Ten — WTF: Powell’s errors are especially glaring when the shots don’t fall, because he really doesn’t do much else on the floor, and his awareness is just lacking. Just look at the play above, where Powell makes an extra effort to run the length of the floor only to save possession for the Sixers while also giving them a fresh shot clock. Embiid threw an errant pass out of the post so it was to be a turnover, but even if Powell was under the assumption that the Raptors had somehow tipped the pass, the Sixers would still be inbounding from their own baseline with six seconds left on the clock. So why did he pick up the ball?
At opposite ends of the size spectrum, at least when it comes to the NBA, it is fascinating to watch Lowry and Embiid compete in terms of making an impact. Lowry’s salvaging of some odd, mismatched lineups with his intelligence, shotmaking and toughness has become a running joke, and the one at the start of the fourth quarter certainly ranked up there in randomness: Lowry shared the floor with Matt Thomas, OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson and Len. That lineup, obviously, won the first four-plus minutes of the fourth quarter 9-4. The trouble came when Lowry sat.
For the game, the Raptors won Lowry’s 37 minutes by 12 points, which means the Raptors were minus-19 in the other 11 minutes. That says a lot about everyone else. It’s not wholly encouraging for VanVleet, whose all-around impact sags behind his mentor’s even if he has a lot of similar skills on both ends.
For now, though, it says the most about Pascal Siakam.
“I think we’re not being strong enough with the ball,” Nick Nurse said. “We’re making some hard driving (moves) and it seems like we’re either having a late pass-handling issue, a finishing issue or even when we do go up without a pass, we lost the ball out of bounds a few times, kind of on our own. If they were hitting it out of bounds, we would retain the ball. But we just kind of have not handled the ball with enough strength late in the game.”
Nurse was using the first-person plural, but he might as well have been using the third-person singular. Not that Siakam was the only guilty party — even Lowry made some questionable decisions in pick-and-rolls with some of his new screening partners, with Lowry noting that Aron Baynes sets such good screens that “he doesn’t always look for the ball” — but the All-Star was at the top of the list.
With the Raptors trailing by one and 3:40 left, VanVleet threw a zinger of a pass to Siakam late in the shot clock. Siakam was right in thinking he would have to make a move quickly. You cannot make a move, however, if you do not have the ball. The ball went through his hands and out of bounds, one of 19 Raptors turnovers. With 1:23 left, Siakam drove at Simmons, who was very good on him all night, and appeared to have the angle. Embiid jumped out to help, and Siakam lost the ball out of bounds. It looked so unnatural that the referees assumed one of the Sixers had blocked the shot, before the call was reviewed and overturned.
Lowry was Lowry — he finished with 24 points, nine assists and eight rebounds — but he was a man on an island. He got some assistance as OG Anunoby — a ghost through the first two games since signing his four-year, $72 million contract — stepped up with 20 points and five steals.
But elsewhere the Raptors were lacking, and the question is do they lack something tangible or can they find a way to cover the gaps? The Raptors have blown double-digit leads — they were up by 14 midway through the third quarter against the Sixers — in all three of their losses.
“[We’re] Just letting our foot off the pedal and just not keeping the same urgency that we have when we’re going on our runs, getting these big leads,” said Anunoby. “Just playing smarter too, where sometimes, you know, we take bad shots, don’t play as hard on defence. So just keeping our foot on the pedal the whole 48 minutes to finish out the game.”
A more complete effort would help and, optimistically, there was some promise on Tuesday night. Coming into the game the Raptors were ranked 20th in the NBA in points allowed but made a more concerted effort to gum things up against Philadelphia.
It worked to an extent — if Toronto can hold their opponents to 38 per cent shooting and force 18 turnovers more often, their three-game losing streaks will be few and far between. But they’ll need some offence, too, as they aren’t going to win many games shooting just 36 per cent from the floor and making 19 turnovers themselves — including three in the final seven minutes.
“I think we’re not being strong enough with the ball,” said Nurse, perhaps talking about Pascal Siakam, who was 8-of-23 from the floor, didn’t take a free throw and was last seen walking off the floor and directly to the dressing room in a huff after fouling out with 25.6 seconds left in the game.
“We’re making some hard driving things and it seems like we’re either having a late pass handling issue, a finishing issue — or even when we do go up without a pass, we lost the ball out of bounds a few times,” Nurse said. “… We just kind of have not handled the ball with enough strength late in the game.”
The Raptors have a day to regroup before hosting the Knicks — who are 2-1 — on Dec. 31st back in Tampa.
It’s a must-win game to close out 2020. Lowry even said so. Stranger things have happened, but through three games, the Raptors have shown anything is possible and not all of it is good.
The Sixers trailed by as many as 14 points, missed just about every shot imaginable in the first half, and saw Joel Embiid grab his right leg and head to the locker room in the third quarter. We’re seen this movie before. But wait, plot twist! Joel Embiid returned to the bench and re-entered the game, looking perfectly fine. Philadelphia went on a 11-0 run to tie the game heading into the fourth quarter. In the guts of the game, the Sixers hit big shot after big shot, and ultimately prevailed, 100-93. Bell Ringer time!
