Gladiator was a weird superhero. The Marvel hero, also known as Kallark, boasted power in conjunction with his confidence. It made for some incredible feats, such as when he easily defeated the Fantastic Four in a fight (a mix-up, surely, as the dust-up saw good guys on both sides). But it also meant that when Gladiator saw himself losing a fight, the vicious cycle made him increasingly likely to continue losing.
His strength was his weakness.
It’s a good literary device, having a hero’s strength also functioning as his weakness. A double-edged sword. One’s own worst enemy (shoutout, by the way, to the most recent release of Minute Basketball, my new NBA newsletter with partner in crime Samson Folk.) But the strength-weakness dichotomy is also true of the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors are best as a unit. They pass, re-locate, run, move in-sync. Their brains whir in synchronicity like a bunch of computers all mining bitcoins together. On both sides of the court, the Raptors hunt together. A pack. Like cards, or wolves.
But the Raptors do not have the single transcendental talent to change a team’s fortunes when the game isn’t working. Pascal Siakam is close, but he’s been slumping recently. Kyle Lowry is brilliant at every element of the game of basketball, but he can’t do it alone (at least, not always). Pack animals do not fare well against larger predators. Take, for example, the time that a group of Raptors (see the connection?) tried to fight a T-Rex. Science.
It’s not that the Raptors don’t have individually fantastic offensive players. Siakam and Lowry are that. Norman Powell was, at times, during the regular season, though he hasn’t yet discovered his evolved form during bubble basketball. Others, like Fred VanVleet or Serge Ibaka are at times capable alone of lifting the team to great heights, but more often are supporting offensive players.
That means that when all of those players slump at the same time, the Raptors are going to lose. Especially when an opponent hits 16 triples. Oh yeah, by the way, the Raptors played the Boston Celtics in this one and lost 122-100. I maybe should have started with that, but this loss was much more about the Raptors than it was about any opponent.
“The only thing I probably did learn is we’ve got to get a couple of our guys playing a little better, ” said Nick Nurse after the game. “I’m not really concerned about some of the main guys, but there’s a couple guys that need to play a little better since the restart and I’m glad we still have four games to get them going and give them that chance.”
Nurse was probably discussing Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka, who have not discovered their games in Orlando, and who played poorly against Boston. But their games will likely rise to the occasion when Toronto’s offensive framework functions properly. For example when Siakam creates space within which they can work. It is most concerning for Toronto that Siakam is slumping. His game has been decent in the bubble, though his shooting percentages have been poor. But Toronto needs him, at times, to take over and score a bunch of baskets all in a row, against set defenses. That hasn’t happened yet since the restart. The Raptors haven’t needed it until this game, and this game was Siakam’s worst. He scored 11 points on 15 shots, and he committed a pair of unforced turnovers. He stood in the corner in some possessions and tried to go it alone in others.
The reality of the situation is that the Celtics have more individual scorers than the Raptors. Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward are all 80th-percentile isolation scorers or better, league-wide. Walker is a fantastic pull-up shooter out of the pick-and-roll. Hayward is one of the best at smoothly and calmly disassembling a rotating defense. Tatum will hit jumpers in your face. They’re very good. The Raptors have some talented isolation scorers, but to beat the Celtics, they may need to play more as a team. There was far too much isolation play on Toronto’s part. Too many possessions against Boston ended with zero passes, one Raptor or another trying to play hero ball and shoot the team back into the game. That’s a disaster waiting to happen.
Toronto’s superpower is team play, but so too can that become a weakness when Toronto is unable to fight back into a game against a defense that switches everything to force Toronto to play in isolation.
And then when Boston’s triples started falling, the game was over before the fourth quarter began. The disaster happened. It wasn’t just a poor game from Toronto, though shooting 10-of-38 from deep certainly contributed. No, Boston forced Toronto away from its strengths, and the Raptors didn’t respond.
The reality of the situation is that Toronto is saving its best stuff in case it sees Boston in the second round, as the current standings project. The team has no reason to panic. One bad game is nothing compared to a mountain of evidence that the Raptors are equipped to compete with the best. In other words, the Raptors remain confident. But the Raptors need to control pace and style, rather than have those elements determined for them. Toronto’s weakness can easily turn back into a strength.