October wasn’t designed for games to be this stressful. The fourth game of an 82-game slough isn’t designed to be high-investment viewing, every possession for 48 minutes feeling like life or death. There’s no helping it once things get going the way they did on Wednesday, when the Toronto Raptors had a genuine opportunity to do the near-impossible and steal a game from the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
They did not. They started small, skewed young, played fast, and worked like hell on defense. They moved the ball well for three quarters, even when shots weren’t falling. They received massive contributions from key young players, incredible growth experiences for what will be an immensely important contingent all year. But they came up short, devolving into their old selves with the game on the line and frittering away a chance to upset in the league’s one true Goliath.
The Raptors got out to the start they were hoping for, even around a little carelessness with the ball and the sense they were sped up a bit by Golden State’s force. Serge Ibaka, starting at center, looked incredibly comfortable going against Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia, scoring 11 first-quarter points and making an impact in help defense. DeMar DeRozan stuck mostly to initiator mode, and while the Warriors forced him to pick up his dribble by declining to give him even a hint of space, he responded mostly well and was active in transition passing lanes the other way. A 16-13 lead at the first timeout gave way to a 7-0 Warriors run, but the bench helped settle things – an odd regularity at this point – with Jakob Poeltl converting a pair of C.J. Miles high-low feeds to keep the game within three through a frame.
Even with a cold start from outside and shaky quarters from OG Anunoby (a travel, a failed box-out, an airballed three) and Kyle Lowry (favoring his hip after a Pachulia collision and generally looking something short of mid-season form), being within a possession of the Warriors after a quarter is, in relative terms, a good place to be in. It’s tenuous, though, which made a few minutes with the all-bench group a little nerve-wracking. That unit struggles to create one-on-one and basically just works to find Miles 3-point attempts, which ended up working out moderately fine in this stretch because the defensive activity and effort was off the charts. They mostly held serve, and then the Raptors railed off a 7-0 run as some starts filtered back in.
The thing about hanging around against the Warriors is that a lot of things have to go well for it to keep up, lest they pull away in a hurry. Anunoby turned his play around, but Lowry decidedly did not, and a poor night from him against the Warriors just isn’t going to do it. His rough outing was magnified because the Raptors were coughing the ball up plenty, making the leverage of each possession they got to us feel even higher. The defensive effort level was still strong, especially from the younger players (Wright, for example, did not back down after eating a Kevin Durant elbow), and DeRozan’s five steals helped even out the turnover column, but Golden State was bound to heat up at some point. Toronto did well to attack the offensive glass against switches and size advantages, but the risk is occasional imbalances the other way, death against an offense this good.
The Raptors trying to keep up put shooting 4-of-21 on threes in the half saw them looking at an eight-point deficit at the half, one that didn’t feel too large if things started breaking their way but at the same time felt insurmountable if Lowry wouldn’t find his groove and the threes didn’t start dropping. He didn’t and they didn’t, and Golden State threatened to blow things wide open by extending the lead to 14 early in the half before Lowry found Pascal Siakam to settle things heading into a timeout.
Raps have been accurate, except only 2/19 on above the break 3s. 4/24 overall. pic.twitter.com/7dTkQlOUaU
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) October 26, 2017
The Warriors largely ignored Siakam, and the Raptors’ stars did a decent job finding him for cheap baskets off of that attention; it helps that he is the fastest player in NBA history. That was on display right out of the break, too, with Lowry finding him for an alley-oop and then an outlet getting Siakam another bucket through contact. Then he hit a trailing three at the top and a corner three in transition, giving him a career-high 20 points midway through the third and helping cut the lead down to two with a personal 10-0 run. It’s hard to overstate how fun those few minutes of Siakam were, a wonderful glimpse at what the team sees in him long-term as an energetic defender, transition threat, and eventually capable corner shooter.
