Raptors lose frustrating contest against Pistons

Not a great night for Mr. Hashtag NBA Ballot. I’m sick to my stomach over this loss. You should be too. It was a stinker. I have pages of notes about how well the Raptors were playing in the first half. Had the game ended right there, this recap would be littered with GIFs of how…

Not a great night for Mr. Hashtag NBA Ballot.

I’m sick to my stomach over this loss. You should be too. It was a stinker.

I have pages of notes about how well the Raptors were playing in the first half. Had the game ended right there, this recap would be littered with GIFs of how the Raptors played perhaps their most complete half of the season against the Pistons.

Good Lou Williams showed up, driving and pillaging whenever he wanted. Williams didn’t just blindly launch shots. He picked his spots when they were presented to him. He attacked in transition, he attacked Joel Anthony when he got him on a switch and best of all, when the Pistons’ defense clamped down, he found open shooters like Greivis Vasquez for threes.

Good Amir Johnson showed up too, if only for the first half. Johnson settled the Raptors’ defense and freed up space for the Raptors’ guards to operate. He ripped down a few tough rebounds in traffic, which was promising because he’s been so poor on the glass for much of the season. There were even a few sweet alley-oop dunks and pick-and-roll finishes.

Improbably, even Good Greivis Vasquez showed up. His shot was pure as he connected on 7-of-9 field goal attempts. He had his fair share of head-scratching decisions (a wayward alley-oop pass to Jonas Valanciunas comes to mind) but he almost single-handedly kept the Raptors’ offense afloat with nine points in the fourth quarter.

Finally, good God Jonas Valanciunas showed up and proceeded to lay the wood on the Pistons. You can always tell when Valanciunas is going to have a good game by how he performs in the first quarter. Valanciunas played like a man possessed out the gate, outmuscling the Pistons’ behemoth frontcourt. He raced down the floor in transition, he fought for and won deep post position and his finishing touch was on-point. It wasn’t just the standard post ups with Valanciunas on the right block, either. He knew where to situate himself to get open and recorded a double-double by halftime. God Valanciunas finished with a career-high 31 points on 14-of-15 shooting, while recording 12 rebounds and a block in 36 minutes of thorough dominance.

And yet, even with healthy Amir for a half, even with Lou Williams making the right calls, even with Vasquez’s hot hand, even with Valanciunas’s incredible performance, the Raptors lost to the Pistons 114-111.

When I had originally sat down to write this recap, I had more than just a sour feeling in my stomach. I had fire in my belly, ready to torch the Raptors for dropping a game in which they held a 12-point advantage at halftime in the ACC.

But I’ve come down a bit, and I’m now just stuck on how the Raptors keep making the same mistakes, over and over again.

I know many readers don’t like it when the writers shine the light on the Raptors’ problems, especially not amiss a potential franchise-high in wins this season. But the same things just keep cropping up. Things like Kyle Lowry hijacking the offense in close contests, things like Lowry struggling to cover quick guards, things like the Raptors’ overactive defense being bested by patient and clever offenses, things like Dwane Casey going away from what had worked, and trotting out inventive (if not stupid) lineups. These are themes that we have touched upon all season.

Let’s go in order, starting with Lowry. On a night in which the Raptors handed out 20,000 “Vote Kyle Lowry #NBABallot” pins, the little motor that had powered the Raptors all season broke down. He started off well, making a number of clever passes and routinely finding the open man. Lowry recorded eight assists in the first seven minutes as the Raptors’ offense was positively buzzing.

But then it all went to shit. Emboldened by gambles that paid off, Lowry started testing his luck. It was fine when he was playing with house money (what’s an errant alley-oop pass in a double-digit lead?) but when that ran dry, like an addled gambler, Lowry just kept raising the stakes. He started taking pull-up long twos. He started to gambling for steals. He started hoisting 28-foot threes.

Hell-bent on recouping his winnings, Lowry forgot he was a point guard and lost the game for the Raptors. I’m not turning my back on Lowry over one game. The man is our MVP and the Raptors would be knee-deep in a tankjob had he not emerged as the unlikely white knight last season. I’m not being petty, I promise. Not with Lowry.

But he lost the game for the Raptors, especially in the fourth quarter. He took nine shots (making three) and committing two turnovers, while the trio of James Johnson, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas (who earned fourth quarter minutes only to be ignored entirely) attempted just four shots in total. Valanciunas was clearly the hot hand, but he attempted just two shots (making both), one of which was a putback — ironically off a missed shot from Lowry.

There was also Lowry’s defense on Brandon Jennings, which was laughably bad. Lowry has struggled all season in checking quick guards, which is understandable given his heavy usage on offense. No one can blame Lowry for taking the intensity down a few notches in the regular season while DeMar DeRozan is out. But he allowed Jennings to probe the paint at will and in the process, put his bigs between a rock and a hard place on pick-and-rolls in needing to check both players. To be fair, Jennings torched whomever Casey assigned to check him, but Lowry did nothing to slow him. Jennings finished with 34 points, 10 assists and just two turnovers. Lowry counted with 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting, 12 assists and seven turnovers.

On the topic of defense, the Raptors were terrible, yet again, posting a defensive rating of 113.3. Sadly, that’s actually a marginal improvement over their last 23 games, in which the Raptors boast the third-worst defensive numbers in the league. Their gamble-heavy, help-happy scheme worked reasonably well in the first half, but completely fell apart in the second half. Shooters were left wide open repeatedly as the Raptors scrambled themselves into exhaustion. Their unsettled defense also led to an inordinate number of free throws for the Pistons. Detroit was happy to merely sit back and take whatever was given to them, which was more than plenty.

Their defensive woes dared Casey into being inventive in his futile search for answers. Hindsight is 20/20, but myopic foresight was the problem. Trying to find answer is understandable, but lineups like playing Tyler Hansbrough at small forward, or asking 250-pound James Johnson to check 160-pound waterbug Brandon Jennings was just silly. That’s to say nothing of shunning Valanciunas either, but it’s unclear as to whether that was a lack of coaching directive, or insubordination by Lowry.

Alas, it’s one loss in a long season. It’s probably best to not get too hung up. But it’s incredibly frustrating to see the Raptors try — and fail — for the same reasons, over and and over again. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction, I promise. There are season-long problems that need to be corrected.