Two — Gutted: It’s beyond cruel that Siakam will face criticism for yet another missed clutch shot. Similar to the loss against the Warriors, Siakam had a chance to hit the game-winner on the last shot, he used his patented spin move to create the shot, and it just rimmed out. Siakam was undoubtedly the first option this time around, as the Raptors inbounded the ball to Siakam in the post and the plan was for him to attack. Siakam backed off the first double team from Damian Lillard, then used the spin move, took a bump from Robert Covington that wasn’t called, then released a short floater. That exact matchup with Siakam against Covington in the post worked all night, but it just refused to drop in that sequence. This game is beyond cruel.
“The darn ball won’t bounce our way,” coach Nick Nurse added Monday after the Raptors’ 112-111 loss, their second one-point defeat in as many nights. “That’s the third game this year where one’s gone in and out at the buzzer on us. Hopefully, it’s going to balance out as the season goes here a little bit.”
The miss capped a disappointing 1-3 trip that was rich in moral victories, if you’re into those. The losses to Phoenix and Golden State came down to, essentially, shooting. The Suns went 21-for-40 from deep in the first game of the trip. While the Raptors gave up more open shots than they’d like, that percentage is outside of reasonable expectations, and they scored enough to win. Meanwhile, the Warriors built their lead on 3-pointers from everyone but Steph Curry, getting 12 of them in total. Their percentage went down as the game went on, but the Warriors, exempting Curry, still went 15-for-29 on contested shots for the game, better than you’d expect. Meanwhile, the Raptors shot nearly equal percentages on contested and uncontested shots and ended at 40.6 percent from the field, missing eight of their 22 free throws to boot.
The problem is things don’t always balance out. Six of the Raptors’ eight losses have come by a total of just 26 points. They have been awful, especially on offence, in crunchtime. They are scoring just 86.5 points per 100 possessions in their 25 “clutch” minutes spread over five games, all of which they have lost. You cannot wave that away, either in the standings or spiritually. Portland’s three best shot-makers — Damian Lillard, Carmelo Anthony and CJ McCollum — all hit contested shots in the final three-plus minutes. The Raptors got a pair of open dunks from Siakam and a miracle 3 from Chris Boucher, but offence was tough to come by late. It wasn’t the first time. The Raptors have shot 21 3-pointers in their clutch minutes and just eight free throws.
At some point, this will become a math problem. The Raptors are through 13.9 percent of the season, and February scans as particularly difficult. Compared with a week ago, though, the Raptors seem a lot more familiar than the team that began the year 1-6. There are three main reasons.
The Raptors had it all under control until they didn’t
The Blazers led 61-60 early in the third quarter before the Raptors went on a 12-0 run and seemed poised to run away with it — but Portland wouldn’t go away.
Trailing by 13 with eight minutes left, the Trail Blazers chipped away until Anthony (20 points) side-stepped a flying Boucher in the corner to hit a three and cut the Raptors’ lead to two with 3:53 left. The 18-year veteran tied it a moment later and Damian Lillard gave the Trail Blazers a lead with a triple at 2:36 left to finish a 10-0 run.
A pair of Siakam cuts to the rim and a triple by Boucher put Toronto up 111-110 with 54 seconds left before CJ McCollum (30 points) took VanVleet the length of the floor and hit a jumper with 9.6 to play that proved to be the winner.
“I thought our guys were fighting really hard and I just think they got some big shot-makers and they just made a whole bunch,” said Nurse, as the Blazers scored 22 points in the final 7:11 on 7-of-10 shooting, led by Anthony’s 10. “There wasn’t any misses out of ‘em, even on some pretty good defensive rotations out and they’d just, you know, they just hit one after another after another.”
Both offenses exploded during the fourth quarter, which wasn’t particularly surprising considering the trends of this game. Corner threes continued to hurt Portland on defense, as guys were consistently open for Toronto in those pockets. Scoring three became as easy as a quick drive-and-kick for the Raptors. The three-point barrage didn’t make the comeback easy. McCollum’s 12 fourth-quarter points allowed Portland to keep it close. But it was Carmelo Anthony scoring 13 points in the quarter that really changed the game. It was a complete 180 after being a sieve on defense and going 2 for 10 before the fourth. In the end, it was McCollum’s crossover-to-jumper over Fred VanVleet that sealed it for Portland, giving them the 112-111 victory.
