3rd loss in a row has us buggin’
One — Disorganized: This would have been a blowout win for the Sixers, except they wet the bed in the last six minutes by committing a handful of silly turnovers against the Raptors’ full-court press. And not to take anything away from Toronto’s spirited finish, but a fake comeback hardly makes up for three quarters of total dysfunction. The Raptors had little idea of what they wanted to accomplish on either end of the floor, and unsurprisingly, it resulted in their third straight loss.
Within the loss — and earlier ones to Miami and Houston — lies a lesson the Raptors are relearning after an early season honeymoon phase: They are good enough to beat the dregs of the league on talent and defence, but they will have to be at their very best every time they’re matched up with a quality opponent. They have proven they are good in a post-Kawhi Leonard reality, with a higher floor than was anticipated. Their ceiling, though, requires everything clicking and the intensity dialed all the way up. Their margin for error is simply too small against the league’s best, which is fine for a team in somewhat of a transitional, run-it-back year, so long as they act accordingly.
That Lowry’s return has coincided with the Raptors’ first skid of the 2019-20 season has twisted the optics. Entering the year, adversity was expected. That the Raptors quickly moved the bar is a testament to the championship carryover, the value of top-of-the-rotation continuity and some excellent depth discoveries. A 15-4 start changed the thinking, especially as they steamrolled a quality Utah Jazz team by 40 in a half. As the team continued winning without Lowry and Serge Ibaka against a soft schedule with some signature victories mixed in, it was clear the floor was higher than anticipated. The returns of Lowry and Ibaka this week were supposed to, after an expected adjustment period (don’t say we didn’t warn you), begin to show what kind of ceiling the Raptors have.
“I really think we’ve got to figure it out, right? I missed a lot of games and Serge missed nine games or 10 games whatever it was. You get everybody back, guys have to figure out things again,” Lowry said. “They won a bunch of games without me and Serge there. They played hard and they were in a rhythm, but then you have to integrate us back in. We are a part of this team. Even before, we were 6-2 when guys went out and roles changed, situations changed. I think now we are just at a point where we are playing good teams and we have to figure out how to get everybody back to understanding what roles they are in. It’s tough but it’s the NBA. You’ve got to figure it out. We have to figure out how to work as a team, as a group, everybody has to figure out their roles.”
It’s no less true in the aftermath of a third straight loss, nor is the idea that Lowry and Ibaka are important parts of the best version of the Raptors. Two players with high-importance roles being worked back in during the good times can understandably feel like an unwelcome shock to the system, a necessary realignment to make sure that what’s been working fine now doesn’t get in the way of what’s likeliest to work best later. Correlation is also not causation, and the timing of their returns has coincided with one of the toughest eight-day stretches of schedule a team can have, a downturn in what was once a league-best and unsustainably high 3-point percentage and a slump for Pascal Siakam, whose play hinted that may be coming as he carried an enormous load during the 10-2 Lowry-less stretch.
The tests keeping coming as the Raptors try to avoid dropping four regular-season games in a row for the first time since January 2017. They travelled to Chicago after the game to play the Bulls on Monday night, before hosting Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers on Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena.
The game even offered up some new areas of inquiry as Raptors leading scorer Pascal Siakam continued a trend of struggling against some of the NBA’s best teams. Even a modest fourth-quarter spurt in the midst of a half-baked Raptors comeback saw him finish with just 16 points – far off his 25 points-per-game average he took into Sunday’s contest – on 7-of-18 shooting. He’s hitting on just 39 per cent during the Raptors’ losing streak.
“I have to continue to get better and make sure I don’t let my offence, or anything like that, dictate the way I play,” said a frustrated Siakam afterward. “So I have to be better like that and find other ways to impact the game.”
Not to lay it all at Siakam’s feet, as the Raptors as a whole struggled to find room against the endless success defensive length and quickness the 76ers can roll out. Toronto shot just 43.7 per cent from the floor (its 12-of-22 fourth quarter helped) and 11-of-32 from three while making 17 turnovers.
To make things worse, the Raptors may have to figure out how to manage without Fred VanVleet for the short term. He left the game in the second with discomfort due to a bruised right knee he suffered Thursday against the Houston Rockets.
The Raptors ever-fluctuating lineup may be taking a toll, particularly against quality teams.
“I think we’re integrating some guys back in,” said Nurse. “… We’ve just got to keep plugging away at the schedule and get guys back in rhythm a little bit … and get ourselves back to a high-level team at both ends.”
