At some point, the Toronto Raptors are going to fail the same way enough times to change their approach. Friday’s 97-93 loss to the Utah Jazz – not today! We can’t. Not on Welcome Toronto day! – contained a lot of small problems within, and while the takeaway for some may be a variation of “make or miss league” on a poor shooting night or “just one game” given the Raptors only fell to 20-4 against losing teams, seeing them fail to close out another tight game in much the same fashion as many of their other close losses makes those other caveats feel a but tenuous.
“Everyone concentrates on the end part of the game, we started the game out in mud,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “That set the tone for us for the rest of the night. Our approach to start the first quarter started our problems for the night. We always concentrate on that part but we did not come out with the right approach, right mentality, right physicality to start the game. And then after that we were climbing uphill the rest of the game.”
He’s not wrong that the Raptors started out poorly. Respectfully, it feels like less of an issue since the Raptors remain the league’s seventh-best first-quarter team by net rating and yet are 23rd in crunch-time net rating as defined by NBA.com. It’s a disheartening way to bang their heads against the wall when what’s largely worked over 42 or 46 minutes has been effective. And it wasn’t entirely ineffective here despite the slow start, either – the Jazz managed only 101.8 points per-100 possessions, and the Raptors had multiple chances to put the game away.
“It’s an old saying, the way you start is the way you finish and we finished the way we started,” he said.
The Raptors’ pick-and-roll strategy was tested early on. They’ve consistently dropped Jonas Valanciunas back and had the primary defender go over screens, and that’s a tough ask with Rudy Gobert as the screen-setter. Donovan Mitchell was given space in those situations and was willing to use the opening, although OG Anunoby sharpened up his on-ball defense as the quarter progressed, culminating in a terrific steal as he anticipated Mitchell’s attack. The paint-packing also paid some dividends around the rim, where Gobert was blocked twice by the converging Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka. Were it not for some uncharacteristically hot shooting for the Jazz – Ricky Rubio was perfect, in aesthetic and field-goals, including a three and a tough transition finish – the approach would have been tolerable.
It was the other end where some listlessness cost them. The Raptors looked to keep Valanciunas engaged with touches early on, and he mixed in a three with two nice attacks, and Ibaka stuck a transition three after an ill-advised attempt. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were both in a facilitating role to start, combining for six assists in the quarter, though they also made a couple of sloppy turnovers on basic passes. That carelessness helped fuel Utah the other way, and they did a nice job staying aggressive attacking the paint on the break. Joe Ingles and Jonas Jerebko both chipped in on offense for Utah, and Gobert eventually got going during his second stint, freed from Favors and Valanciunas.
It was a poor start after an encouraging 12-10 opening run, the Raptors losing the quarter 20-12 from there for a six-point hole. That’s the book on the Jazz, who are dangerous and tough to play from behind against but struggle with their starting five together. The Jazz kept feeding Gobert against the Raptors’ bench, ultimately requiring the Raptors to send a guard to the post, which is a strength of their second unit. The bench offense was, not surprisingly, slower to get going, eventually coming around with a nice set to get Pascal Siakam a bucket in the paint. They settled a bit from there with a pair of C.J. Miles buckets following, one off of the customary Delon Wright jump of a passing lane, and the defense picking up despite Joe Johnson doing Joe Johnson-against-the-Raptors things.
Toronto’s trouble getting to the rim persisted with a three-point guard look, and with cold outside shooting on top of that, Utah was able to push to a double-digit lead. Valanciunas really picked things up for the Raptors upon re-entry with no Gobert opposite him, finding Lowry for a layup and then scoring on a baseline attack, a tip-in, and a great dump-off from DeRozan, all while controlling the defensive glass. He’d finish the half with 17 points, nine rebounds, and three blocks, a huge contribution given that DeRozan stayed in playmaker mode, deterred from his usual floaters and finishes by Gobert’s presence (which was also the impetus for some of the turnovers). Valanciunas punctuated the strong half with a pump-fake and drive out of the corner past Jerebko for a dunk, maybe the nicest all-around Valanciunas play of all-time.
“He played with a lot of force against one of the best centre defenders in the league, attacking the rim, rebounding,” Casey said. “Now we’ve got to get everyone else to join in the party, to play with that type of force to start the game, to set the tone.”
The half largely felt imprecise outside of Valanciunas, which is probably a word that has fit the Raptors starts a but too often of late. They’re good enough to withstand that, as evidenced by Anunoby’s put-back closing out an 18-5 run and sending them into the half up three. It’s something they’ll want to sharpen up at some point, though it wasn’t an issue here until they lapsed again later. Anunoby threw down a dunk to start the second half and Valanciunas followed with another three and a tip-in, and the Raptors had flipped what was once a 10-point deficit into a 10-point lead, wrestling control of the game away over just a few good minutes. The Jazz seemed to feel that, too, with Valanciunas in Gobert’s head dropping way back and daring him into a 15-foot air-ball.
