The Toronto Raptors have long since grown past the point of moral victories. In no situation, with no narrative, are they going to be pleased with a loss. This does not mean there is not sometimes value contained within a loss, though. Games are made up of more than just their final scores, and each is a search for trends, predictiveness, strengths, weaknesses, lessons, and areas to improve on. Sometimes, for confidence, for a certain swagger, for a renewed belief – in earnest – that such a loss, which is not a moral victory, can, with some growth, become a legitimate victory next time around.
Never was that nuance more on display than Saturday, when the Raptors nearly shocked the world with a 27-point comeback against the Golden State Warriors. Down All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, the Raptors were getting thumped to the tune of 27 points. They would fight back, only to have perhaps the greatest team ever assembled pull back away. And they’d fight back again, ultimately coming up just short thanks to some poor late-game execution and the bounce of the balls, as they say. It was not a moral victory. They will not call it as such. It was still one hell of an effort toward what would have been the biggest comeback in franchise history, which can absolutely be appreciated on its own merit.
“Yeah, we learned a lot. Obviously, you like to play these games against the best teams, and obviously the defending champs, we wanna come up with the win,” Fred VanVleet said. “We’re not really into moral victories around here. So you gotta look and see what you coulda done better. But you gotta respect the fight in the second half, the way we brought it, and the way we played against Cleveland. We can take some of the things that we did and carry those over and that’s what we gotta do, and eliminate a lot of the mistakes.”
There were a lot of those mistakes, at least early. The first quarter was a lecture on everything that makes the Warriors so damn dangerous. The Raptors were guarding at the initial point of attack mostly fine, making correct first switches, it’s just that the Warriors force more than one switching decision, and at some point in the chain, breakdowns occur. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson both found themselves wide open for 3-point attempts early on, and a miscommunication with the bigs switching off the ball left OG Anunoby guarding both Green and Kevin Durant on another. These are the challenges the Warriors present regardless, and the Raptors did themselves no favors with instances of poor transition defense, which is a non-starter against this team. Zaza Pachulia can’t be the first guy down the floor.
And yet, the opening 10 minutes or so felt like a survival despite being behind. For every punch the Warriors threw, the Raptors had an answer. DeMar DeRozan was otherworldly scoring, clearly fired up for the matchup and ready to try to carry the load with Lowry still sidelined. He scored 19 points on 16 possessions, nice work against a very good Warriors defense. And yes, more ball movement could have been preferable, but the Raptors had some of it early – Anunoby and Serge Ibaka hit threes, Anunoby had a couple of great cuts, and Jonas Valanciunas forced an off-ball switch to earn a post-up on Durant – and there’s an element of taking what you can get against a Warriors defensive approach that doesn’t open up 4-on-3 opportunities like a Cleveland or Milwaukee.
The Raptors hung. They shot 48 percent, they kept the Warriors off the offensive glass, they committed just a single turnover, and they earned themselves second chances. Maybe the Warriors wouldn’t shoot 74 percent all game (maybe). Maybe the bench could go on another run. Maybe the Warriors would have a Cavaliers-like lull at some point. A Jakob Poeltl block on Patrick McCaw at the rim almost saw Toronto take a lead in the back half of the quarter.
The Warriors are the breakers of hope, though, and the last two minutes saw Golden State pull away some, a sign of what was coming. Toronto’s all-bench unit was roasted to start the second, digging the deficit to 16, and a tweaked all-bench group with Lorenzo Brown in place of Fred VanVleet did not produce desired results, either, falling behind 22 before DeRozan checked back in. It was a 25-4 run in total, the Warriors’ offense and Raptors’ second-unit offense not proving a great mix.
“Obviously, nobody likes to play bad. We’re all prideful guys,” VanVleet said. “We got in there at a weird point of the game where they were just scoring on all cylinders and we didn’t really have an answer for that. Were able to tighten up in the second half. It’s a long game, we understand that, and we’ve got some tough guys, and we just tried to bounce back and make it respectable and had a chance there at the end.”
DeRozan helped, getting right back to carrying the scoring load with help from a very aggressive Anunoby (who also made some pretty nice reads and decisions on offense throughout this game). Toronto couldn’t really trim the lead, with Thompson finding tipped balls off of scrambled for silky mid-range pull-ups out of nowhere. Anw how demoralizing can the Warriors be? The Raptors got the lead down to 17, and so Steve Kerr called on two MVPs to sub back in and settle things. Durant missed a massive dunk that had Drake in his ear, then managed to make one the next time down. This is what they do. And not that this would make the Raptors feel better, but the entirety of the conversation with the hoard of national media members here this week was essentially “what can anyone do if the Warriors are this good, on the road, through injuries, fatigued, against an otherwise good defense?”
That doesn’t forgive the Raptors entirely. Golden State scored 81 in the first half, their biggest-scoring half of the season. Toronto didn’t deserve all of their 27-point hole given the level of shot-making, and at the same time, it’s also not as if they were playing their best ball. Buttery fingers and defensive mistakes, they’re the type of lapses that aren’t allowable against a team that demands near-perfect basketball to beat them. The Raptors looked toast.