Embiid was terrific on both ends of the court tonight, continuing to strengthen the “when Joel plays, the Sixers win” corollary. The Sixers’ star center was a perfect 11-of-11 from the foul line in the first half, serving as the only reason the game was even remotely close. NBA.com’s glossary entry for “efficient offense” is now a clip of Embiid doing the rip-through move when the defender reaches into his air space. Down the stretch, Joel made the right reads and found his open teammates, none bigger than the climatic Seth Curry 3.
Defensively, Joel did yeomanlike work as a rim protector. One play in particular defined how impactful he can be. Stepping up to take a charge, Embiid quickly reacted as Anunoby dished to his man behind him, Aron Baynes. Joel denied him at the rim perfectly, and then continued hustling to collect the subsequent offensive rebound. Immensely glad to know that cramp, or slight hamstring pull, or whatever happened in the third, wasn’t that serious.
Speaking of great two-way performances, no one is bemoaning Tobias Harris’ contract tonight (or at least only to themselves very quietly). Tobi got off to a blazing hot start, scoring nine of the team’s first 11 points. All night long, Harris was very decisive, firing away immediately when he had the open look, or recognizing the pump fake was the right play and ducking in for the open elbow jumper. And as well as he played offensively, Tobias was just as solid on the defensive end, getting into passing lanes and putting himself between his man in the rim. Arguably, Tobi’s biggest play of the game was when he broke up at 2-on-1 fast break by himself in the final two minutes (which was probably a foul, but the effort was terrific). Even three-quarters of what we saw from Harris tonight on a regular basis would suit the Sixers just fine.
Look, this was an ugly loss for Toronto. It’s a game they had in the bag, in which they rediscovered the defensive identity that made them such a terror in 2019-20, and that saw Lowry continue to show his gas tank is still very much loaded up for a long highway ride. Siakam’s lifelessness, VanVleet’s discombobulation, and Nurse’s inability to find an offense that works without Lowry in the game were troubling symptoms tied to some of the biggest questions facing this team. Starting 0-3 does not and should not feel good.
But many things can in fact be true at once. Have the Raptors been mostly terrible out of the gate outside of some nice five minute flourishes? Absolutely. Are they still, minus the centers, essentially the same team as last year’s 60-win machine and more than capable of ripping off a win streak once things settle down and the players all, like, find places to live in their new adopted host city? Hell yeah! Losing streaks happen. Shit, last year’s team had two separate streaks as long as the one the Raptors are enduring now. The chronology is what makes things seem worse than they are; there’s no backdrop of strong and steady play from this season to help contextualize the relative insignificance of a couple Ls. Because of the stops and starts and extended layoffs since March, it’s a little easier to spiral into believing that this team is broken. We just haven’t seem them play enough. There are, however, seven whole ass years of Kyle Lowry-led Raptors teams, many of which boasting far less talent than this one, that were ultimately fine or significantly more than fine. Three games into a disjointed pandemic season wherein the Raptors have relocated to a different country is not the time to believe the charmed life Raps fans have enjoyed since 2013 is about to come to a crashing halt.
Save those feelings for if they lose to the Knicks on Thursday.
One thing that remains the same is Lowry’s importance, even at the age of 34. The Raptors have been outscored by 26 points through three games, but they’ve actually bested teams by 14 points with Lowry on the court. In other words, they’ve been outscored by 40 points in 33 minutes with their all-star point guard on the bench.
Nobody else has matched Lowry’s impact, though, at least not consistently. Fred VanVleet, who broke out for 27 points against the Spurs, was held to just eight on 3-of-12 shooting Tuesday. Norman Powell, who is coming off a career season, has been a non-factor. OG Anunoby impressed against the Sixers, scoring 20 points, but was quiet offensively in each of the first two contests.
However, if there’s a common denominator between the three losses, it’s been the uneven early-season play of Pascal Siakam.
Once again, Siakam got off to a strong start on Tuesday. After grabbing a rebound early in the opening quarter, he pushed the ball up the floor, dribbled into the lane and drilled a pretty step-back off one leg. A few minutes later, Lowry found him cutting towards the rim for a slam-dunk. Then, he splashed a three from 25-feet out.
For the third straight game, he started out looking like the pre-pandemic version of himself – the all-star and All-NBA calibre talent. For the third straight game, he went into halftime break with 12 points. Then, for the third straight game, he faded as the night went on.
By the fourth quarter, when the Raptors were barely clinging onto a lead that was once as large as 14 points, Siakam had reverted back to player that couldn’t get out of his own way in the bubble a few months ago. He wasn’t just missing shots – they can live with that, provided he’s getting and taking good looks.
With less than four minutes remaining, a routine pass from VanVleet went through his hands and sailed out of bounds. On a crucial possession, with roughly 90 seconds left, he drove into three Sixers defenders in the paint and lost the ball. He committed five of his six fouls in the final seven minutes of the game, most of which were entirely deserved and avoidable. Frustrated after fouling out, Siakam walked straight down the tunnel and towards the locker room, despite there being 26 seconds left on the clock.
