When the final buzzer echoed throughout the Barclays Center, something must have been broken. The box score needed double-checking, maybe even a third glance for good measure. The jumbo-tron flashed a scoreline of 101-91 in favour of the Brooklyn Nets over the Toronto Raptors.
Alas, there was no error. The Raptors 15 game winning streak had been snapped on Wednesday night. It was a feeling that the team had not tasted for precisely a month since their defeat to the Spurs on Jan. 12, an eternity for what is a grueling NBA schedule.
“It wasn’t meant to be tonight for some reason,” said Nick Nurse. “The ball wasn’t bouncing our way much.”
Over the course of their streak Toronto have won on the margins, pairing a crisp gameplan with a relentless nature, unlikely performers, and, in some cases, good fortune. They have overwhelmed opponents with the egalitarian offence, and scrounged unlikely victories from the jaws of defeat with hellacious full-court presses. On Wednesday, none of those winning ingredients came to fruition.
The Raptors were stagnant on offence, the ball sticking to each players hands as they settled for semi-contested jumpers. This style of offence runs counter to what makes Toronto special, and it was made worse that their top isolation bucket-getter, Pascal Siakam, was a step slow all night. Other than a few post-ups in the first half, Siakam wasn’t his usual energetic self, taking jumpers when DeAndre Jordan switched onto him instead of attacking off of the dribble.
Their new-look bench mob has often had at least one member spring to prominence nightly. Instead, Brooklyn’s reserves thoroughly outplayed Toronto, outscoring them 27-9. Although Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson each brought their high motors and earned extra possessions with hustle plays, the latter’s on-court pairing with Patrick McCaw was such a net negative offensively that it stymied the bench’s ability to stay afloat. Terence Davis was a non-entity as his jump-shot deserted him for the night.
Toronto’s normally swarming defence was… okay. The Nets ugly 46 effective field goal percentage and 101.3 offensive rating oversells the Raptors defensive effort, but it was by no means the root cause of their defeat. As the game clock ticked towards winning time Toronto got enough stops and turnovers to mount another heroic comeback, but their poor shot creation continually reared its head. However, throughout the game the Raptors struggled to contain Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris Levert from penetrating their exterior and causing havoc. I can still vividly hear Jack Armstrong’s squeals of exasperation each time Serge Ibaka was forced to help over and subsequently surrender an easy alley-oop lob.
“We didn’t have enough juice to overcome some of the things that were going on tonight,” said Fred VanVleet. “We didn’t really make it that difficult for them. I don’t know how much adjustments they made, they just played a little harder, fought a little harder, and they hustled more.”
A 15 game win streak is fatiguing. The performance on Wednesday alone was disappointing in a vacuum, but the totality of this past month has been incredulous. As Toronto racked up win after win, the effort of their opponents also began to grow. Once the Raptors emerged as the prominent story in the league across mainstream media, teams were swinging hard and heavy to knock them off. It was a little deflating that the streak ended in forgettable fashion to a Brooklyn team that didn’t even play that well, but that is the nature of an 82 game schedule.
“They stuck with their coverages, they stuck with their gameplans, they stuck with their schemes. We played like… walking zombies. We didn’t play well tonight,” said Kyle Lowry.
One positive to take from the game was the performance of Ibaka. The centre’s return from flu-like symptoms was seamless and in the second half he single-handedly kept the Raptors within touching distance, netting the only positive plus-minus rating on the team. The Nets willingly gave him open looks from three and he knocked them down without hesitation. Ibaka was dominant inside on offence and did his best to plaster over the leaky perimeter defence, but his contributions weren’t enough to dam the flood of Brooklyn ball-handlers entering the paint.
Maybe a loss before the All-Star break wasn’t the worst case scenario. The team has a clean slate when they return from their reprieve, likely getting Marc Gasol and Norman Powell back to comprise a fully healthy squad. The weight of the win-streak– if you believe in such a thing– will be lifted. Toronto will fade into the background, an afterthought of the NBA’s consciousness. All of the scuttlebutt coming from All-Star weekend will become the main talking point for the next week and Toronto shall return north of the border, operating in the shadows. Eyes will turn elsewhere but Toronto will keep grinding towards another championship, and this past month has shown that a repeat result is far more realistic than anyone imagined.