Well, this certainly felt like it was a long time coming. For a few weeks now, the Toronto Raptors have taken their foot off of the gas, or whatever analogy you prefer to use, turning in some unspirited performances against lesser teams and only really getting up for big games. The results had mostly turned out fine, if concerning – a couple of tough losses, a couple of notable wins, and a handful of indistinguishable defeats of the league’s mediocre class. At some point, a modus operandi of only playing a few quarters would backfire, and the Los Angeles Clippers – a good team but not one quite good enough to raise the excitement level for – seemed as likely a foe to punish the Raptors’ weeks-long lethargy as any.
The script was a little different – the Raptors actually started well then geared down late rather than the inverse, and the bench turned in an ugly performance rather than the starters – and the outcome diverged from the pattern as well. A phenomenal Lou Williams fourth quarter, some slow or ineffective adjustments, and trouble with turnovers all conspired to sink the Raptors, 117-106, the warning that’s been flashing above their play for a month finally resulting in the type of loss you could almost feel Dwane Casey predicting (and maybe hoping for early, as a teaching tool) of late.
“We’ve got a lot to work on, I’ve said it before,” Casey said, not nearly as mad as he has been after recent victories. “We’ve got to make sure we do the little things and don’t let them slip and they’ve slipped. Our defence has slipped, our offensive execution, passing, and all that affects your rhythm.”
Again, it started well enough. Remember that Open Gym clip where Masai Ujiri tells Jonas Valanciunas “you’re better than Drummond” because there were Valanciunas-Drummond rumors at one point? The first quarter of this one was Casey’s own version of this, the play-calling serving as an emphatic “you’re better than DeAndre Jordan.” Valanciunas had his hands on nearly everything out of the gate, with the Raptors empowering to attack Jordan or any switch that came his way. That resulted in a put-back, a three, a dump-off for an and-one, and a late-clock pull-up just inside the free-throw line. He had 12 points in just over three minutes, helping the Raptors open up a 10-point lead and forcing Doc Rivers to an early timeout to find a solution.
That adjustment was apparently to let everyone else kill them instead of Valanciunas – Kyle Lowry pulled up for a three, a springy-looking OG Anunoby hit a three and then cut for a dunk, DeMar DeRozan delivered an emphatic jam, and Serge Ibaka capped the wild run with a triple of his own. Barely halfway through the quarter, the Raptors were up 27-9. It’s good that everyone else was cruising at that point, too, as Valanciunas picked up a second foul and had to head out early. The whole “actually try hard from the start” thing didn’t seem likely to disappear with the second unit. Any concern it may was put to rest by a Pascal Siakam three (on a great DeRozan skip pass) and a Jakob Poeltl block, and even with some regression and a Tobias Harris-led Clippers’ push-back, the Raptors had their best first quarter since the Rockets game, up seven at its conclusion.
“I liked our energy, the way we started the game, now we have sustain it,” Casey said. “That’s the first time in a long time our second unit did not play well. We’ve got to be a consistent team collectively. Not one guy, not the first unit, second unit. For us to be successful, everybody, we all have to click.”
It was the Siakam show early in the second, as he stopped a red-hot Harris on a drive, then took Harris left for a righty hook-shot, and finished a Fred VanVleet feed to complete the sequence. He even briefly contained Raptor-killer and all-around intriguing piece Montrezl Harrell on a post-up, which seemed impossible at the time given how easily everything else was coming to Harrell (again), and followed it up by drawing a foul from him on a put-back attempt. Poeltl got to have a moment in an otherwise shaky stint, too, spiking away a layup to set up a VanVleet three that helped the bench win their minutes despite the best efforts of Milos Teodosic. Siakam punctuated the run with a beautiful transition pass to Delon Wright, VanVleet hit another triple, and the Raptors were up 15 again as starters began re-entering.
There was some slippage from there, with the hybrid transitional units struggling as they often have. Turnover issues popped up, the transition defense lost a step (or several) from earlier, and Valanciunas picked up a third foul to prevent him from getting going. Toronto’s shot-making dropped off a touch, too, some curious calls and make-up calls in both directions sucked up some of the energy in the arena, and Anunoby missed a pair of free throws at the buzzer. Still, the Raptors took a seven-point lead into the break.