DeRozan picked up a sixth steal in that stretch, too, and Lowry spent time guarding just about every Warrior. Despite the lack of scoring, the team’s two stars really dialed in on defense and as playmakers in the second half, which can be such a massive tone-setter for this team. It also seemed to get them going a bit more on offense as the bench filtered back in. Unfortunately, it coincided with Curry heating up, taking Poeltl to the rim on a drive Poeltl defended about as well as a big can hope to on that switch, then hitting a pair of threes that DeRozan matched with twos, a tough trade. Still, entering the fourth down five to the Warriors is an enviable place to be in when shots haven’t been falling.
Dwane Casey opted not to tempt fate with the all-bench group in the fourth, probably the safe move even though they’ve played well together through four games. It mattered not with a quick 6-0 Warriors run, forcing Casey to burn a timeout 90 seconds into the quarter. The Lowry-and-bench group responded, with Poeltl and Anunoby both making a few nice plays at the offensive end. Poeltl’s intelligence and anticipation at both ends is next-level (he had 11 offensive rebounds!), and Anunoby being able to shake off a rough start to the night is good to see. An odd-ball Lowry-Wright-DeRozan-Anunoby-Poeltl lineup railed off an 8-0 run to tie the game at 99 with 7:10 to play, setting up a fun and anxious stretch run.
The offense wasn’t exactly pretty from here, with a lot of the old habits sneaking in and being masked by some terrific energy on the offensive glass. But Lowry found Poeltl on a nice dive for a hook shot out of a pet play, Wright found a trailing DeRozan for a massive dunk, DeRozan hit a tough mid-range turnaround, and the Raptors unexpectedly had a five-point lead with two minutes to play.
And that’s where some of the concerns about the New Raptors proved valid, at least for a second tough loss in a row. Faced with a tight late-game situation, they reverted to leaning on their stars, which, again, has always made a degree of sense given the talent at play but can be aesthetically displeasing and often ineffective against greater defensive attention. DeRozan did have one nice, if rushed, dump-off that Poeltl couldn’t convert, but otherwise the final few possessions were Lowry and DeRozan failing to score largely in one-on-one scenarios. The Warriors had no such issues, went on a 10-0 run (letting Durant walk into his spot for a transition three was ill-advised), and left the Raptors with the same serious question they’ll be dealing with a lot until it’s answered satisfactorily: If the new paradigm is working – and it was somewhat here, with 30 assists on 45 field goals, though the bulk of the damage was done on the offensive glass and in transition rather than through great execution – what is the right balance between that and trusting star players to score on important plays?
The last 90 seconds of offense were predictable and ineffective, with the Warriors’ length and ability to switch negating a lot of the ways the Raptors usually get Lowry and DeRozan advantages. The Raptors did not help themselves by trying little to scramble Golden State, conceding that it would be tough to create better mismatches and just trying to attack a set defense. It’s not entirely cut and dry, with the team’s shooting so woeful on the night (8-of-34 on threes) and Golden State’s defense as good as it can be, but it’s equally hard to argue that attacking the Greens, Durants, and Klay Thompsons of the world has a high expected return.There are a lot of little tweaks that may have helped. It’s the bigger question that looms, and it’s going to take time to answer.
This is a philosophy change, and it’s difficult to break habits when the intensity is highest. They get time and a modicum of patience to figure this out and get better with it, frustrating though this was. (And it was, especially since the “Raptors revert to old selves and lose tight, winnable game” was basically the free bingo square for this west coast trip.) It’s also a second game in a row the Raptors could have beaten a very good team and put a signature win on their resume early, games in which a bit of extra shooting or a better decision here and there could have been the difference. Again, patience is warranted and necessary, but disappointment is understood.
For some perspective, they lost by five in Oakland down two centers and shooting 23.5 percent on threes, and several young players contributed in meaningful ways. There are still a lot of positives to be taken from the last two games, narrow, shorthanded losses to good teams that could have just as easily been wins, even without Lowry shooting well. The key from here is to see progress each successive time out, starting Friday in Los Angeles.