I’m not really sure what to think after that loss. One on hand, we’ve got almost nothing to play for. The second seed is virtually locked up, and the first seed will be challenging to achieve regardless of our performance; and even if achieved, it may not even yield any fruit until the eastern conference finals at least. Kyle Lowry was injured (sort of), we clearly weren’t playing our best basketball, and oh yeah, OKC is pretty damn good. Ok, very very good. Not only have they won their last 8 games, they’ve absolutely obliterated teams with an average winning margin of 17 points in those 8 games, including 2 separate 19 point victories, 2 victories over 20 points, and a 34 point shellacking of the Trailblazers. They’ve got 2 virtually MVP-type guys in Westbrook and Durant, a winning pedigree, and a supporting cast that seems to be figuring things out after their early season struggles. Billy Donovan is doing some great things down there in OKC, and they’re one of the growing glimmers of hope that the western conference playoffs this year will actually be exciting. “Beat Golden State” may actually be a thing.
On the other hand, this loss was a bit of a piss off. Defensive breakdowns were aplenty, rotations were terrible (OKC was 11/26 from 3 and shot 48% for the game), and the game was played in some uncomfortable spurts. The Raptors seemed to make a run of things when down 9 or 10, but immediately seemed to relinquish any sort of control of the game allowing prompt OKC 3-pointers, fast-breaks off of unforced turnovers, untimely fouls, or incredibly frustrating rebounds allowed (Raps were outrebounded 53-40 in the game). Not to mention Lowry’s had his fourth bad game in a row (albeit somewhat hurt with the sore elbow), going 33%, 21%, 23% and 29% in those last four contests (3 against sub-500 teams that are very poor defensively) and DeRozan hasn’t exactly been the greatest either being under his scoring average and shooting poorly (under 40% from the field) in 3 of the last 4 contests.
Both teams got off to a sloppy start in the opening minutes, but the Thunder seized control in timely fashion and never seemed to look back, save for the occasional Raptors mini-run. OKC outscored Toronto in the first 3 periods by margins of 6, 13 and 10 and headed into the fourth quarter with a victory seemingly all but locked up. Kevin Durant was dancing all over the court, Westbrook was being Westbrook, and the all-star duo gave the Raptors a popular dose of medicine oft-enjoyed by many NBA teams – to the tune of 60 combined points, and the seemingly “regular” triple-double from Westbrook (his 16th of the season), who went off for 26 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Make that 7 in the month of March for the UCLA product (the most in a single-month since MJ), and he’s only 1 away from tying Magic Johnson for the single-season record of 17. This dude is sick, wicked and nasty. And then some.
So what does this all mean for the Raptors? Well, it’s back to the drawing board for Dwane Casey and his staff, as they try to regroup and figure things out not only for the stretch run of the season, but as the playoffs draw nearer. These last few games are about 3 things (besides “winning”): 1) Keeping guys healthy and rested, 2) Preserving the ever-so-subtle “rhythm”, 3) Solidifying the core rotation for the playoffs, especially any “on-the fencers”. I’ll ignore number 4 (which is re-integrating DeMarre Carroll), as the collective fan base is simply too in the dark as to whether this guy is even shooting hoops these days (I’m envisioning mild practice at the very least).
On that basis, this loss wasn’t catastrophic, but should be a lesson nonetheless for the Raps who now have 9 games left to iron out the kinks (especially at the defensive end) that seem to re-surface every 3rd or 4th game, against a variety of opponents.
Notables of the Night
– Defensive intensity: We’ve beat this to death. Just defend guys, please. Carroll will help here, at least a little.
– Norman Powell: I’ve intentionally included Stormin’ Norman Powell as a notable almost every post-game on purpose. Somehow, it’s still “surprising” to see this guy kill it at the NBA level, but eventually, I truly believe this guy has the ability to be a fixture in our lineup. Granted, this is before the point where opposing teams have game-planned for him, or in some cases, before teams even know who he is, but we’re watching this guy develop into a stud before our eyes. Credit to the Raptors 905, Ujiri, and Casey for having the trust to put him out there. Defensively-inclined, athletic, and a respectable/improving NBA 3-point stroke – any combination of those traits will keep you in the league for a long time.
– Rebounding: Being outrebounded 53-40 against the second-best rebounding team in the league isn’t exactly a “notable” (nor was it the only reason we lost this game), but nonetheless, it’s something to improve upon for the Raps, who when out-rebounded, tend to lose games. Not to mention, rebounding means more possessions for the opponent, meaning more shots at 100+ points – another noteworthy threshold for the Raps, who are virtually guaranteed a victory when that landmark (less than 100 points by opponent) is achieved (forget about that Celtics game from last week, it never happened).
– Missed Free Throws: Seriously, how is this a thing? I rarely ever can pick on Lowry (nor should I), but this free-throw shooting thing is becoming a bit weird. Lowry, whose incredible free-throw shooting the past few years has truly spoiled us all, once again went 4/8 from the line (he’s shot a combined 13/24 these past 3 games) leading me to believe either the elbow is really bothering his shooting stroke (hence the poor field goal percentage as well), or he’s reached the inevitable slump in an NBA season. Hopefully, it’s the latter and things will be rectified quickly. Either way, 16/23 shooting from the line for the team isn’t going to cut it come playoff time, and especially in close games.
The Raps look to regroup Wednesday as they take on the Hawks at home. Atlanta, who narrowly escaped a desperate Bulls squad with a win last night (thank goodness), has yet to lock up a playoff spot and will also be looking to solidify the third-seed, a coveted spot in the east at the moment in order to avoid the Cavs in the second round. Raps should win, but Atlanta’s got more on the line. Tip time on Wednesday is 7:30 pm.