The Toronto Raptors learned a bit of a lesson on Tuesday night. It’s not a new lesson, mind you, but one they haven’t really had to heed in winning eight of their last 10 games, largely against mid-level competition fighting for playoff life. The Raptors have discovered who they are without Kyle Lowry and are waiting to see just how good they can be with him. In the meantime, their focus is on reaching the postseason healthy, at their best, and without letting bad habits set in.
But it’s that comfort and lack of urgency that can lad to and feed those bad habits, and Tuesday was an example in what can happen when lethargy sets in. The Raptors got up 19 early despite not playing exceptionally well, then took their foot off the gas and lost by 37 the rest of the way. The end result was a somewhat embarrassing, albeit mostly meaningless, 18-point loss, helping the Indiana Pacers stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Wednesday threatens to be a repeat, and the Raptors’ energy level out of the gate will be telling. This isn’t a team that’s lacked for heart often of late, and even on the second night of a back-to-back, they should respond with some force as they visit the Detroit Pistons. If they do, the Raptors are a better team and should be able to take care of business at what usually plays like their second home. If they don’t, the Pistons, however shaky they’ve played, are desperate enough to likely take advantage. Last time Toronto visited, it resulted in one of the ugliest games of the season but was the beginning of the New Raptors. Reasserting that new identity here again after another ugly loss would send a nice message about their resolve and focus with a week to go in the regular season.
The game tips off at 7:30 on TSN 4/5 and TSN 1050.
Blake Murphy: After standing in decent shape for a playoff position for a fair amount of the second half, the Pistons have fallen off a cliff of sort down the stretch here. What’s been at the root of their 2-8 collapse here? Were they playing over their heads? Is it just an ill-timed funk? What gives?
Dan Feldman: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ This is one of the great mysteries of Detroit’s season — whether the Pistons are just randomly slumping now or have collapsed in some way. They went through a similar (though not quite as bad) stretch earlier in the year, so an ill-timed funk is certainly on the table. But the timing now is unfortunate, if not also curious.
Blake Murphy: Even with the terrible slide, Detroit is still technically alive. They’re 2.5 games back with five to go and two teams to jump. It seems very unlikely. Could you put a percentage on the likelihood of them sneaking back in?
Dan Feldman: 1%. The Pistons are at a point where they probably need to win out just to have a chance, especially because they hold almost no tiebreakers against their competitors for the final couple playoff spots. And, boy, does this not look like a team ready to win out.
Blake Murphy: If the Pistons decide it’s a lost cause and shut down their efforts for the season, what might that look like? Are there particular players you’d like to see in a bigger role down the stretch here?
Dan Feldman: That wouldn’t come until official elimination, so don’t expect any odd lineups Wednesday. But Henry Ellenson, Detroit’s first-round pick, is intriguing.
Blake Murphy: Henry Ellenson was a divisive player at draft time. Some Raptors fans were very high on his potential as a stretch four, while others were cool, and certain bloggers had him ranked way down their board. The sample is incredibly small with just 57 minutes of action plus D-League time, but what’s the pulse on Ellenson a year in?
Dan Feldman: The small revelations since the draft are positive. The same question primary concern looms over his career: He’s skilled — but skilled enough to overcome his defensive and rebounding shortcomings? Ellenson has shown nice progress on his 3-pointer, and he has looked competitive on the defensive glass. But we just haven’t seen enough to significantly change pre-draft evaluations.
Blake Murphy: Detroit is the league’s best defensive rebounding team and doesn’t send opponents to the line a ton. That would seem to be the basis for a pretty solid defense, and the Pistons rank eighth in defensive efficiency as a result. But that offense. Woof. What has to change next year for Stan Van Gundy to have an offense more befitting his reputation?
Dan Feldman: First, Reggie Jackson needs to play like he’s healthy. Seemingly lingering issues from an early knee injury hindered him all season. And the forwards must shoot better from outside. Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Jon Leuer and Stanley Johnson all regressed on 3-pointers. Are their true levels closer to this year or last year?
I’m making the executive decision to bump Kyle Lowry from the “out” section to the “TBD” section. Lowry was a partial participant in a partial practice on Monday and ruled himself out for Tuesday, but both player and coach were vague about just how much work Lowry’s been doing and just how close he is. On Tuesday, Lowry was doing a fair amount of working out – including shooting with his right hand – before tip-off. It’s probably still unlikely that he plays here, but I’d put the odds at somewhere around 20 percent, which is enough to warrant the change. Friday makes a bit more sense reading the tea leaves of the last week, but even getting a few minutes here with an off-day tomorrow would be a really nice step for the team.
Elsewhere, things are more or less certain. Norman Powell has fallen firmly into the fourth wing role and may be on the fringes of the playoff rotation. Delon Wright continues to make a case for being a quick emergency option in a playoff series, even though he won’t be in the regular rotation. Jakob Poeltl continues to show some nice flashes but also the inconsistencies that are normal for a rookie, and if it weren’t so late in the season, Dwane Casey might be inclined to flip that role back to Lucas Nogueira for a while. It was always meant to be fluid, but with neither player likely in the shortened playoff rotation, there may not be as great a push to make a change.
PG: (Kyle Lowry), Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
TBD: Kyle Lowry
ASSIGNED: Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam
Reggie Jackson will remain on the sidelines with a knee injury, leaving Ish Smith in the starting point guard slot. Smith nearly took that spot over earlier in the year, anyway, but Jackson eventually settled in and fought him off. Smith is no slouch, averaging 8.9 points and five assists, though he hasn’t been the most efficient in getting to those numbers. He’ll be a nice test for the Raptors’ young reserve guards, perhaps their last test of the season.
Michael Gbinije (ankle) and Reggie Bullock (foot) have both been out of the lineup and are day-to-day considerations, though there hasn’t been a firm update of late and neither figures to be a huge part of the rotation so long as the Pistons still mathematically have a playoff life. Henry Ellenson, meanwhile, has been recalled following the conclusion of a D-League season in which he averaged 17.9 points and 8.9 rebounds while hitting 32.8 percent of a high volume of threes.
PG: Ish Smith, Beno Udrih
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Darrun Hilliard, (Reggie Bullock)
SF: Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson, (Michael Gbinije)
PF: Jon Leuer, Tobias Harris, Henry Ellenson
C: Andre Drummond, Aron Baynes, Boban Marjanovic
TBD: Michael Gbinije, Reggie Bullock
OUT: Reggie Jackson
The Raptors are 1-point underdogs with a 198 over-under. I’d expect this line to edge closer to a pick-em by game time, as even on the road with a back-to-back scenario and no Lowry, the Raptors should be able to take this. That the line quickly bumped from Pistons -2 to Pistons -1 reflects that. And yeah, that over-under? These teams play each other ugly, with totals of 200, 203, and 162