But it was a series of possessions in the third quarter that offered the truest glimpse of the potential of the Sixers’ offense. Early in the period, he dribbled off a screen by Joel Embiid on the baseline, skipped a pass to Furkan Korkmaz, then cut to the weakside rim and got the ball back for an easy finger roll off the glass. A few minutes later, Simmons cut to the rim, got a pass from Harris, then made a one-touch pass to the corner, where Al Horford swung it to Matisse Thybulle for a wide open three. A few minutes after that, Simmons was backing down Rondae Hollis-Jefferson when he spotted Thybulle and James Ennis set up behind the three-point line on the far side of the court. Simmons whipped a two handed pass to Thybulle, who then swung the ball to Ennis for an open corner three that gave the Sixers a 79-60 lead. A couple of possessions after that, Simmons had Hollis-Jefferson pressing him several feet above the three-point line when Embiid arrived from down low to set a screen. With one dribble, he was into the paint, crossing over to his left and then rising up for a dunk that gave the Sixers an 82-63 lead.
Again, to fully appreciate the performance requires you to ignore the final three minutes, when the Sixers turned the ball over on five straight possessions to allow the Raptors to cut a 16-point lead to five. But if you succeed in doing so, this was an encouraging night.
“Their a team that likes to double-team, likes to scramble out, so if you make the extra pass a couple times you’re going to get a good look,” said Harris, who led all scorers with 26 points, shooting 4-for-8 from downtown.
As Brown noted, the Raptors played Simmons well beyond the three-point line rather than sagging off of him into the paint. Simmons responded by showing just how effective he can be off the dribble when he has a man to beat. In doing so, he illustrated the point Brown made after Simmons’ 34-point effort against the Cavs on Saturday, when the coach said that he wants to see his point guard attempt at least one three-pointer per game.
While that shot did not come against the Raptors, neither Simmons nor his team needed it. The Sixers are now 17-7 and are 3-1 against the Eastern Conference’s leading contenders. We’ve talked a lot about the concerns surrounding this offense. On Sunday, we saw some of the potential.
Tobias has been the offensive engine of late for Philadelphia, and Sunday night was no different with Harris kick-starting the attack with 11 first-quarter points. On the game’s opening possession, Tobi came off a Joel Embiid screen and went right at Marc Gasol for a swooping lay-in.
Time after time, Harris navigated into open space to pull up for a short jumper or get to the rack. He also displayed a quick release from behind the arc, going 4-of-8, his four makes tying a season-high. Harris’ drive-and-dish to Ben Simmons under the basket was one of the few bright spots in the last two minutes. Especially with Josh Richardson sidelined recently, the Sixers have really needed someone to step up and assume more of the scoring load, and Tobi has answered the call.
Matisse Thybulle: 20 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, 3 turnovers
They grow up so fast. The Sixers’ first-round pick went off tonight for a career-high 20 points, knocking down 5-of-8 shots from behind the arc, including a 4-point play at the first-quarter buzzer. I loved the display of confidence from Thybulle in the fourth quarter, seeing him receive the pass on the wing, fake to Raul Neto in the corner, and rise up for 3.
The defensive work is still there; Matisse made a tremendous play late in the second quarter to jump a passing lane for a deflection and scoop up the loose ball for a slam on the other end. The game is slowing down for him; he is taking fewer wild shots and making the extra pass. The team threw him to the wolves having him out there late against that Toronto press, but Matisse was tremendous tonight.
Tobias makes Raptors pay
The Sixers have constantly talked about exploiting mismatches this season with their size. With the Raptors starting two smaller guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, there was bound to be a matchup they could exploit.
Early on, it was Harris who was by far the Sixers’ most aggressive player in attacking Lowry. In a game where the Sixers did a lot of over-passing, Harris did not. The most impressive thing about Harris’ start was the way that he attacked the rim — even when Ibaka was in the game.
With head coach Nick Nurse’s game plan to take Embiid and Simmons out of the picture as much as possible, it was on the Sixers’ supporting cast to make them pay. Harris did just that with a game-high 26 points on 4 of 8 from three and 10 of 22 overall.
A disastrous second quarter would only get worse, when it was announced that Fred VanVleet would not return to the game due to a right knee contusion; evidently, said injury was sustained against Houston and despite feeling well pre-game, it flared up in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam’s struggles continued, as he started the half 2-for-8 with just four points. Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby led Toronto with 10 and 15 points respectively, amounting for 80% of all of Toronto’s three-point makes.
And yes, the shooting. Toronto ended the half shooting 5-16, just 31%. They were 1-for-8 in the quarter and didn’t hit a three for the final 8 minutes of the half.
Defensively, Toronto couldn’t keep Tobias Harris under wraps. After scoring 11 in the first, he added another seven to lead all scorers with 18.