The slide continued, the Raptors shifting their first-quarter issues of late back to the third, where they resided previously. Valanciunas was neutralized by foul trouble once again after a nice fake hand-off and drive to start the half, one of only two baskets the Raptors would score over the first four-plus minutes of the half. Frustration was apparent, and while it was directed at the officials, a lot of it was born of their own poor execution, with Ibaka in particular continuing to struggle all over and DeRozan shooting poorly. Austin Rivers hit a three to give the Clippers their first lead out of a long stoppage, and the slide snowballed from there.
Casey turned to his bench pieces a little earlier than normal (and still probably a beat too late) looking for a spark. C.J. Miles helped things start to breathe against an aggressive Clippers’ defense that was goading the ball out of the hands of the stars but still able to pack the paint off of non-shooters, and the additional defensive energy was welcome. The Lowry-and-bench group even got a somewhat rare look to end the quarter, and back-to-back threes from Siakam and Miles stabilized things before consecutive Siakam buckets at the rim put the Raptors back in front. Doc Rivers responded by releasing Boban Marjanovic, resetting the score heading into the fourth.
“I thought there at the end of third quarter we got a boost, got a burst going, got the ball moving,” Casey said. “We couldn’t stop them on the other end but at least we were scoring on our end. Collectively, we had some tough shots, going against Boban and Harrell and his energy coming in with offensive boards, it hurt us.”
And so even with the stronger start, the Raptors were in the same place they’ve found themselves so often this year: Looking to the all-bench group to give them a boost at the top of the fourth. That didn’t work out. The Clippers went on a 10-2 run over just two minutes, a veritable shootout by that unit’s defensive standards, and they continued pulling away as Ibaka re-entered as the center (a curious choice against a Harrell-Marjanovic frontcourt since Ibaka had been bad and Valanciunas, even with four fouls, fit the matchup).
“They’re going to continue to get better. That’s one thing they’re going to do. They’re going to continue to play hard. They’ll continue to grow,” Lowry said of the bench. “I think that’s the one thing they’ll do. I’m sure they’re not happy about their performance. We’re not happy with the full team performance, the starters, the team, not just their unit. It was everybody.”
Down 14, Casey tried the starters with Miles in place of Anunoby – a potential offensive juggernaut that will struggle to defend, making sense as a comeback-unit – and the minutes went mostly how you’d expect with that group, the offense for both sides going off. VanVleet came in to provide a semblance of two-way balance and a 7-0 run to cut the lead to five soon followed. Unfortunately for VanVleet and the Raptors, Lou Williams kept happening. Frigid for three quarters, Williams went off for 18 in the quarter, hitting threes and drawing fouls like it was the fourth quarter of a 2014-15 Raptors’ regular-season game, with nary an adjustment until the Raptors were back down big. There was just no coming back at that point.
Toronto couldn’t find the firepower or the defense at the same time, Casey couldn’t press the right buttons, and the same issues that have nearly cost them for a few games now did. The Raptors are keeping cool heads, disappointed though they are. There’s faith they remain good, even if they no longer look as good when they’re not playing well. There’s also a sense that it’s better these struggles come now than in two or three weeks, with ample time to correct and ample testing ground still to come before the playoffs. It is at the very least concerning that some of their issues have been of the variety that have plagued them in the postseason in the past, though the instinct to be patient given all the goodwill they’ve built up this year is at least understandable.
“It’s that time of the season. Everybody’s playing for something. They’re gonna be tough wins, and you don’t wanna lose the games, but you need the adversity,” VanVleet said. “We’ve kinda been rolling a little bit, so it’s not nice to have tough games, but at the same time you’ve gotta take the blessings in between and try to improve without practicing, improver within the games. Just didn’t do enough tonight to get it done. Can’t feel sorry for ourselves too long. It carries over and we can’t allow that.”
They won’t have long to dwell on it, anyway. Practice on Monday is sure to provide plenty of game footage to review, and there are a lot of defensive issues to work on. Denver will come in desperate on Tuesday, and while rest and practice time comes after that, the schedule only grows more arduous. The time for correction is nigh.