in the offseason that we didn’t have in Sept / Oct to get better and deeper. – Checkmark
    – With Hansbrough not hurt and with a major bench upgrade from the Rudee trade Dwane has settled on a pretty good 9 man rotation that can compete with about 90% of the league – not the case in Sept / Oct – Checkmark
    – We see the playoffs as something we will have to stumble out of rather than battle to get into. Not somehting that was desired or shared in Sept / Oct. – Checkmark for the non tankers… Bad judgement for the tankers.

    – The enigma that was T.Ross is lifting. He can play in this league on both ends of the floor. Looking like a steal of a pick as opposed to Waiters or Robinson or Kidd – Gilchrist. who went in front of him.- But we coulda had Drummond.- Small checkmark.
    -JV better on some nights and awkward on others. BIg men take longer. We have to be patient. – Checkmark

    – Demar emerges as more than we thought he could be. Anyone who gets better year over year is a keeper. Unless the offer is a mindblower ( a first and a starter who is younger than DD) – Checkmark
    – Amir is Amir. Solid game in and game out. Pencil it in. Last night was an aberation. – Checkmark

    So to this point .. whats not to like.

    And now… the “but” . We need to address the elephant in the room that is Kyle Lowry. He makes this unit go right now and a trade will certainly put us in a position to stumble and miss the post season if he is dealt. If the decision is to sign him to an extension this can’t wait much longer either. Either choice is good. One will be better. MU will earn his bucks and enhance is reputation on this decision.

    • Mackenzie

      I feel like Lowry’s a perfect fit for this team; hard-nosed, aggressive and tough for a lead guard. Not afraid to take charges and/or dive into the lane and make plays. I think they should re-sign him to an extension; the market for point guards is going to be pretty scarce is off-season. Darren Collison and Mario Chalmers are the only players I can see being even remotely capable of replacing Lowry in 2014-2015.

  • Nilanka15

    Up next, we’ve got Detroit, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, @Boston, Minnesota, Lakers, and @Charlotte.

    Dare I say, a 7-game winning streak?

    • Dr. Scooby

      I wonder if a 4-3 record during this stretch will be considered a disappointment

      • Nilanka15

        It might be.

        5-2, might look a tad nicer.

        • Dr. Scooby

          Do you think Brooklyn is coming out of their funk?

          • Quest

            dwill is our for at least a week, so i think they will resume their loosing ways against the red hot warriors tonight

          • ckh26

            No.. Brooklyn is still old.. still coached by a guy who isn’t quite sure of the job and has reggie evans as a top rotational player… Still think they are sub .500 when the year is over..

          • Nilanka15

            Yeah, agree with Quest. DWill’s ankles have been messed up all season. It’s hard to envision the Nets developing any real chemistry while he trots in and out of the lineup.

        • JayTeam

          I was thinking 5-2 as well. This team is too thin to expect better.

    • GetLicks

      Ya crazy bastard, I like it tho

      • ckh26

        I’d love it to… Think 6 and 1 is not unreasonable. Toughest games will be Minny and tonite .. Not becaue of Detroit.. but because of the schedule and circumstances. The gods have to smile on us once this year against Charlotte…
        The Lakers are on life support .. The bucks are fighting with each other.Boston will be reeling after their west coast “ofer” and Brooklyn is give or take worse than us even with DWil and we’re at home.

    • what the

      welcome aboard Nilanka 15, I thought you were going to stay outside in that cold tank with Tim W,come on in it’s nice and cuddley here at Raptorland pullup a chair,now you were saying something about a 7 game winning streak please go on I’m getting this tinggle feeling up and down my legs.happy belated birthday to Nilanka jr. and double down on that root beer DD will be an allstar this year.

  • JayTeam

    Found an interesting discussion of Vasquez on the Cowbell website from the Pelican websites POV.

    http://cowbellkingdom.com/2013/09/30/perspectives-greivis-vasquez/

    • ckh26

      Nice find there. Think its accurate portrayal. of Vasquez and why we traded for him. Solid guy in the room. Good attitude. Yeah he has his shortcomings on the defensive end but we got him to back up Kyle and get his 15-18 mins a nite and hold the fort while the number one rests. He is an upgrade over what we had.

      • http://www.facebook.com/asifyouknow Al Asifyouknow

        Johnathan Santiago has no clue to most things he talks about, in my opinion, so if you are using that as a guide to judge, take another look.
        His type of game takes time to establish, the other night vs Detroit should of been a 8 assist night for him, in 18 minutes! just got done watching the replay and noted the fallowing, in a stretch of about five minutes he set up 5 easy shots, not three pointers but easy open bucket shots (some right under) that were missed.
        No stats for that of course, and since I do watch replays of every game I can tell you that happens often. No doubt he is struggling with coming of the bench and scoring. I think he had happy feet, I see now he is setting his feet for the threes so he will start to hit his shots soon.
        In Sacramento he was playing with a bunch of selfish players who did’t want to play the passing game. Cuzz, Thorton and Thomas wanted to be Michael Jordan and yet Vaz still had decent scoring and about 6 assists.
        As for defense, hell that is over rated at the guard spot, Westbrook, Wade, Parker, Mano , Rondo, Conley, Lowry, K. Erving, ETC ETC will get their points night after night, there is no such thing in the NBA as in the NFL “shut down corner” all one can do is hope for good interior defense, that is why some guards look so good defending …like Parker and Mano.
        As the author said, just give it some time, the guy will reward you in the end, specially when the playoff run comes.
        The guy is no bum, the only player in the history of the ACC with over 2000 points over 700 assists and over 600 rebounds. I don’t know if Santiago knows this but the ACC got a history of some good players…lol…and by the way that slow turtle torched some of the best point guards in the nation…just saying.
        Give the guy a chance before you fans blast him. everywhere he has been his teammates love the guy,(except Sacramento) they guy is a few month off foot surgery, he will recover, and if not this year next year someone will get a healthy A-1 back-up point guard that will be a premium with all the FANCY PG (lol) getting hurt,

  • Roarque

    Blake, love the comment about 2Pat’s age issue. He’s like the guy we hung with as teenagers in the summer cause he could always buy beer at the Beer Store in Lakefield.
    Then I heard him being interviewed and realized he’s articulate and keen to contribute. AND he’s 24 (not 42) which means he could be a big part of the future.
    BTW – PsychoT is needed. Tyler please come back, all is forgiven!

    • tonious35

      The difference in the graduate class of UK Wildcats in 2010 between [J.Wall and D.Cousins] vs. [E.Bledsoe & P.Patterson] was the hype-talent and not mature vs. the modest and work-working.

      • ckh26

        Absolutely bang on. Wall and Boogie got their money but they don’t make anyone around them better. Wall in short sample sizes seems to be selfish as a player and Cousins appears to be something between a temper tantrum and an idiot. Anyone who has ever played on a team where the supposedly best player is a headcase will attest that the thinking is more along the lines of how do I get out of here rather than long term how do I make this work and win.

  • Rap fan 2

    There’s also the Tyler Hansbrough factor. I think he would have made an impact in both the Miami and at Indiana games. “It is what it is”. The Raptors are just not quite there yet to dominate the elite teams. They didn’t have there “A” games, especially Amir and Jonas. We need more development and talent level.

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