Underdog 905 still can’t slay Goliath, lose to Sioux Falls for 5th time in 3 weeks

I’m no palm reader but / I doubt that’s the sign I was looking for.
Raptors 905 101, Sioux Falls Skyforce 102 | Box Score

When Bubu Palo (Bubu Palo!!) is hitting circus shots like this, it might not be your night.
It felt like it should have been their night, they being Raptors 905. They were coming out of the D-League Showcase, where they lost two tight games but showed marked improvement as a team despite an absence of NBA assignees. It was their fifth game against the Sioux Falls Skyforce in 22 days, and it seemed the basketball gods maybe owed the 905 one for putting them up against the league’s best team so often. The Skyforce were obliging, too, as they were without their top three players in Jarnell Stokes, Josh Richardson, and DeAndre Liggins.

What was an uneven start turned into a really strong second half, with the 905 showing serious resiliency. They had come back from down as many as 17 in the first half, tying the game late in the third after more than 24 minutes of trailing. They’d lose the handle a bit to end the quarter, entering the fourth stuck seven, but they quickly responded and cut the lead back down to one. With 9:03 to play, the game seemed set to be a back-and-forth to close.

The 905 didn’t have the greatest of offensive nights overall – they shot 42 percent from the floor and were saved some by strong nights from outside (9-of-15) and at the line (22-of-24) – but they ran a few nice actions early in the fourth to take advantage of Sim Bhullar’s presence. Bhullar can’t do a lot of things on the offensive end yet, but he can be very big, which makes decisions for defenders tough. Knowing this, head coach Jesse Mermuys ran Axel Toupane off of Bhullar screens on a pair of quick sideline out-of-bounds plays, resulting in five quick points.
For every push the 905 made, they got in their own way some, too. It went back and forth, to be sure, but the game began oscillating between 905 turnover and Skyforce transition bucket. Shannon Scott had an up-and-under erased by Nigel Spikes, leading to a big Jabril Trawick jam the other way, and that seemed to let panic set in. A post-entry pass was picked off and led to a Rodney McGruder dunk the other way. Scott Suggs lost the handle attacking a closeout that led to an easy layup for McGruder. A Scott drive-and-kick essentially acted as a Sioux Falls outlet pass, forcing a foul in transition. Another attempt to get a big involved led to two the other way.
Quickly, the 905 were back down 11. The second they showed renewed resistance, on a Ronald Roberts jam, the Skyforce called a timeout to settle things. Keith Benson returned to help stabilize the offense, hitting a tough free-throw jumper, and then Melvin Johnson threw a post-entry pass for Roberts out of bounds.

And yet they still wouldn’t say die, continuing to fight and finally finding some footing on defense. Back-to-back Johnson threes, a great defensive play by Suggs on a Tre Kelley drive, and Greg Smith hitting the floor to turn a lost defensive rebound into a jump ball all helped cut the lead to three. Toupane threw a drive-and-kick out of bounds and things seemed all too familiar, but the 905 got a quick stop and a pair of Roberts free throws cut the lead to one. Palo dished to Benson for a clean pivotal free-throw jumper but it rimmed out, and the 905 called a timeout to set up for a winner.

Down 102-101 with 5.2 seconds to play, here’s how the 905 came out of the timeout:
That would be a baseline mid-range jumper for Suggs, generally their most reliable shot-maker. It’s a similar look to one the Raptors will sometimes use to get DeMar DeRozan that shot in a short-clock situation, and it’s one the 905 have used for Suggs late in the past (it’s tough to get an exact feel given the change in camera angle).

Raptors fans will surely cringe at that look, but the reality is that the 905 don’t have great options late. Have Suggs drive in isolation and teams can over-help in the paint because the 905 don’t have bigs who reliably stretch the floor, not enough to keep a team from loading at the rim on a final possession. Have Suggs drive-and-kick and he has one reliable option in Johnson. There are pick-and-roll options, and Roberts is dangerous on the dive, but the 905 have often struggled with sloppy pocket passes or turnovers in those situations. The team opted to get their most natural scorer a mid-range look. It wasn’t a terrible shot. Scott might have been able to draw the foul after the pump-fake, though leaning in and sacrificing the quality of the shot would be a major risk. Ideally, the play’s a little more creative, but Mermuys would probably tell you Suggs on the baseline from a reasonable distance was the shot they wanted, and they got it.

It has to be a gut-wrenching loss. The team’s been playing better and better incrementally, but the wins remain evasive. They’re now on an eight-game losing streak, dead last in the league, and despite getting closer and closer in five meetings against a true measuring stick, all they have coming out of it is moral victories. But hey, moral victories is for minor league coaches, in the words of Jay, so maybe Mermuys will be able to rally his team around more intangible improvements.
As always, there were positives. Roberts, who is passing up an offer from Maccabi Tel Aviv to stay in the D-League a while longer, was tough for the Skyforce to contain inside, and while Benson (24-and-6) got his, too, Roberts (26-and-9) decidedly won the matchup, living at the free-throw line. Toupane continues to show growth as a playmaker off the bounce. Johnson has been ridiculous from long-range of late and was 4-of-4 again Tuesday. There’s by no means a lack of talent here despite the record.

There are, however, clear issues. Dribble-penetration got so bad for stretches that the 905 opted to go zone against a cold-shooting Skyforce squad. Guards were having trouble keeping up with Kelley and Palo, and bigs were helping too high, leaving the rim open for dump-offs. The turnover total (14) is less than the team’s used to but still led to 17 points, and the constant pressure on the transition defense makes things tougher on what could be a really good half-court unit. Starting your stands already on the move and having had to switch is simply too taxing both mentally and physically, and their defense won’t reach it’s full potential until the offense tightens up.

That’s coming, I think. I’m not blowing smoke when I say this team generally looks better each time out. Sure, you hope to take one or two of five against the league’s top team, especially one on a night when they’re shorthanded, but it’s not as if the 905 are being rolled off the floor any longer or dropping tight games to bad teams. Progress is being made, and games Friday and Saturday against Delaware (12-11) and Westchester (14-8) will provide further testing against quality opposition.

Just one more thing: One of the weirdest parts of the D-League streaming experience is that you get the mid-court view during breaks, similar to some League Pass feeds. I know it’s this guy’s job and he’s surely showing faces for the jumbotron live, but it is hilarious to focus on a cameraman during a dance pack session.

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