With five minutes remaining against the Chicago Bulls and down 15 points — after spending what felt like the entire game down 15 points — Norman Powell drove. He had spent much of the evening hitting step-back triples or driving to the rim, hitting floaters, twisting reverses, making kick-out passes. Along with Kyle Lowry, he was one of two consistent offensive positives for the Raptors on the night, and he worked hard for his 32 points. Those moments weighed him down; those minutes that felt like hours pressed down on his shoulders, shackled his feet to the ground.
Powell left the layup short, and Thaddeus Young hit a difficult jumper the other way. It was microcosmic for the Toronto Raptors.
Last season saw an unprecedented number of Raptors notch career years. Perhaps half the roster turned in their best ever season as pros, with vets like Serge Ibaka and Lowry turning in their best performances in years, if not quite their best ever. Such a thing is unlikely, and statistical anomalies have pesky ways of finding themselves drop back down to earth. The Raptors are smack dab in the middle of watching themselves fall back down to earth. After falling to the Chicago Bulls, the Raptors are now 17-22, drifting away from the playoff race. After having more depth than they could handle in recent seasons, the Raptors are falling now because their depth players have been unable to fill larger roles when needed.
The Raptors have enough talent. In Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Lowry, the Raptors have four players with star-level impact. That’s extraordinary. It’s also extraordinarily unfortunate that three of those guys are missing at a time when Toronto is facing the meatball middle of the schedule. The Raptors needed to win these easy games against teams like the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, and Bulls.
When the Raptors seemed on the verge of peeling into a five-game winning streak, they instead have crashed headfirst into a five-game losing streak. That’s unfair, but such is life in the macabre modern NBA.
“I’m not sure we’re discovering many trends or finding out much,” said Nick Nurse before the game. “I’m just hoping to stay in the damn game for the first six minutes tonight, ’cause that wasn’t much fun last night, I know that much.”
Well, the Raptors stayed in the damn game for the first six minutes. And then the next 40 minutes after that. Thanks to the graceful brilliance of Powell and the bruising brilliance of Lowry, Toronto was always a punch away from taking the lead. But they never found the arm strength to break through Chicago’s guard.
“We were doing enough defensively,” said Nurse after the game. “And we kept getting wide open threes, and we just couldn’t make them… And we got nothing to show for them, and it just gets hard man, it just gets hard. I mean they shot the ball terribly and somehow we outdid them in the end. They were four for whatever they were, 25 or something at one point and I really thought we were generating good looks and I kept kind of telling the team we’re gonna make two or three or four in a row here and go on a run and it just never really happened and then they did, they did they hit three in a row and it busted the game open.”
Specifically, Denzel Valentine busted it open for Chicago. He hit three triples in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. The Raptors had cut it to 10, and he pushed it out of reach, at least until the next time the Raptors cut it to 10. But the point is: what the Raptors would have given for a little bit of Valentine in this one. They finished with just 12 made threes, and their fourth-leading scorer, as Nurse pointed out after the game, had a lowly six points.
In Powell, Lowry, and Chris Boucher, the Raptors have three offensive positives in the lineup at the moment. They did their part, combining for 69 points. The rest of the roster managed 26. Powell pointed out after the game that the rest of the roster is largely a group of players still trying to learn to fill their roles in the NBA, yet now are being asked to fill entirely new roles. That’s difficult. And it shouldn’t be a problem they face, wouldn’t a problem with Toronto’s stars back in the rotation.
After the game, Lowry sat down with media. He faced the usual questions, and he answered them with thoughtfulness and candor, as is often the case after a loss. But one question stood out. A reporter asked Lowry if there was anything to learn from these past games without Toronto’s best players. He answered a simple “no.”
It wasn’t rude or dismissive. The reporter asked a second question, and Lowry responded in depth. The “no” was exactly what fans and media claim to want from players: total and raw honesty.
The Raptors know what they have in the roster. It is, when healthy, good enough to have a high seed in the East. But they are not deep. Players like DeAndre’ Bembry, Stanley Johnson, Yuta Watanabe, Matt Thomas, and Paul Watson are all fun pieces will high upside in defined roles. Unfortunately for them, their roles are not defined at the moment. They haven’t been able to seize the opportunity given them because they do not have the ability of the players they’re replacing. A five-game losing streak hasn’t taught attentive observers anything about those bench pieces that they wouldn’t already know. Lowry was not going to say out loud that Toronto’s depth does not have enough talent to fill starring roles, but his “no” was an admission that they knew that all along.
And so Toronto remains afloat, if barely. They have a positive net rating, of course, despite being five games below .500. They were on the verge of charging up the standings, but now that must wait until their stars return. That will happen, even if it doesn’t feel like it. When it does, Toronto’s bench players — relegated to their proper roles — will once again look fun and zippy and capable of turning the tide. Fatigue caused Powell to miss the layup against the Bulls, but when the troops return, fatigue will impact the guys less. The end of the losing streak is on the horizon. If it feels like that’s been the case all season, it’s because that has been the case all season. This time, as it has been before, it’s true.