“It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”
That was Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey (via Koreen of the Post) following Sunday’s 121-113 loss at home to the Phoenix Suns. And, well, he’s right, but it’s tough not to feel the sting from this one. The team has still won eight of its past 11, and Casey is certainly right that “we weren’t going to go undefeated the rest of the way,” but it’s disappointing nonetheless.
On home court, with fair rest, against a team that’s been struggling on the defensive end, and with a handful of opportunities to close the gap in the second half, the Raptors just didn’t have enough in the tank to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.
Blame the defense, foremost, because even against a team with this much firepower in a game that was played at breakneck pace, surrendering 121 points when you’re a defensive-minded playoff team is terrible. The Suns had 101 possessions, meaning they scored 120 points per 100. That’s 12 percent more than the Suns’ eighth-ranked offense normally scores, and 18 percent more than the seventh-ranked Raptors’ defense normally allows. A bad game, sure, but it’s tough to point to any outing except perhaps the pair against the Los Angeles Clippers where the defense struggled for so long to figure out the opponent’s attack. Only in the last 4:54 of the game, where the Raptors got seven stops in 11 trips, did the defense really kick in.
And, of course, it was too little, too late at that point.
I noticed some on Twitter or in comments that were critical of Casey’s lineups in this one, and I think it goes to show how badly this team needs Patrick Patterson to be effective. P-Pat isn’t exactly an all-world defender, but his absence means an awful lot of Steve Novak, a proposition that only helps on one end of the floor (Novak has, on occasion, acquitted himself well on defense, but the Suns are simply too athletic and rangy at the four). With Tyler Hansbrough also seemingly in the doghouse (and playing like he deserved to stay there on Sunday), the frontcourt rotation is woefully thin without Patterson.
What’s Casey to do? With Hansbrough struggling and Novak a general liability on one end, his options become Chuck Hayes, who doesn’t exactly fit this style of play, going mega-small with John Salmons as a third wing (and man, did he play like trash on Sunday), or dusting off Landry Fields. Fields hasn’t played in five straight and has earned just three minutes since his promising outing against the Warriors, so maybe it’s time to check in with Mr. Alden once again.
At the very least, Patterson is set to be re-evaluated on Monday, and hopefully he’ll be back in the lineup in short order. As rotations tighten up in the playoffs, he’s a crucial piece as the team’s third big.
In any case, the Raptors had chances and squandered them.
Trailing just 61-59 at half, the Raptors stumbled out of the break and found themselves down 84-70 midway through the third quarter. From there, it was mini-run after mini-run, only for each to stop a little short. To wit:
3rd, 5:46 – 70-84 – The Raptors go on 16-4 run over 4:08 before Amir Johnson fouls Markieff Morris. Novak and Salmons enter for the usual “rest Johnson and DeMar DeRozan for late third and early fourth” subs. At that point, Lowry had that incredible sequence where he missed a layup and saved his own board going out of bounds, only for Salmons to miss a wide-open three. Back the other way, Bledsoe gets fouled in transition – the Raptors actually held the Suns to 14 fast break points, which feels low but that’s what the box score tells us – and the Suns start a mini 14-4 run that takes us into the fourth.
4th, 10:32 – 90-102 – Once again trailing by double-digits, the Raptors come up with several stops in a row, holding Phoenix scoreless for 2:25. Unfortunately, the Raptors go 0-for-4 with a turnover themselves, completely wasting the surprising defensive run.
4th, 8:07 – 90-104 – The team can’t stop Gerald Green during this stretch, as he scores eight points in a minute. The Raptors hit four straight shots plus a technical free throw but make up just a single point. Kind of like with the previous chunk of time, it appears only one end of the floor works at a time.
4th, 5:58 – 99-112 – Once again, the Suns go nearly three minutes getting shut down, with a lone Goran Dragic floater falling. The Raptors trim the lead to seven over this stretch, but Jeff Hornacek’s timeout completely kills the flow.
4th, 4:07 – 107-114 – You just can’t go 3:33 in crunch time making a single bucket, sorry. Turnover, basket, missed jumper on an ISO mismatch, turnover (more on this one in a second), missed three (rushed pull-up), missed jumper (early clock pull-up with a man open in the corner). The defense may have been alright (though they missed a Morris box-out assignment, costing two points), but the offense was rushed and sloppy.
At that point, you’re down nine with 37 seconds left, and there’s not much you can do from there.
It’s an unfortunate loss, and one that felt winnable all through the fourth. Phoenix has a terrific offense, better than anything the Raptors will see in the first round of the playoffs, but the inability to defend for more than three-minute stretches was frustrating. DeRozan taking the night off on both ends was frustrating, too, though at least Terrence Ross made decent use of the cross-matching advantage. A 19-rebound deficit is also inexcusable against a completely average rebounding team, and only grabbing four offensive boards certainly makes things more difficult on the offensive end.
As usual, Lowry was the best Raptor on the floor (though all non-DeRozan starters played well offensively), which leads me to my biggest gripe about this game.
With 1:37 left to play, Lowry grabbed a defensive rebound and fell after getting tangled. P.J. Tucker then did this:
I get that it was a loose ball and maybe hard to see, but that definitely should have been a foul, not two points for the Suns, as it turned out to be. But that’s not the gripe.
After taking a knee to the head and laying on the ground for minutes, Lowry stayed in the game.
Not to sound soft, but there is simply no explaining this to me. He took a knee to the head and was clearly hurt. I don’t care if it was still a nine-point game with 97 seconds left, get him the hell off the court and properly evaluated. I’d say something like “he’s your best player and you need him healthy for the playoffs, and you were unlikely to win anyway” but it’s even simpler than that – he took a blow to the head and was hurt. Get him off the damn court and get him properly evaluated. I don’t care how tough you are, concussions are serious stuff (trust me). No single game is worth risking a player’s health, especially when it comes to the brain.
Think Lowry was fine? Once again, Koreen provides the quote, this time from Lowry:
“I got kneed in the head, bad. I got a headache right now. This [camera] light’s killing me right now. But I’m all right, though.”
It wrinkles the brain that in 2014 a player can take a knee to the head, require several minutes to shake it off and remain in a game. Maybe Lowry can talk to James Reimer about how to play through a concussion. Cue the comments about me not being tough or not understanding Lowry’s desire to win or whatever, but it makes zero sense to me that you would leave Lowry in the game after that.
Regardless, the Raptors lost and they’ll now head out on a quick road back-to-back Tuesday (Atlanta) and Wednesday (New Orleans). Both winnable games, even with the travel and quick turnaround, and they’ll need it with Chicago now just a half-game back for third (and the five-six situation not clear enough yet to prefer one spot to the other).