Why do these Raptors so often lay eggs in the playoffs?

Investigating why specifically the Raptors seem to be so susceptible to no-energy performances in the biggest moments.

Nick Nurse can’t stop talking about energy. The Toronto Raptors came out flat in game five. So flat that it was hard to point to any one player who under-performed; they all did, other than Serge Ibaka, who left with injury and is questionable for game six. The Raptors ended up losing game five by 22 points, after losing game one by 18.

“It’s strange to me that we have these kind of games,” said Nick Nurse. “It really is, but historically we have.”

Where was the energy, Nurse has been asked, repeatedly, in multiple media sessions since game five. He answered the same questions after game one, too. He hasn’t had a definitive answer at least not one he’s ready to offer publicly.

But it is strange the Raptors have historically had these games. Last year’s Raptors — despite finishing the playoffs with the ultimate prize — lost by 20 points multiple times in different series, in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks and game three against the Philadelphia 76ers. Going back through the list of NBA champions, it is indeed rare to find a team lost multiple games by 20 or more points in a championship playoff run.

It’s kind of hard to explain how we don’t have a little bit more energy last night,” said Nurse after Toronto’s game five loss, “and it’s even probably harder to explain how we don’t have it in Game 1 of the series, either, or really hard to explain how we don’t have it in game two in Milwaukee last year, and game [three] in Philly.”

He’s right to ponder. The last time an NBA champion lost two separate games by 20 or more points in the playoffs was the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs, who lost by 26 points to the Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer-led Utah Jazz and by 20 to the Steve Nash-led Phoenix Suns. The Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers also lost multiple games by 20 or more in the 2000 playoff run.

(The Boston Celtics came close in 2008 when they lost by 24 to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and another by 19 to Chauncey Billups’ Detroit Pistons. Ben Wallace, as a fun detail, was on the Cavs, and not the Pistons.)

That’s it, in the entire archive of advanced box scores on nba dot com, which goes back to 1997. So it’s happened three times in 23 years, and one of those times was last year’s Toronto Raptors. This year’s Raptors have lost a game by 23 and another by 18, both against these Celtics. It’s fair to say that the Raptors historically have surprising losses in the playoffs, especially for a very good team.

So what’s the problem?

Right off the bat, let’s discount the idea that missing shots is all there is to being blown out. The Raptors missed a whole heck of a lot of shots in game two against the Celtics — shooting 11-of-40 from deep — yet led for much of the game and only fell off late. In game five, Toronto shot 12-of-40 from deep and didn’t sniff the lead the entire game.

It’s not just cold shooting that keeps the Raptors disinterested and disengaged. That’s part of it, sure. To that point, Nurse and company seemed to think that creating great shots in the first quarter of game five — and missing them all — contributed to the team’s defensive fall-off going forward.

Man, I thought we had great shots in the first quarter and we get 11 points and somehow that really disheartens us against this team,” said Nurse. 

There could be something to that. The misses were indeed disheartening. Toronto missed open triples, open mid-range jumpers, got blocked at the rim. Marc Gasol air-balled a layup. OG Anunoby fumbled an uncontested pass that would have been a dunk and missed an uncontested reverse layup. It took over two minutes for the Raptors to score after the game started, then it took another two minutes for the second basket. Four minutes for the next basket. Two more minutes to close the quarter without scoring. Those stretches of collective falling-down-the-stairs can break a team’s spirit.

There is something to that; the dam broke in the second quarter, as Toronto, morose over its missing, couldn’t muster the intensity to play defense. But the Raptors actually won both quarters in the second half. Too little too late, as it were, but also some evidence that the team didn’t have the yips for the whole game.

Okay, so one weird quarter, followed by one quarter in which the weirdness manifested in low energy. That’s easier to explain. Then, the new question: how the heck can the Raptors score 11 points in a full quarter of basketball?

Part of it is that the Raptors don’t have a single player who can take over, calm everyone down, and get a bucket. Siakam was supposed to be that, but he decidedly has not been against the Celtics. Norm Powell has drifted back to bad habits against the Celtics around the rim, and his defense has been suspect enough that Nurse hasn’t kept him on the floor. VanVleet has been brutalized around the rim, as he’s shot 29.4 percent when driving. So when things go wrong, they can turn south in a hurry. When all else fails, no one can turn the ship out of the tailspin in the half-court.

That doesn’t explain why the champion Raptors lost multiple games by 20-plus with Kawhi Leonard on the team, who solved many of those same problems. It’s possible that that’s the rub with employing Kyle Lowry as a foundational star. He is a surefire Hall of Famer, and one of the most important league-wide drivers of winning over the last decade, but his scoring is perhaps the least certain element of his multi-dimensional game. Toronto’s stars all seem to be brilliant, Mensa-level players, who think the game at cerebral levels. But that can mean that when the game grinds to a stop, and the opponent sniffs every offensive action, the Raptors struggle to simply go get a bucket. Who’s the tough shot maker? When Lowry’s step-backs and VanVleet’s drives peter out, the Raptors are left with … 11 points in a quarter.

There are plenty of other positives to the roster that Toronto fields. Practically every player is better at defense than offense, and that means when things are working, the Raptors can beat anyone. When shots fall, and the team plays with pace and energy, they are a threat to repeat as champions. To be sure: they can still beat the Celtics, just not if their energy flags. Lowry is a genius, one of the smartest and hardest-working players in history. His presence practically assures a team of a high playoff seed. In can be lost in the shuffle, and in their prior success, but Siakam, Anunoby, VanVleet and others are all developing young players; they will be far better players a few years from now than they are today. Toronto is not without hope, now or in the future.

But such strengths also mean the Raptors are susceptible to duds.

Never fear, though. Toronto followed both 20-point losses in the 2018-19 playoff run with wins. The Raptors are a bounce-back team. Frustration, failure, and low expectations seem to motivate these Raptors, and that has never been more applicable to these Raptors than right now. Toronto is on the ropes. Losing big may be a feature of these Raptors.

But so too has it, in the past, heralded incredible performances.

Leave a Comment