That the Raptors have built up big leads when Siakam’s been at his best early in games is no coincidence. That they’ve collapsed as he’s disappeared down the stretch isn’t either.
Kyle Lowry dropped an F-bomb to describe his feelings because he was so disgusted that the Raptors had opened the season with two straight losses. Now it’s three.
Another disastrous third quarter and a mystifying inability to make big plays at key points in the fourth quarter doomed the Raptors again, this time in a 100-93 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night.
It is the first time since the 2005-06 season that the Raptors have started so poorly and Lowry is fed up.
“We don’t have time to waste no more,” he said. “We’re 0-3 and we need a win really, really, really bad, and I feel like we’re getting to that point where it’s a must-win.
“We’ve gotta do everything we possibly can to win the next game (Thursday against New York).”
Pascal Siakam, who was ineffective in the fourth quarter again, fouled out with about 25 seconds left and immediately marched to the locker room area.
“I didn’t see that, I’m sure I will hear about it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I’ll address it when I get back in the locker room. I’m sure he was frustrated. He had a difficult night at the offensive end, and obviously he fouled out. I’m sure he was frustrated.”
It took Siakam 23 shots to compile his 20 points, he committed five of his fouls in the final six minutes of the game, and he had a couple of turnovers.
He was just 1-for-4 from the floor in the fourth quarter and 3-for-9 in the second half.
“He’s got to get a little stronger at the end of his drives,” Nurse said. “He’s got to play to make a tough finishing basket rather than playing for the possible foul. It’s hard to score when you’re playing to draw a foul rather than playing to score and then, if there’s contact, that’s a bonus.
“Again I think there were driving lanes there, he took them pretty aggressive and then, for whatever reason, at the end of them he didn’t quite get strong enough on a few of those shots there late.”
But there remains, for now, little doubt in Siakam’s role.
The idea of superstar fit assumes that there’s some idealistic version of the world where a superstar, who clearly wants out of one situation, will fit seamlessly into the one he is forcing himself to. This version of the world doesn’t exist. The Raptors should know this better than anyone. The championship banner hanging at Scotiabank Arena (and a replica one in Tampa Bay) is a reminder of how successful the Leonard trade was. But the Raptors took on significant risk, not knowing whether he would even report to training camp, with question marks hanging over his health status, and catering Leonard’s regular season workload based on a meticulously designed load management schedule. It all came together in the postseason and ended with a championship. In retrospect, it is easier to remember the results over the arduous process of integrating Leonard.
The bigger roadblock with a Harden-Raptors trade might be timing.
When Masai Ujiri traded for Leonard, the roster had reached their ceiling, especially in the playoffs. Toronto was in a position to trade for Leonard and assume the risks. The 2020-21 version of the Raptors are in a different spot. Their most important player, Kyle Lowry, turns 35 in March and is a free agent this summer. They just lost Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol in free agency. The ceiling of this current group hinges on the internal improvement of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Acquiring Harden would mean trading at least one of them. He would represent an upgrade on the court, but the Raptors would still need to make further changes to the roster to open up a new championship window.
On Saturday, Harden made his season debut and put up 44 points and 17 assists in 43 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers, reminding everyone why a team will eventually trade for him and reap the rewards of his basketball talents.
The Raptors might not be that team, but it’s important to remember this: when the next star becomes available in the trade market again, the same questions surrounding superstar fit will still exist.
In opening losses to New Orleans and San Antonio, Powell had a total of 12 points and only 16 field goal attempts in about 34 minutes. That’s not good enough — going 0-for-5 from the field against the Spurs was a big part of the reason the Raptors lost — but that’s no reason to toss him aside. He wasn’t much better Tuesday with just six points and one rebound in 18 minutes in a 100-93 loss to Philadelphia.
Losing confidence in a proven veteran after two games makes no sense and could do irreparable harm to Powell’s confidence and it could cause other veterans who have earned some leeway to cast a sideways glance at the coach.
Nurse knows that, he’s worked with so many players at so many levels through so many ups and downs that overreacting is not in the coach’s makeup.
Besides, it’s not like there are proven regulars who have earned a chance to move up in the pecking order. If Powell loses minutes, who gets them? Terence Davis has not shown enough for anyone to think he’ll be tangibly better, DeAndre’ Bembry can’t impact a game as well offensively as Powell has proven he can. They may get their chance, but not right now.
“I think that, both the games we’ve played, the margin in the games has been right there, kind of a little back and forth, margin for error is pretty slim either way, you know, to get newer guys’ feet wet yet,” the coach said. “I think you’ve got to … give these guys the utmost look and then filter in these other guys. These other guys are going to get a chance, it’s just a matter of when and when we’re going to need them, and we’re trying to get them ready for that opportunity.”
Nurse’s patience, though, is not limitless. He needs to see players like Powell and Matt Thomas, Toronto’s two key scorers off the bench, put out a consistent defensive effort as well as make shots. That’s been one of the more troubling aspects of Powell’s play, the coach said. And that’s where Nurse’s patience appears to be wearing thin.
“I’m way more concerned with the energy level, some physicality, some attention to detail on our defensive game plan than I am about any of that stuff.”