The shot of the night came from McCollum. Down 111-110 in the final 20 seconds, he dribbled up court against Toronto guard Fred VanVleet and made a spin move at the three-point line before navigating to the right side of the key. There, he crossed over back to the just below the right elbow where he pulled up and drained the shot over VanVleet to give Portland a 112-111 lead with 9.9 seconds remaining.
Toronto still had a chance to win. That led to Covington going one-on-one down low against Raptors forward Pascal Siakam. The All-Star had to work hard for a shot against Covington and got one off in the lane. It clanked off the back of the rim. Siakam had a chance at a follow after getting his hands on the ball again but never came close as time expired.
All of that was set up by Anthony, who scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, including eight in the final four minutes to lead the Blazers back in a game that Toronto had largely controlled.
Anthony’s most important stretch began with a three-pointer with 3:53 remaining that trimmed the Raptors’ lead to 104-102. He then made a 15-foot jumper to tie the game at 104. On Toronto’s next possession, Anthony blocked a Siakam shot and that led to a three from Damian Lillard to give Portland a 107-104 lead with 2:36 remaining in the game.
Shortly after a Siakam dunk on an assist from VanVleet, Anthony made another three to give the Blazers a 110-106 lead with 1:48 to go. The Raptors then scored five consecutive points to take a 111-110 lead. But only briefly before McCollum’s game-winning shot.
Anthony finished with 20 points, five rebounds and three assists. McCollum led the team with 30 points on 10-of-19 shooting. He made 5-of-11 three-point attempts. Lillard scored 23 points for Portland but also had eight turnovers.
The Raptors got a good look with their final set. Pascal Siakam turned to post up Robert Covington and spun into a great look in the middle of the paint. He undercooked the shot by just a hair, though, and wasn’t able to corral his own miss — losing by just inches, exactly how Sunday’s loss to the Warriors ended up looking.
It’s unfortunate too, because what ended up hanging over Siakam’s tremendous performance on Sunday was his miss at the end. He was even better tonight, and deserved better than his first career triple-double being an afterthought to a heartbreaking finish. Siakam was all over the floor, scoring 22 points (9-of-17), grabbing 13 rebounds, and passing for ten assists — some of the latter like we’ve never seen from Pascal.
Siakam’s triple-double is the first by a Raptors player not named Kyle Lowry since 2012, when Jose Calderon did it. (If you enjoy stats that express how woeful much of Raptors franchise history is, you’ll love the list of players with triple-doubles).
Siakam wasn’t alone, either. The six best Raptors have played like it on this Western Conference road trip and the scoring was balanced again tonight. OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry had 18 points each, though Lowry looked a bit worse for wear on a back-to-back, shooting 5-for-17 and making two uncharacteristic mistakes late in the fourth quarter. Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet were also in double digits with 10 points a piece.
Then there was the birthday boy, Chris Boucher. The Montréal native didn’t get the start (that went to a woeful Alex Len, who had zero points on one shot), but played brilliantly again off the bench. His 20 points came on just 12 shots, including 5-for-8 from three, and he made some great plays on defense — tallying three blocks, all three as spectacular as this one.
Boucher had timely shots too, including a three-pointer at 5:30 to push the Raptors lead to seven. At that point, it felt like losing was unlikely, but would hurt that much more given how well Toronto was playing. Unfortunately, that’s how it played out.
For Portland’s part, their backcourt was as excellent as usual. McCollum led all scorers with 30 points, while Damian Lillard had a quiet (if that’s possible) 23 on 16 shots. Carmelo Anthony, who continues to torture the Raptors while in a Blazers uniform, matched Boucher’s 20 off the bench — half of which came in the last 5:16 of the fourth.
After weeks of searching, Nurse started the core group he could trust against the Warriors: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam. Chris Boucher and Yuta Watanabe were the first bigs off the bench. The Raptors struggled for stretches on offence, which is just a function of the roster’s limitations at this point, but they look much better overall, especially on the defensive end.
The Raptors haven’t made any excuses about their circumstances (playing away from home, playing at all during a pandemic) so we won’t make any for them, but you could argue it took Nurse about the length of a regular training camp and preseason to sift through his rotation in order to find the right mix. He will tinker again, and certain matchups will call on Baynes and Len, but at this point, you would imagine they are now situational players.