“He’s playing fantastic,” Lowry said. “Those are the things we need from him and he’s bringing them every night and consistently being a dominant force down there. It’s just a bright spot to see for us.”
Mitchell did enough to help the Jazz hang around despite Anunoby’s strong effort against him. Gobert eventually struck back, too, swatting a Valanciunas hook shot and then drawing the fourth foul of the game (and third of the quarter) on him, sending Valanciunas to the bench. The Raptors’ offense grew stagnant again, DeRozan growing frustrated with the physicality or the whistle or both, and Mitchell erased the lead entirely with a transition dunk and free throws off of a nice cut. DeRozan getting going with consecutive buckets got the team moving a little more again, and Lowry followed up with a spinning dump-off to Poeltl, but the team’s cold outside shooting continued to be a problem, the group falling to 4-of-20 through three quarters (and 2-of-18 excluding Valanciunas).
Mitchell stayed hot, too, and a tough few minutes for the DeRozan-and-bench group saw the Jazz take a six-point lead entering the fourth. Beyond the low energy and casual approach to passing, the Raptors were just going to need more out of their stars – both were doing a good job setting teammates up, but Lowry had four points on 13 possessions and DeRozan had 17 on 22, all on a night when the bench hadn’t provided it’s usual punch.
Of course, a punch from the bench would help, too. Wright entered (curiously, as the 10th man on a night VanVleet wasn’t great defensively) and immediately got things cooking with an outlet to Siakam and a three of his own, and the usual defensive intensity from that unit made its mark against a Favors-and-bench group. The Jazz missed some good looks, too, and when Alec Burks finally broke a three-plus minute drought, Fred VanVleet responded with one of his own. A Wright put-back sent the Jazz to a timeout and the wrong end of an 11-5 comeback push.
Valanciunas and the stars re-entered and got a few minutes without Gobert on the floor, tand the Raptors took advantage. Rubio had a Nash of the pick-and-roll snuffed out perfectly by Valanciunas and DeRozan cut for a beautiful dunk the other way. Valanciunas picked up a fifth foul fighting for an offensive board, but that didn’t stop the Raptors from tweaking the pick-and-roll coverage and having him stay up on Mitchell a bit more (even if that left extra rebounding pressure on Ibaka, which, yeah). It all set up a tense closing stretch between the starters with Wright (in place of Anunoby) and the Jazz starters (first with Jerebko, then Favors), the Raptors coming out of a timeout with a one-point lead and three-and-a-half minutes to go.
The story of the game continued to be Valanciunas, who tipped in a DeRozan miss and then finished a beautiful feed from DeRozan after pulling a Nash himself. Valanciunas came up big on defense, too, blocking a Favors cut for a dunk only for Favors to get his own rebound and score anyway. An ill-advised three from Lowry and a good one from Ingles reset the game at one point. Miles and Wright (and later Valanciunas) got the offense-defense substitution treatment from there, and after Valanciunas hit a pair of free throws, Wright saved a loose ball after a good Valanciunas contest on Mitchell.
Mitchell proved too fast in transition off of a missed Lowry floater, and that set up a close-out that’s sure to have frustrated Raptors fans. The Raptors, who have struggled in the clutch this year playing this same strategy, ran a two-one pick-and-roll to get DeRozan switched onto Rubio, a quality defender. DeRozan got an edge but only managed a mid-range pull-up, and some over-help at the other end gave Rubio, a non-shooter, an open go-ahead three that he canned. Another out-of-timeout play got DeRozan another mid-range look to tie, which he missed, and the Jazz closed it out with free throws.
“Yeah, you know, but we couldn’t make a shot all night,” DeRozan said when asked if he was happy with the looks. “We gotta help the big fella out. He played great, he dominated the boards and the paint, but we gotta do better, everybody else on the team, do our job. It happens.”
The Raptors didn’t seem particularly concerned, outside of Casey. It is just one game, and they’ve pulled out games where they’ve played below their standard more often than not. There are issues at play, but the game can be spun in a very simple way: The Raptors aren’t going to win when Lowry and DeRozan shoot a combined 9-of-36 and score 24 points on 47 possessions, even if Valanciunas is going off and both stars make up for it with their playmaking to a degree. Add in some cold 3-point shooting for the entire team and a defense that’s known for gumming things up and getting the worst out of an opponent, and it’s an understandable way to walk away from the game.
“It’s one game, one bad start. We had a great start in Atlanta. We had a great start in Minnesota. I guess we’ve got to figure it out,” Lowry said dismissively. “I mean, I got a shot that was rushed and DeMar got a couple great looks on the side that we wanted him to have on the floor. It happens. It’s a long season. It’s one loss. I’m not mad about it. I mean we’re upset about it but we’ve just got to get better from it. We learn from it, grow from it and get better. ”
The issue here is that, at least in these exact scenarios, there doesn’t appear to be a ton of learning going on yet. Or it’s not being applied, anyway. It is just one loss, and the Raptors are good enough to survive most nights like this. That doesn’t make it a sustainable style of play, not when the matter of how they win games right now is as important as whether they do.