This loss was a lot like the previous four. The Raptors didn’t dig quite as large a hole right out of the gate, but they did start both halves with a lineup including Stanley Johnson and Aron Baynes, sacrificing their best chance at positive minutes with the Kyle Lowry–Norman Powell pairing. Bringing Chris Boucher off the bench is justifiable in normal times is one thing, and he was not particularly good Sunday. In the current environment, it means unoptimized Lowry-Powell minutes that the Raptors have no choice other than to win and only slightly fewer bad bench minutes they have little hope of winning. Starting Terence Davis II for DeAndre’ Bembry stabilized the backup point guard position a little bit without addressing the larger issue of playing their only two reliable offensive weapons big minutes in poor lineups.
The result, as it has been so often during this stretch, was long stretches of ineffective offence that bleed into poor transition defence. Lowry and Powell are the only shot creators playing, and try as they might, that is not enough. Lowry has at times dished career highs in assists, and Powell has five of his nine career 30-point games in the last month. Both are trying desperately to keep the team from bottoming out in a way that has real trade implications and it hasn’t been enough. The trade deadline is less than two weeks away, and Powell, in particular, may be making a strong sell-high case as he puts up gaudy point totals in tough losses. This doesn’t fall on Lowry and Powell, occasional mental lapses or turnovers aside, it just highlights how little help they have stewarding a ship with torpedo holes all through the hull.
It’s hard to know whether the damage to that ship is burying the lede here or simply avoiding being repetitive. In what feels like a relatively minor story league-wide and has been an unavoidably constant talking point locally, the Raptors were playing their fifth consecutive game without five players and six members of their coaching staff. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw remain in the league’s COVID-19 related health and safety protocols, leaving the Raptors with two-fifths of a starting lineup, two-thirds a rotation, zero of their two highest-usage offensive creators and zero of their top three defenders.
Two weeks into the situation, I legitimately mean it that I’m unsure how thick to lay it on. There are some who feel it’s akin to excuse-making, as if other teams wouldn’t stumble without three of their four most important players. There are others who question the legitimacy, or at least consistency, of the league’s protocols; the nature of the team and league reporting on these cases is nonspecific as a matter of privacy, and the differences in return timelines for inconclusive tests, potential contact with a positive case and positive cases can be opaque. That’s all before getting to the fact that if there are positive tests, different people will have different speeds of recovering and returning the requisite negative tests to return to the court.
Two — Maybe: The good news is that the Raptors expect to have their full roster by the end of next week. Two of the five players that are out have already received clearance and are in 1-on-0 drills. Some time needs to elapse for them to fully be cleared and to regain their fitness, but that is the most positive update that the Raptors have provided on this matter. How much players are impacted by COVID-19, or just by their three-week layoff, is unclear. Anything short of the best-case scenario might see the Raptors chasing just to get into the seeding tournament at season’s end. The Raptors are now 11th in the East, and have the ninth-best lottery odds in the 2021 NBA Draft.
And so, as great as it would be to see the Raptors go on a run and become the kind of dominant team we’ve seen over the past few seasons, the reality is this was a team that sported a 17-21 record and 10th place in the Eastern Conference — a spot that would be good for the final play-in tournament spot — entering Sunday night’s contest with, coincidentally, the Bulls, who trailed the Raptors for 10th spot by merely a few percentage points.
So, as low-stakes a game a mid-March contest with Chicago might have appeared to have been in the past, Sunday’s game was a pretty high-stakes affair for the Raptors and they, unfortunately, came up short again, falling 118-95 for their fifth-straight loss.
And not so coincidentally, for the fifth straight game, the Raptors were without the services of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw and the team struggled as a result.
There is some hope on the horizon, however, as Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before Sunday’s game he would expect to have them all back sometime later this week, but that obviously didn’t help his team Sunday.
So, shorthanded as they were, the Raptors came out on the second night of a back-to-back in Chicago playing with far more energy and desire than they did the other night Charlotte.
Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, in particular, were great for Toronto, finishing with 20 and 32 points, respectively.
The Raptors never got closer than 11 points the rest of the way, and Kyle Lowry got ejected toward the end of the game. It’s hard to blame him considering what the Raptors have been going through of late and all season, with no Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, among others, once again as their losing streak extended to five games. Toronto shot just 38.2% from the field and 12-of-45 on 3-pointers.
It’s hard to take too much from a game against an opponent like this, but it was great to see Williams shine with his 23 points (9-of-14 shooting), six rebounds and four assists. Williams’ cutting was a highlight of the night, and playing with Young more should help the youngster. Four of Young’s seven assists went to Williams.
Satoransky also had seven assists in his return to the starting lineup, and he provided a first-half scoring boost with all 10 of his points coming in that opening half. Coby White, the man Sato replaced, didn’t have the best shooting night with 13 points on 5-of-12 from the field and 2-of-8 from 3, but he was a team-best plus-24 off the bench. The Bulls’ bench absolutely mauled the shorthanded Raptors, with 47 points to just 29 for Toronto’s reserves. Even Otto Porter Jr. finally got back in on the action, going for 11 points, seven rebounds and three assists after a sluggish start to the game. Porter scored nine of his 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the third quarter and did go 1-of-8 in the other three quarters, but it was at least a step in the right direction after the ugliness of the past two games.
