Dwane Casey could feel it slipping away.
Just 46 seconds into the fourth quarter, the Toronto Raptors’ head coach called for a timeout. His vaunted Kyle Lowry-and-bench unit, normally the team’s best weapon for extending leads, had quickly surrendered five points to the Houston Rockets, despite James Harden taking up residence on the bench. Immediately prior to that 5-0 mini-surge, Harden had hit an enormous buzzer-beating three to cut the Raptors’ lead to four.
It was starting to feel a little too familiar, a sense of deja vu from a night prior setting in. The Raptors and Rockets tipped off 19 hours following the conclusion of Toronto’s collapse against the Chicago Bulls, and the second night of a back-to-back, with travel across a time zone and four starters tasked with 40-plus minutes a night prior, seemed a likely suspect for fatigue.
Casey decided to ride with that same group a little longer, a justifiable approach given their strong track record. It continued to be a disaster, the Jurassic Five group facing an extinction-level event in the form of a lightning-quick 13-0 run for the Rockets. By the time the Raptors tried to start tinkering to find their footing, first bringing Norman Powell back in, and then DeMar DeRozan, their handle on the game had been lost. A super-small group with DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson as the frontcourt showed a brief flicker of life, but the dominance of Harden, the shooting of Trevor Ariza, and the ridiculous efficiency of Montrezl Harrell proved too much.
A 13-point lead had become a 12-point deficit in less than a quarter. The anatomy of the collapse was somewhat similar to Saturday: a defense that struggled to keep a star in front of it, and one that, even when successful, couldn’t take care of it’s own glass; the absence of Jonas Valanciunas, who despite a decent showing early and some trouble screening from everyone else, wasn’t going to be trusted against Ryan Anderson; and Casey making moves that made sense on paper (starting Powell and sliding Carroll to the four, going mega-small against Houston’s spacing), only for them to not work out as hoped. There were issues with execution, brief mental lapses, and really, a general sense of inevitability once the Rockets started to make their push.
“We played well for, what, 39 minutes?” Casey wondered afterward. “But it’s a 48-minute game. I don’t know if it’s the schedule catching up with us, whatever it is, that stretch right there broke our back.”
Prior to the late-third push from Houston, Toronto had turned in a surprisingly effective game. Their defense was active and engaged from the outset, and it was a clear mission to chase the NBA’s biggest bombers off the 3-point line. Even by game’s end, Houston had hit just 11-of-38 from long-range, meaning Toronto likely succeeded at the biggest part of their gameplan. You can’t stop everything, as it were, and so that really opened up the paint (Houston scored a ludicrous 66 points there), but the Raptors were able to neutralize Houston’s biggest weapon, a fair step one. Their offense was also clicking early on, with some timely 3-point shooting supporting the stars, a parade of trips to the free-throw line helping the defense get set back the other way. Some turnover issues crept in that allowed Houston’s lethal transition offense to get going, but until late the Raptors also did a decent job of grinding the pace down, picking up Harden full-court, not getting frenetic in their own sets, and pushing the ball methodically the other way. Some things, not all things, were working.
There were plenty of areas the team could have done better in over the game’s final 15 minutes or so, and it’s too easy to let them off the hook by calling them tired. Harden is an impossible matchup and the Raptors did well to force him into mistakes – he had a 40-10-11-10 (turnover) quadruple-double, but Carroll was unable to handle the assignment alone once Powell, who did a fairly good job on him earlier, was removed. Lucas Nogueira made things far too easy on the inside, part of the offensive rebounding problem and the softness that allowed Harrell to score 28 points on 12-of-13 shooting in 26 minutes. Terrence Ross had one of his worst nights thanks to an awry shooting stroke, and Cory Joseph was shaky enough that there’s a case he shouldn’t have closed the game (the Raptors likely wanted a third ball-handler to help ease the pressure after traps on their stars, and they’re more comfortable with Joseph in that role than Powell).
If there’s a bellwether for the Raptors’ poor performance, it would have been Lowry, who had a quiet 12-point night thanks tot he Rockets selling out to get – and keep – the ball out of his hands. Lowry didn’t play poorly overall, getting active on defense and working to try to create for others out of that pressure, but the scoring burden fell heavily on DeMar DeRozan. Were it not for DeRozan’s Herculean 36 points (and five assists) on just 21 field-goal attempts – and an obscene 6-of-10 from long-range from Carroll, who very likely had his best offensive game as a Raptor and one of his better ones overall until late – the Raptors may have lost their grip even earlier.
The list of things that could have gone better, that the Raptors could have done or could have kept doing, is eerily similar to Saturday. The game felt like a repeat. And blowing back-to-back double-digit leads against quality teams is sure to raise some eyebrows.
“It won’t be a trend,” DeRozan said. “It just sucks in the moment, especially two nights in a row. We’ve just got to lock in. We can make a million excuses, but it’s not about that. It’s just about us understanding key moments in the game where we’ve got to pick it up and realize we’ve got to play much harder as a team and keep fighting, no matter who we’re playing.”
The excuses DeRozan doesn’t want to make likely fall in the category of scheduling. It is reductive to point to fatigue alone as the reason the Raptors weren’t able to offer a counterpunch in the game’s final rounds, but it was almost certainly a factor. Since leaving for Utah on Dec. 22, the Raptors had spent exactly one full day in Toronto that didn’t include a flight. They played six in a row on the west coast, returned home, hit the road and came back for a cross-time zone back-to-back. They could have won this game, to be sure, but it’s hard to call the fatigue at this point “just” an excuse when there is a wealth of science and research showing the effects of this kind of a multi-week slate.
It is a reality that all 30 NBA teams will face at some point in the season, and it’s a challenge the Raptors have no choice but to fight through. They went a reasonable but disappointing 4-5 over that daunting stretch. Their defense is back down to 21st in the NBA, their defensive rebounding is dead last. They do not get a free pass, and they are not trying to give themselves one.
“Adversity is always beneficial in my eyes,” DeRozan said. “It kind of knocks you down, shows you what you need to work on, how hard you need to work on it and it keeps you humble, and in a humble position if understanding you can’t let up no matter what position you’re in.”
The Raptors can’t let up, because the Celtics now visit Tuesday with a chance to pull even for the second seed in the East. The team is at home for the bulk of the week, as the schedule finally relents some, and an off-day Monday might be the physical and mental break they need to ensure their memory of this weekend is a short one. Because if it’s not, and the fatigue and hangover bleed into a third game in a row, nobody else’s memory of this shaky stretch is going to be short, either.