The third quarter was much better, whether due to score effects or regression or a halftime message to get punked to less of a degree on home court. It’s hard to retrofit such answers, but it certainly seemed like the Raptors were playing with a lot more force and took the slap in the face a little personally earlier. The starters had another solid enough stint after going minus-4 and minus-5 in their first-half stretches, cutting the lead to 19 over four-and-a-half minutes. That stint included more solid offensive aggression from Anunoby, a transition dunk off of a Delon Wright steal, and the old toe-on-the-line DeRozan two.
“We went out there and played just balls-out,” DeRozan said. “We played extremely hard. We went out there and didn’t think too much. We just played hard.”
That momentum kept building. The Warriors didn’t seem particularly threatened at first, but the lead was chipped into further and further, with Valanciunas finding cutters out of the post and proving a problem inside with Pachulia in foul trouble, Wright pushing in transition, and DeRozan continuing to piece together one of his hallmark performances as a scorer, against the league’s best defense. Valanciunas may have accidentally woken the Warriors up, though, as he got Green to bite on a pump-fake and blew by him for a dunk to cut a once-27-point lead to single-digits, which resulted in Durant deciding the run had gone on long enough. All told, it was a heck of a push-back run, and whatever the cause or the end result, it’s exactly how you want a team to respond to getting run off the floor in the first half.
“I was proud the way the guys competed in the second half, that’s the team that we’ll go places with,” Dwane Casey said.
The Raptors opened the fourth down 19 – the Warriors closed the third on an annoyed 14-4 run – and had little choice but to go back to the all-bench group since the starters all played the bulk of the third. It went much better than in the second, with some great energy and a hot shooting stretch helping get the game back within 12. VanVleet was much better than the first half, C.J. Miles hit a three after two scoreless quarters, and Poeltl flushed home a nice pocket pass to force Kerr to call on his stars again. Casey stuck with the bench group to buy DeRozan more time, and that worked – Norman Powell drove the lane, VanVleet found Pascal Siakam in transition, and Miles hit a massive three to earn Kerr a technical and cut the lead to four.
For a group that got steamrolled in the first quarter, this was a big response and had to be a massive confidence boost on the heels of doing this to Cleveland, too. And Casey rewarded them by letting a DeRozan-and-bench group run a little longer. DeRozan was again big, getting a toe on a Thompson shot to force a shot-clock violation and then, with 36 points on the night to that point (and 42 by the end), making the right play to find Poeltl on the dive and draw a foul. The closing minutes were a blur – a 1000-BPM beat of tough Warriors shot-making, of the Raptors throwing everything they had back, of DeRozan putting the finishing touches on what, with the Lowry-less context against the Warriors, may be his best game yet.
Down one in the final minute, a great defensive possession saw Curry get a 50/50 call on a drive against Poeltl. It felt inevitable, except Curry, one of the greatest free-throw shooters of all time, missed both. The Raptors went to the usual out of a timeout, and DeRozan took a questionable jumper from the elbow with no separation from Durant – Green had identified the play and called an early switch, and DeRozan lost the handle on a Miles screen – a tough miss. The Warriors ran essentially the same thing back the other way, with Durant sticking his shot out of the impossible Curry-Durant action. Casey then ran something more creative out of the next timeout, but the Warriors defended a multi-hand-off set well and, somewhere along the line, the Raptors mis-applied the play, leading to a contested Miles miss.
“It was a play for DeMar to come off, they did a good job of taking away Fred,” Casey explained. “We’ve got to do a better job of multiple efforts, I’ve got to do a better job of drawing up a play, I’ll take responsibility for that. But it wasn’t a Fred hand-off right there.”
Even still, the Raptors had a last gasp of breath – a jump-ball between Powell and Green that the Raptors lost but, after a mad scramble, appeared to go out off of Golden State. A review said otherwise, which, uhh, I’ll just link you here. Curry iced it with two free throws, VanVleet hit a too-little too-late three, and the Raptors’ would-be epic had come up a chapter short.
The Warriors were very complimentary of the ACC fans, by the way. Klay on the broadcast, KD afterward. You guys are definitely out here.
— Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) January 14, 2018
It was a tough way to lose. They did so much to come back after playing so poorly, and a combination of poor execution, arguable design, and, if you feel a certain way, questionable officiating saw them come up short. Where the first half was being bludgeoned with lessons, the second half may have provided the confidence to apply those lessons without deference.
“Again, there are no moral victories in this league., I’m not happy with a moral victory,” Casey said. “But we have to can what we had in the second half and believe no matter who you play, and play that way for 48 minutes. Second half, the way we played, should be proof that we can compete with them and go toe-to-toe with ‘em. I thought the young guys came in and once they believed, scratched, fought, put themselves in a position to win. I thought our team really, really competed at a high level in the second half once we believed, hey, we can beat this team.”
Separating what happened in the two halves is not dabbling in moral victories. It’s acknowledging how bad they were, and appreciating how they responded and the fortitude it took to respond that way. That they even had a chance to win after the way it started says a fair amount about this group, and the focus can shift back to figuring out how they can better close these situations out.