It really did feel like Christmas for Raptors fans on Monday. The team didn’t get to play, but fans got to watch the Celtics and Cavaliers each take a tough loss while announcers talked about how the Raptors weren’t getting enough attention for how good they’d been in December, and how much better they were this year than in years past. The truth is, to that point in December, the Raptors had a case for the best team in the league for the month and DeMar DeRozan was playing his way into conversations about MVP candidates with his improved playmaking and shot selection.
Then Christmas passed, and the Raptors seemingly threw away most of that hard earned goodwill with two tough losses, one a close game that they could never quite get back into against a struggling Dallas Mavericks squad, and the other a blowout loss to a surging Oklahoma City Thunder team.
It’s a long NBA season, and in a 82-game schedule these things are bound to happen. It’s unfortunate that the end result of this is that the Raptors had only a 24-hour stint leading the Eastern Conference as a reward for being consistently great over the course of a month.
It would only be natural then, to find oneself asking what went wrong to bring this sudden halt to the team’s run. They got healthy, with the return of both Lucas Nogueira(who has logged just four minutes across the two games), and CJ Miles, who’s shooting was badly missed by the Raptors bench while he was out and who was one of the few Raptors that had their offense working in Oklahoma, leading the team with 20 points on 6-12 shooting from downtown. If you wanted to look for a positive in that game, you’d start with the suddenly resurgent bench, which had been one of the weak spots during the team’s big 12-1 run. The starters were getting run off the floor to start both halves, and the reserves managed to put together some solid minutes that nevertheless weren’t nearly enough to salvage the game.
However, against Dallas, it was the other way around. The starters, for their most part, held their own in their minutes, and the bench struggled mightily. In a five point loss, Kyle Lowry managed to finish at +16, indicating that there were some things that went right for the team, just not enough.
If you put the two games together, though, you’re left with the conclusion that nothing really went right as the team dropped a back-to-back and fell out of first in the conference. DeMar DeRozan suddenly looked mortal in terms of hitting his shots, and like the player of years past in terms of choosing them and reading the defense offered. The team couldn’t find a consistent, dependable defensive look that could slow down surging opponents. The Raptors, as a whole, just couldn’t seem to put anything together for two games.
Really, nothing worked with any consistency across the two games. Jakob Poeltl finished with the team-high on-court net rating, at -0.3, and Delon Wright with the team-high off-court net rating at -0.2. No one was positive on the court or on the bench, and the results are predictable when that’s the case.
This isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom, however. If there was one single spot of weakness, one tragic flaw that was tearing at the seams of an otherwise great team, that would be concerning. That would be a problem that would necessarily need to be addressed in order for the team to look forward to the playoffs, and something to focus on with the trade deadline approaching. On the other hand, when a team demonstrates over months that they can compete with the best, with a narrow loss to the Golden State Warriors in the bay and a victory over the Rockets in Houston, all while not really being truly healthy prior to this point in the season, if everything suddenly falls apart, maybe it’s just a bad stretch of games.
This isn’t to say there aren’t things the team needs to address. The small-ball looks have been struggling, and the tendency to play lineups which feature none of their shooters puts undue stress on players to create offense on their own, and when Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both not on the floor, they simply don’t have a dependable enough shot creator to carry that load. As well, the starters have been giving up easy buckets on cuts with worrying regularity, and need to bring their defensive intensity up.
However, overall, when everything goes wrong to this degree over a short stretch, it might simply be a bump in the road. Sometimes, getting healthy can be a hurdle in itself, finding ways to re-integrate a larger rotation and bring guys back into the fold. If that’s the case, the Raptors should rebound and find themselves back in form in short order. At this point, Raptors fans should continue to enjoy the Christmas present that was the team being good enough to be on top of the Eastern Conference, even if their time there was short lived.