Raptors rally late, but fall short in Houston

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Final Score: Raptors 119, Rockets 121

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The Houston Rockets came into last night’s game against the Raptors with an offensive rating of 113.9 points per 100 possessions, good enough for second in the league. And with no Chris Paul and Clint Capela in the lineup for large parts of this season, almost all of that efficiency has been fueled by a one-man show by the name of James Harden. The reigning MVP has been on one of the greatest offensive streaks of all-time recently, averaging over 44 points, nearly 8 assists, and over 8 rebounds in the Rockets’ past 15 games, and scoring 30+ points in 21 consecutive games. And, unlike Wednesday night in New York when Harden dropped an MSG-record 61 points in a win against the Knicks, those performances haven’t always resulted in wins for Houston … but coming into last night’s game, you had to figure the Raptors were probably fearing the beard just a little bit.

Coming off of what was basically a schedule loss against the Pacers, Toronto was trying to get back on track in the win column. And with Kawhi Leonard returning to the lineup after missing the past 4 games, life would obviously be that much easier. But playing a confident Houston team on their home floor, even without two starters, proved to be pretty difficult for Toronto. It started in the first half as the the Raptors couldn’t score to save their life for most of the first 16 minutes, while the Rockets on the other hand, were seemingly able to get whatever they want. From Austin Rivers dancing all over Kyle Lowry, to Eric Gordon and Gerald Green hitting 3’s, the Rockets raced ahead to a 33-20 lead at the end of the first quarter, and were the clear aggressors to start the game. And while the Raptors were able to make their way back into it, the way this game started seemed to set the tone for how things would go the rest of the night.

While Harden certainly got his fair share of offense throughout the game, the Raptors actually played pretty good defense on him. For most of the game, Harden was Danny Green’s responsibility. Green on many instances applied a full-court press and was clearly up in Harden’s grill trying to make life difficult for the NBA’s scoring leader. Even Pascal had his turn at Harden, and shut him down on post-up and turnaround jumper. All in all, the way things have been going for Harden recently, holding him to just 35 points was a victory for Toronto.

This was a game of spurts though, and the Raptors just didn’t seem to have enough punch when it counted most. They kept within striking distance for most of the game,  down between 4-15 points at various points, and there was a feeling for the first 3 and a half quarters, that they were bound to break through and finally take the lead. Kawhi had his moments both from the perimeter and in the paint – and this was obviously critical for the Raptors in staying afloat. But, while it wasn’t always James Harden who made the big baskets for Houston, the Rockets were able to respond to every single Raptors run.

Whether it was a timely PJ Tucker corner 3, or an offensive rebound and put-back by Kenneth Faried, Houston seemed to come up big at every turning point in the game. Faried was all over the court, especially on a few huge momentum-shifting plays in the fourth quarter, that included an and-1 off of a Raptors turnover, and a monstrous block on Serge Ibaka that deflated Toronto and virtually ended the game. He scored 21 points on 9 shots, to go along with 14 rebounds, which essentially filled the void left by the injured Clint Capela.

Toronto gave up an astounding 21 turnovers leading to 26 Rockets points, and were outscored in second chance points 20-12. This was a game the Raptors missed the interior presence of JV – both from a rebounding and offensive stability perspective. While it wouldn’t be for his defense, his traditional offensive skills and size would allow the Raptors to withstand shooting droughts and protect from defensive rebounding slippage.

After the Rockets dominated most of the game however, in a miraculous series of plays in the final minutes, the Raptors took advantage of some critical miscues by Houston to bring it back to a one-possession game with just over 16 seconds to go. The Rockets did their part in helping Toronto – everything from giving up multiple offensive possessions to the Raptors, turning the ball over, and taking ill-advised shots; and before you knew it, the Raptors had brought it down to a 2-point lead, with the ball in their hands. But in the last play of the game, Kawhi Leonard, who was working off of a Norm Powell screen, opted to take a fall-away 3-point jumper as time wound down, and the Raptors came up empty.

Kyle Lowry continued to struggle with his shooting last night, going just 2/9 from the field for 9 points in 38 minutes. And while Lowry was still able to find his distributing touch, with 11 assists, he showed some reluctance shooting the ball and still seems to be lacking the shooting rhythm that we’re used to seeing in his game. It’s the pull-up and off-the-dribble shooting from Lowry that is missed most right now, and even if we start to see glimpses of that come back, it could have drastic effects on the Raptors offense.

Nick Nurse made a few interesting calls in the game – namely, opting not to play Delon Wright for the game, and going with solely CJ and Norm as the back up 2 guards. While CJ was mostly a zero, Norm actually played decent and shot confidently from 3, making 2 of his outside looks. Nurse also opted to go to Kawhi at the end of the game, with a strange play call that called for a high screen, late into the clock, about 7 feet in front of the 3 point arc, to give Leonard a chance to switch onto Harden and take the deciding shot. It seems like he had the right idea attacking Harden with the Raptors’ best offensive option, but the timing and placement of the screen didn’t exactly seem to work. In the end – this was too little, too late.

Things don’t get too much easier for the Raptors, as they continue to check off Western Conference road games from their schedule and pay a visit to Dallas to take on Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Sunday. The Mavs are 17-6 at home this season, and winning in Dallas has always proven hard for Toronto. Tip time on Sunday is 7 pm.

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