This new look will probably be the starting lineup for the foreseeable future (with the possibility of Boucher becoming the starter and Powell moving back into a sixth man role) if the Raptors want to avoid slipping further in the standings. Nothing has really changed from the start of the season in terms of the factors that will determine how far this team will go. Siakam—who has looked much more like himself on this road trip—has to play up to the All-Star level he showed in the regular season last year. Lowry and VanVleet have to be one of the best backcourts in the league. Anunoby has to raise his ceiling on offence and continue to be an elite perimeter defender. But the Raptors have at least figured out one problem and taken care of it, for now.
The issue with a slow start is that you don’t really have time to count moral victories, so even an encouraging performance against Phoenix and a spirited comeback against Golden State feel like losses the Raptors might regret in a few months. The positive, for now, is that the Raptors seem to have landed on a lineup and are rediscovering the identity that made them so good last season. Now, they’ll have to string together a couple of wins to turn this disappointing start into an afterthought.
20. Toronto Raptors
2020-21 record: 2-7
Previous ranking: 18
Toronto’s bizarre start to the season continued: A nice win in Sacramento on Friday was followed up with a clunker at Golden State on Sunday, where the Raptors came back from a big deficit to take a late lead, only to foul Damion Lee in the final seconds and lose by a point. Still, the Raptors have to be encouraged by the recent improved play of Pascal Siakam, who averaged 24 points, almost nine rebounds and over five assists while shooting over 50% from the field and hitting 40% of his 3s in four games last week. If Toronto wants to dig out of this hole, Siakam continuing to play like that is a good start. — Bontemps
24. Toronto Raptors (↓Previously 23rd), 2-7, -1.2 net rating
Weekly slate: Loss to Celtics, Loss at Suns, Win at Kings, Loss at Warriors
The bad news is the Toronto Raptors still struggle to win these games right now. They beat an awful Sacramento team this week, but they couldn’t quite get the job done against Boston, Phoenix or Golden State. Those are bad losses individually on the surface, but string them together in one week, and it just compounds the issues the Raptors have had to start the season. But if we’re looking for a silver lining here, Pascal Siakam is starting to get it going. Over the four games this week, Siakam averaged 24.0 points on 51.1 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from deep. He also grabbed 8.8 rebounds and dished out 5.3 assists each game. If you’re going to see losses right now, you at least want to see Siakam finding a groove as the No. 1 guy. Baby steps?
This Week: 24
Last Week: 20
Three more losses for the Raptors this week brings their record to 2-7, one of the bigger surprises in the NBA. The offense has broken out a bit, led by Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, but they continue to struggle defensively, allowing 118.6 points per 100 possessions in four games this week. They appear to be missing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, as their defense at the rim has slipped considerably. Coach Nick Nurse started Pascal Siakam at center in Sunday’s loss to the Warriors, and said he’ll keep tweaking different parts of the game plan until Toronto hits its stride.
This Week: 24
Last Week: 21 ↓
Pace: 101.8 (11) OffRtg: 109.3 (16) DefRtg: 110.5 (20) NetRtg: -1.2 (18)
In December, the Raptors ranked 30th offensively and third defensively, combining with their opponents to score just 99 points per 100 possessions over four games. In January, they rank first offensively and 29th defensively, having combined with their opponents to score 119 points per 100 possessions over five games. On the bright side, they’ve been able to get buckets. Fred VanVleet (averaging 22.1, 5.0 and 5.8) just keeps getting better and Pascal Siakam has had four straight not-bad offensive performances, with a career-high 12 assists in their win in Sacramento on Friday. That was the most efficient performance (144 points on 100 possessions) for any team in a game this season.
On the down side, the defense has obviously not been to their standards. It has allowed at least 120 points per possessions more times in January (4) than it did all of last season (3). Chris Boucher seems to be the only center that Nick Nurse is willing to play, but the Raps have been killed on the glass (grabbing just 65.4% of available defensive rebounds) in his minutes on the floor.
Bottom line: The Raptors are 2-7, but with the East’s ninth-best point differential (-1.4 points per game). Their loss to the Warriors on Sunday dropped them to 0-4 (the 0-1 Bucks are the only other team without a win) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes.