The Toronto Raptors came out chugging against the Detroit Pistons on St. Patrick’s Day, but less in the locomotive sense than in the day drunk kind of way. Even in Detroit, with what looked and sounded like half the arena made up of Toronto fans, the Raptors started off aimless, a lethargy the snappy-off-the-jump Pistons were more than happy to run circles around.
Intent was the thing and the Raptors didn’t have it. It was not a worrisome game at first, not through the initial half or in the glimmers of the second, not even so much in the loss because it wasn’t exactly a crushing defeat, but it is these kinds of unassuming losses that are vampiric to teams in the final stretch of the regular season. Because there was plenty reason for intent in this game. Making sure Dwane Casey didn’t go 3 for 3 on his revenge tour, for one, winning the kind of Sunday matinee game that has sapped Toronto all season could have been another.
Danny Green had some bright flourishes against Jeremy Lin’s continued slog as a starter and Marc Gasol put in some strong bodywork to draw charges against the relentless energy of Detroit, but the real standout of the game was Fred VanVleet.
VanVleet who is—finally!—back and who has been gravely missed, ran a speedy drive down the outside for his first points back. If you couldn’t tell prior to this game, the Raptors had really been missing VanVleet’s quiet contributing, defensive consistency and offensive capability when it comes to plugging holes on the floor.
Detroit was taking their time, communicating, trying for cuts, crowding Toronto out of the paint in a way that looked considered, easy. This is a Detroit team that’s built on a close core since the season started and gained some key mid-season pieces hat have been making all the difference. Wayne Ellington, for one, is a huge gain for a Pistons team that couldn’t always nail their choreography, especially in quicker sequences where Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin tend to look clunky. Thon Maker is getting better touches than he had been for a long time in Milwaukee and beyond that, a steady kind of trust that Casey puts in younger players.
VanVleet started in Jeremy Lin’s place at the start of the second half. Lin has been inconsistent at best and, well, bad at worst as a starter in the last few games, and VanVleet brought the punchiness and quick kicks in ball movement that was missing throughout the first. VanVleet had spent a good chunk of his time off watching film and studying plays, which he said was a result of being bored out of his mind, but it shows in how ready, physically and mentally, he was as soon as he stepped back on the floor.
The third quarter was for not hitting the snooze button, and really thank god, because it was basically the only time Toronto decided to stack up. It’s going to come down to the Nets or the Pistons in the first round and frankly, with their huge energy and new, synchronized dance sequences, the Nets offer up a lot more trouble when it comes to the kinds of teams the Raptors should be able to tangle with, but cannot. The Pistons, on the other hand, allow a very theatric revenge opportunity for Casey that, again, the Raptors should really be able to rise above with the minimum of effort, but all year Detroit has been figuring out ways to outwork, work around, or work themselves under the skin of the Raptors.
Ish Smith is a big problem for Toronto. His energy, quickness, apparent ability to be in two places at once; even when the Raptors go small there’s little they can do to contain Smith on either end of the court. Smith is adept at being just where he needs to in the nick of time to force a turnover, nab a rebound or lob a ball that looks way out in the weeds back into play, and it’s this kind of grit and hustle that the Raptors do best—historically—in bursts. Smith never stops.
Toronto went small to start the 4th and it wasn’t enough to dampen Detroit’s momentum. With not a lot of game left the same problem cropped up that has dogged Toronto in games that shouldn’t be tight, but invariably are: securing the lead. We all love a close game—but honestly, at this point, do we?!—but at some point all it comes down to is possessions. If not outright bungling them, then the Raptors are very good at squandering these. The lack of Lowry’s decision making really shows in these critical, end-of-game minutes, where Toronto either moves the ball too quickly or hangs back, relying on some imagined stop or future turnover instead of utilizing the time they’ve got to make a smart play.
There were moments, mid-game flourishes where Toronto had some nice sequences in the Siakam-VanVleet-Leonard-Green-Gasol lineup. Fast and secure ball movement, kicking it out to the corner where first Green, then Leonard, were waiting on the open look three. But in addition to a keen eye, Detroit is a team that has insider knowledge on the Raptors fundamentals, and relying on the same play in exact sequence isn’t going to work more than twice, and when the Pistons corrected their oversight Toronto seemed stuck.
Yes, there is simultaneously nothing and everything to worry about. Nothing in that, with the return of Lowry and Ibaka, some of the mess will stand to get tidied up and the needed energy and inherent doggedness in Lowry’s game will return as a boost for the team overall. Nothing in that, theoretically, the playoffs stand to be a different kind of game than the last consecutive three Detroit has taken from Toronto. But also, everything. Everything in that, there’s a lot here that feels like it ought to have been worked out by now, even given the nagging injuries and roster fluctuation the team has been dealing with all season. The playoffs aren’t the time to be having eureka moments about the fundamental way in which your team works, and I do not feel Nick Nurse has a solid grasp on the mechanics of his players; what each is capable of, where he could stand to push and where it straight up is not working. Nurse is a veteran playoff coach in a supporting role, but driving the team through familiar expectations (high anxiety at blowing it) with unfamiliar equipment (Kawhi Leonard) feels a bit unwieldy for him.
The overall chippy-ness that was at play in this game and each of the Pistons-Raptors meetings this season is also not the greatest confidence boost. When the Raptors are working well, when they are sure of their roles and where everybody fits, they are a team that keeps a cool head. In the outburst from Ibaka that had him rejected from this and one more game yet, there was an undercurrent of frustration. Similarly, this matchup had its moments of tension that while easily explained—a weird winning streak against an ex, spurned coach—should not be so centred within the gameplay itself. You know the feeling when you are too busy get caught up in the theatrics of something? When you don’t even have a minute to stop and go, “They said what?”, that’s where the Raptors should be. It’s not just a lack of control on Nurse’s part, because these are grown guys with huge reserves of physical and mental mastery. It’s a lack of clarity at where the collective head of this team is at in how they want to finish the regular season, in what the target number of wins is, in what the larger goal is, win, lose or draw, going forward.
Now is not just crunch time for the teams desperate to clinch, playing like they mean it, wanting only to make it into the first round who will treat it like a gift if they make it past there, now should be crunch time for the front-runners. The way we have seen very good teams combusting all year is not something the Raptors are immune to and now, with stakes the highest they’ve ever been going into the postseason, there’s even more pressure. Finishing strong, that breathless feeling of throwing oneself into the last leg of a race, is about endurance as much as it is the mentality it can generate, and both are things the Raptors need to show they have now in order to have them close, at the ready, later.