The Raptors picked up the pace in the third, scoring a quick seven fast break points, but things soon followed the first half script. A brutal two-minute stretch mid-way through the third ballooned Philadelphia’s lead from 10 to 18. With the score 53-63, Toronto missed a free-throw, followed by a three from Thybulle. Another turnover on the next possession lead to a fast break score for the Sixers; Siakam then missed a layup, and another Thybulle three deflated any hopes of a run. The Sixers counter-punched every run the Raptors made, and Toronto would enter the final frame down 18, 86-68.
Finally, midway through the fourth, the Raptors began to flip the script. Down by 20 points, Nick Nurse rolled his starters back out, went big with Serge Ibaka in place of Fred VanVleet (making Kyle Lowry the only Raptor shorter than 6’8 on the court), and rolled out a zone defense.
And it worked! Philadelphia struggled offensively, had 11 fourth quarter turnovers and was outscored 26-13 over the final eight minutes.
In short things are off and while Nurse didn’t want to come right out and say why, Kyle Lowry did.
“I missed a lot of games and Serge missed nine games or 10 games whatever it was,” Lowry said. “You get everybody back guys have to figure out things again. They won a bunch of games without me and Serge there. They played hard and they were in a rhythm, but then you have to integrate us back in. We are a part of this team. Even before (the injuries) we were 6-2 when guys went out and roles changed, situations changed. I think now we are just at a point where we are playing good teams and we have to figure out how to get everybody back to understanding what roles they are in.”
The Sixers didn’t get their normal contribution from Embiid who was held to just 10 points but he avoided the embarrassing donut beside his name in the boxscore this time. What they did get was more than enough from the likes of Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, and Matisse Thybulle to get the job done.
In addition to an inability to hit the broadside of a barn for the better part of the night, the Raptors were also uncharacteristically sloppy with the basketball turning it over 17 times leading directly to 16 Philly points.
Losing Fred VanVleet to a bruised knee that he suffered the previous game but tried to play through unsuccessfully into second quarter only exacerbated the Raptors’ troubles.
The last time the Raptors lost three in a row was a year ago in mid November when the New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics put it on them.
That time, like this time the losing skid began with two at home and was followed by one on the road. If there’s any solace in this run of ineptitude compared to that one it is that the level of competition was at least superior in this run.
The Raptors are in the midst of the team’s longest losing streak in more than a full year after dropping a 110-104 decision to the 76ers here Sunday night and how they figure out how to fix what’s wrong will be telling.
To hear them say it, it’s just getting used to one another again.
“I missed a lot of games and Serge (Ibaka) missed nine games or 10 games whatever it was. You get everybody back, guys have to figure out things again,” guard Kyle Lowry said. “They won a bunch of games without me and Serge there. They played hard and they were in a rhythm, but then you have to integrate us back in.
“We are a part of this team. Even before (the injuries), we were 6-2 when guys went out and roles changed, situations changed. I think now we are just at a point where we are playing good teams and we have to figure out how to get everybody back to understanding what roles they are in.”
This is the first time the Raptors have lost three games in a row since November, 2018, when they dropped games to New Orleans, Detroit and Boston in succession to fall to 12-4 on the season.
The Raptors shot just 43 per cent from the floor and committed 17 turnovers Sunday, looking just a step or two slow offensively all night. They were OK defensively, especially in goading Philadelphia into a brutal turnover-filled finish, but a bit off all over the floor.
“I’ve got to watch the tape a little bit but I think it feels like it’s more at the offensive end where it’s just too many possessions where there’s not very good execution, just getting to a trigger or play call or whatever and then within the play call, the screening needs to improve, just the basics need to improve as well,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
“I think we’re already together, just because sometimes we don’t make as many shots or the ball doesn’t move as much, we can still figure things out as a team and that’s all that really matters. Guys have the right mindset about it, they’re all in the gym working and thinking about being a great team.”
And it is a two-way street, which might be even more important because players need to know they can have input that will be paid attention to by the staff.
“I think that we’ve got a group of guys here that are willing to take to coaching, and it’s not without their questioning why are we doing it,” Nurse said. “And I think that’s totally fair. I want them to understand why we’re doing it, and if they don’t know then they need to ask. And they do, and I think that’s good.
“And then there’s times when they’ll say, ‘No, not that rotation, let’s do this one.’ And I’ll say, ‘Sure.’ As long as you two guys are going to communicate it out, I don’t really care, it doesn’t really matter. But we’ve got to communicate it.”
