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On the Third Quarter Thrashings

Third quarters have not been copacetic.

How difficult would it be to sneak a probe into the Toronto Raptors locker room at halftime? What wonders would we behold? Does the team perform karaoke? Do they not speak at all and get lost in daydreams? Do they play poker?

Whatever it is the Raptors do in that locker room, it needs to change.

When the team last played the New York Knicks (whom they’d defeated handily only five days prior), they led 59–48 at halftime. A comfortable margin, especially when the Raps had built up an understandable level of confidence after their last meeting. But that confidence swiftly faded as the third quarter began—the Knicks ratcheted up their intensity and the Raps failed to meet it, turning the ball over and ceasing the beautiful passing and ball movement they’d displayed earlier in the game. Suddenly, things were unraveling into an all-time spiral, with Toronto giving up 41 points in the quarter and scoring a mere 10 of their own.

Needless to say, it is now a franchise record.

Sadly, this was not and continues not to be an isolated incident. Over their last 10 games, the Raptors have only had a positive plus-minus in the third quarter twice—once against the New Orleans Pelicans and once against the lowly Atlanta Hawks. In fact, the team has only had a plus-minus better than +10 three times all season. On average, they give up 28.5 points per game in the period, good for 27th in the league.

It’s a truly bizarre thing to watch, mostly because the Raptors are a very good second and fourth quarter team.

Per NBA.com, Toronto has outscored its opponents in 11-straight second quarters, averaging 30.6 points and shooting 53.9 per cent from the floor. They also boast an NBA-leading  +6.8 scoring margin (Utah is second in this regard with a +3.3), and are a defensive powerhouse, holding opposing teams to 23.8 points and 42.5 per cent shooting in the frame. They have the league’s second-best defensive rating in the frame (94.8), the best net rating (25.7), the fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.79), and the best true shooting percentage (65).

Here’s something even more strange: The Raptors’ current starting lineup of Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyle Lowry have an incredible offensive rating of 129.7 and defensive rating of 90.1 in second quarters. But in third quarters? That same lineup suddenly has the sixth-worst defensive rating (129.1) of units that have played at least 20 total minutes together, as well as the eighth-worst net rating (-26.3).

Evidently, it’s not the lineups that are the issue. It’s simply a matter of the team not playing with the resolve they were in the second quarter (and then typically return to in the fourth). Everything has looked so lethargic to start third quarters that one might think the pace the Raps are playing at drops off significantly, but that’s untrue—instead, the pace actually increases slightly. In second quarters, Toronto plays with the 17th-fastest pace in the league, and in third quarters they escalate to playing the 15th-fastest.

This may be due in part to the amount of turnovers and therefore fast breaks that occur as the opposing team seems to switch places with the Second Quarter Raps. When opponents turn up their defensive pressure to start the third (usually because they are behind by a fair margin), the Raptors don’t respond well. Seeing their open, simple passes now cut off, they become stagnant and still until either Lowry or DeRozan try to bail the team out, or the ball is stolen off of a bad pass or a move into traffic. Toronto’s assist-to-turnover ratio during this time drops to 14th (1.46) in the league, far off from their aforementioned second quarter rank.

Of course, that’s not the only drop-off Toronto deals with in third quarters. The most major plummet lies in their defensive rating—falling from their spot at second-best in the NBA to the worst spot at 30th overall (115.3). And again, this appears largely to be the product of lackadaisical effort—reacting sluggishly on rotations, not boxing out, arriving late on closeouts, getting caught on or beneath screens during switches. All things that were handled perfectly well during the 12 minutes prior. 

The whole thing looks like an Invasion of the Bodysnatchers-type scenario. The Raptors just lack the energy in third quarters that they apparently are able to muster throughout the rest of the game. It leads to sloppy plays and less overall movement such that opponents are able to fight their way back into games (often within the first few minutes) and, consequently, kickstart the Raps into playing hard again to try and close things out.

So whatever it is the Raptors do in their locker room during halftime, whether it be karaoke or poker or something else, they better find something to replace it, because these third quarter efforts have cost them games and, if nothing changes, could very well cost them more in the future.

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