It was a notably quiet night for Zach LaVine, who extended his double-digit scoring streak toward the very end of the game. He ended with a pedestrian 15 points on 4-of-10 shooting and 1-of-5 from 3-land while racking up six rebounds, three assists and three turnovers. It looked like he might have hurt his finger/hand at some point, but it ultimately didn’t matter and the Bulls didn’t need him to be great to win this game. Chicago did outscore Toronto by 16 in LaVine’s 34 minutes.
The Bulls, meanwhile, were polar opposite to the Raptors’ top heavy production. Outside of garbage time, all nine players who saw the floor for Chicago scored in double figures, led by 23 from Patrick Williams. Bulls coach Billy Donovan made the move to a veteran starting five before this game, inserting Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young for Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr., and it looked like a stroke of brilliance. Young was crafty and devastating to the Raptors’ defense with his passing, finding cutters and winning 50/50 balls throughout — finishing with 10 points and seven assists. The fire was lit under the two Bulls’ youngsters too, as White scored 13 points and posted a +24 and Carter Jr. had a double-double with 12 points and 11 boards.
Again, though, it’s easy to produce when the opposing defense is disjointed. The Raptors still don’t have any of the strings tightened on that end of the floor, and lost a lot of Bulls back cutters and open shooters at the end of possessions. Chicago was able to make just 12-for-44 from three — not quite enough to shoot Toronto out of it, but enough to keep them at bay.
That’s been the difference with the undermanned Raptors. Their DNA has been enough to keep them kicking around, but the talent and cohesion just isn’t there. The lone bright spot now is they have two days to rest and recover, hopefully return five much-needed bodies, and get ready to snap a losing streak against Detroit.
With a group of backups proving unable to hold their own, or come up with above-average performances that would allow a decimated roster to steal a game here or there, Toronto’s lost five games in a row and seven of eight, falling to 11th in the East with a 17-22 record.
There may be help coming, with the likely return of at least some of the five key players who’ve been out since before the all-star break under COVID-19 related health and safety protocols.
Nurse could not say which of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Patrick McCaw or Malachi Flynn would return by any specific date, but added: “I would say later in the week we should have them all back.”
There are still clearances to be obtained, but at least some of the five are back in the gym doing individual work.
“One-on-none is still a ways away from being cleared, and it’s kind of staggered,” the coach said. “I think a couple guys were cleared (Saturday). I think one or two more get cleared (Monday), and then one more after that, and then there’s still some time that needs to elapse from there.”
Norm Powell with 32 points and Kyle Lowry with 20 were the only Raptors to produce, and the lack of production from the rest of the roster was glaring. Powell and Lowry were a combined 19-for-29 from the field; the other 10 Raptors were 15-for-60.
Between them Lowry and Powell had 52 points. The rest of the roster combined had just 43.
The Bulls were idle on Saturday and waiting for the Raptors in Chicago when they arrived in the wee hours of the morning. They looked like the much more rested team too.
Normally a solid recipe for success against the Bulls is contain Zach LaVine and you give yourself a pretty good chance of getting out of Chicago with a victory.
The Raptors managed that as LaVine took just 10 shots and had just 15 points.
The problem was just about every other member of the Bulls that took the floor finished in double digits.
Seven of the other nine Bulls who took the floor besides LaVine scored 10 or more as the Bulls depth (and health) proved to be the difference.
The loss snapped a string of 12 consecutive wins by the Raptors against the Bulls, the longest active run of wins the Raptors had against any team in the NBA.
Nurse tweaked his starting five last night bringing Terence Davis in for DeAndre Bembry who got the start in Charlotte hoping for a little more scoring but Davis was limited to just six in the game on a night when offence was a challenge all night for the visitors.
The Raptors came out of the all-star break knowing they were going to be short-handed for at least these first three games and were just hoping to steal one or two and limit the damage.
Well, the damage has been done with five consecutive losses. Now it’s a matter of seeing how quickly those returning Raptors can get back up to speed and how soon, or if, the Raptors can get back to that team that was humming along so nicely when they got back to .500 after that rough 2-8 start.
It has been the spotty play of too many players that has been costly and frustrating to the Raptors over a seven-game stretch that’s seen them drop more than a few rungs on the Eastern Conference ladder heading into Sunday night’s road date with the Chicago Bulls.
One good game, two bad ones, a couple of average ones. It’s not good enough for a team that’s still missing five players, three from the starting lineup, under NBA health and safety protocols.
“You’re not going to do it every night, but when you get to three out of five or four out of five …” Nurse said. “We were striving for consistency and trying to see which guys can do that.”
Nurse always holds up Norm Powell as a prime example of what he’s talking about. It wasn’t too long ago that Powell was in precisely that rut: a great game, then three where he had little impact, followed by a couple where he was just average.
That’s changed in the past season and a half, to the point where it’s unexpected when Powell isn’t very good.
“Norm used to be a good example … he had two out of five good ones and one not so good and a couple (OK ones),” the coach said. “When you really become a guy in this league, you’re doing it most nights.”
It is a point that general manager Bobby Webster and Masai Ujiri have to take into consideration not only before the March 25 trade deadline, but when they plot their longer-term plans for the roster.
Good teams are built on depth and versatility, and the front office brain trust knows that consistent players familiar with the system, the team’s culture and expectations are worth waiting on. They may never turn into stars or even starters, but as the Raptors have seen, depth is vital.