One of the best communicators is Gasol, who mans the backline of Toronto’s defence admirably but also has the smarts to get up and cover guards on the perimeter. Given Nurse’s use of zone defences that have Gasol planted along the foul line, where he has pick-and-roll duties that might not be perfect for Gasol’s athleticism, being able to think and adapt quickly is why it works.
“Not only can he do it in the back line, but he can do it in the front line when he’s the guy out there blitzing, he’s a great blitzer,” Nurse said of Gasol’s pick-and-roll coverage. “He can read them, he can keep people in front, he can get his hands on the ball, he can bluff it and get back out of it when he doesn’t think it’s necessary on his own. I mean he’s super smart, man. Super smart.”
Gasol’s best trait may be his unselfishness, his willingness to do what’s best for his teammates and not himself. It’s why he can change assignments easily, because he knows the greater cause is being served.
“It’s a matter of putting everything out there and playing and sharing the ball and moving your body, moving the ball, communicating and having a positive mindset and it always works out,” he said. “I think that once you work for your teammates and you help each other and think about them before you think about yourself, it always fun and that’s the way these guys think and I’m sure we’re going to be just fine.”
Of all the players available on draft night, the next most productive player by Win Shares through Thursday has been ….
Terence Davis. The undrafted Terence Davis.
Ok, I’ll say it again – HOW was this guy not picked?
Raptors guard Terence Davis has been a revelation in Toronto. (Steve Russell / Getty Images)
Pardon my little segue here, but it’s not like Davis was playing in some Division III league in Saskatchewan. The guard from Ole Miss played four years in the SEC and was one of the best players in the league in all of them. Last year his per-possession stats compared favorably with multiple players from the league who were actually picked, plus he was arguably the best player on the court at both Portsmouth and the NBA Draft Combine. Scouts questions his left hand and shooting consistency, but these were quibbles.
At the very least, going into the final 15 picks, the skittishness over his agent’s reluctance to take a 2-way shouldn’t have dissuaded teams from picking him. The odds of getting a halfway decent player with a pick this late are already minimal — you really want to make them even smaller? (And for those of you wondering about my Davis crush, I have the receipts here and here).
Of course, landing the right spot matters too. Toronto has done a great job developing Davis further, as our Blake Murphy reported, although, ironically, the Raps shouldn’t get a pass on the draft either. They had the 59th pick and selected… Dewan Hernandez.
Harden did just that, finding guys in open spots that would force the Raptors into a desperate scrambling situation that would often see Houston whip the ball around and find an open shooter for three.
It was a high-risk scheme that would work only if the Raptors could move quickly enough to close out on shooters and/or bank on the Rockets to miss. Neither happened nearly enough for the stratagem to pay off all the way and the team ended up losing, but it wasn’t without some positives coming about.
“Gosh, it was really good,” said Nurse after looking at the tape of the defence he used against the Rockets. “Now that I look back on it, I wasn’t quite sure I was glad I did it or not, but I’m 100-per-cent glad I did it now. It gives us another interesting thing to do.”
Nurse defined his coverage against the Rockets Thursday after the game as something more along the lines of an interesting experiment, but it appears he’s discovered a breakthrough with it, so it’s likely we’re going to see more of it in the future.
Who knows, it might come as early as Sunday against the Sixers. With Nurse and his defensive schemes, truly, anything appears to be on the table.
But as fun as it is for us to watch Nurse go with all of these coverages and try out all of these different looks, it’s got to be a little trying for players who are attempting to learn it all.
Nurse says there are base concepts that he likes to carry across the board in all of his coverages – “we still have some foundational principles that we like to do” – but this is still at least three or more different zone coverages in addition to man-to-man principles of how to attack a team’s pick-and-roll that can, and will, all get mixed and matched throughout the course of a game.
From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like a fair bit to take in.
On the inside, however, it looks like Nurse is getting the message across with relative ease.
“He’s tricky, but he’s a great coach. I’m just getting adjusted,” said Shamorie Ponds, a rookie with the Raptors on a two-way deal, of experiencing Nurse’s coaching style for the first time. “I came here not too long ago, so I’m just getting adjusted to everything and I’m liking it.”
The first quarter of the season is a good time to look back on pre-season predictions and make any necessary adjustments. It’s not a surprise that the Bucks and Lakers currently sit atop their respective conferences. But did you think Miami or Dallas were top-5 teams heading into the season? What about Luka Doncic and Trae Young? They’re forever linked as trade pieces for each other. This season they both sit in the top-4 in scoring AND top-3 in assists. After the departure of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, I don’t think that even the most optimistic of Raptor fans would’ve predicted 15 wins over the first 20 games.
Did I miss something? Send me any Raptors-related content: [email protected]