Despite lethargic loss, Raptors show that they don’t need to be flawless to win games

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Conventional wisdom suggested that this iteration of the Toronto Raptors would have little room for error if they hoped to have a successful season. After marching to a 6-2 record to open the season it seemed as such, with Toronto playing flawless basketball yet solely relying on their tight seven man rotation. 

However, cracks in this theory began to emerge once the Raptors unveiled their depth. After Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry went down with injuries, Toronto surged to a seven-game winning streak. 

That streak may have come to an end on Tuesday night in a tough 121-110 overtime loss to Miami, but so to did the notion that this Raptors team still possesses a small margin for error. Toronto sleep-walked through 44 minutes of the game, a game they fully deserved to lose, before switching on their championship-level defence to come storming back from an eleven-point deficit. It was a game in which the Raptors had no business winning, in which the Heat were dead-eye from deep, in which Kyle Lowry missed all of his eleven three-point attempts in his return from injury.

Yet four minutes was all Toronto needed to get themselves back into the basketball game. 

Like an inverse of the golden-era Warriors that could erase an opponent’s lead through a bombardment of three-pointers, the Raptors catapulted their way back to level-pegging with their frenetic defensive energy. Norman Powell glued himself to Bam Adebayo — who destroyed the Raptors on both ends of the floor all night— and smartly refused to bite on the pump-fake to force a shot-clock violation. On the next possession Lowry quickly poked the ball away from Adebayo as he ascended to the rim. Then, following a Justise Winslow miss, Pascal Siakam and Lowry combined for a perfectly timed double box-out on Adebayo— the only reasonable way to stop him on the night— to draw an offensive foul.

“We still had a chance to win the game. You can’t get mad at that,” Lowry said after the game.

Toronto were a step slow defensively in all but the last four minutes of the final quarter. Fred VanVleet had his first poor defensive showing of the season, struggling to wriggle through screens to get to shooters and even getting fooled on a backdoor cut by Duncan Robinson. The super-sub duo of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Terence Davis were overzealous off-ball and couldn’t stop ball handlers at the point of attack. Sometimes team don’t have the ‘juice’ on a night, and Toronto certainly looked parched. But they still remained a Lowry jump-shot or two away from snatching victory.

“We weren’t as crisp defensively as we usually are,” said Siakam. “We weren’t really sharp, our rotations and things like extra effort, we didn’t really have it.”

Miami were also surgical in their dissection of Toronto’s lagging defensive rotations. The Raptors have built a reputation as star-stoppers by shading more attention in the opposing best player’s direction. However, Jimmy Butler torched double teams and traps by consistently finding Adebayo in the heart of the Raptors’ defence. Toronto have loved putting ill-equipped centres in the decision-making 4-on-5 scenario, but Adebayo thrived in it.

“Bam on the offensive end, they were firing it in to him and he was throwing fastballs out to the shooters and they were making them,” said Nick Nurse. “We were maybe a half-step slow and didn’t get quite out to the shooters.”

It is mildly concerning that Toronto have now let close victories slip through their hands against Milwaukee, Boston, and Miami. Still, the Raptors are yet to be blown out in a single game this year, even in encounters in which they are far from their best. It is a fact that may do little to reduce the frustration of a close loss, but it shows that Toronto are talented enough to win every single time they step on the floor.

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