What, exactly, is the issue here?
You know the bulk of the answer. Three Raptors starters and five players in total missed games — five or six depending on the player — due to the league’s health and safety protocols. This was their third game back. Coach Nick Nurse conceded after the game that there is still some residual conditioning going on. It’s obvious watching the team late in games that their legs remain weary, and that extends to Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, who did not miss time but carried an enormous load during that stretch.
It’s not the entire explanation, though. Even short-handed, every one of those eight games was potentially winnable, either on paper beforehand or watching how it played out. They never should have been down 22 to the Cavaliers, for example. Nurse has not been pleased with the team’s transition defence or their ability to end possessions with defensive rebounds. That the Raptors force many turnovers is great, but that aggression also sends teams to the line, creates 3-point openings and exacerbates their lack of size on the glass. These aren’t new issues, necessarily, they’re just ones the Raptors thought they had addressed when they turned a 2-8 start into a 14-7 stretch to get back in the mix.
There were reasonable questions about the Raptors’ ceiling entering the year — even during their hot stretch. This is not a core, as currently constructed, with a championship upside. That’s fine in a transition year. What’s new is the team having no semblance of the floor that’s defined them for so long. There are zero players outside of the starting five who have Nurse’s trust regularly. His edict to stick with a set bench group for a few weeks lasted three halves. Patrick McCaw played for just the fourth time in the last calendar year as part of the comeback brigade. Stanley Johnson went from starter to DNP-CD to closer. Even Pascal Siakam, not a part of that depth problem but certainly a part of the ceiling side of things, sat out the entire fourth.
This team is not 17-25 bad. They’re also not better than a second-round team, even if they turn it around to get back into play-in position and pull off a first-round upset. Your mileage with that lot may vary; we’ll see in the next four days how the front office feels about it.
Ten — Perspective: Fair warning for those in favour of a rebuild: There is no guarantee you get someone as good as Lowry, you might not even get the equivalent of Powell. If the front office chooses to rebuild, it will be a long wait. One draft pick doesn’t miraculously solve everything, and there’s no telling what a new group can recapture the chemistry and belief that still lingers somewhere within this group. That may sound insignificant as compared to frustration of watching the season slip away with no clear direction, but the only difference between losing as is and tanking is that the losses are explained away. And when there is no expectation to win, it will take time and effort to get it back. Just know that.
“The only thing I will say is that is probably our biggest problem because that is demoralizing … I mean, we lost this game on spirit alone, you know what I’m saying?” said Fred VanVleet who scored 16 of his 23 points in the second half. “Collin Sexton was the best player on the floor tonight, and he had the most spirit, the most swag, the most confidence. And he inspired his team to go out there and do what they did in that third quarter, and we were trying to get it back after that.
“When you feel like you’re playing as hard as you possibly can, and then you turn around and the next guy next to you isn’t, or he is, or whatever, and they make their three, or they get an offensive rebound, that is the snowball effect that we’ve been having a little bit too much.”
Indeed, it’s a sign of how deep a hole the Raptors are in that neither being tested by one of the league’s up-and-coming young guards or having their undisputed veteran leader trying to get them to snap to attention lit a fire under Toronto, at least right away.
“I just felt like we needed it,” said Lowry of his decision to call a timeout on the floor without consulting Nurse. “I tried it and it didn’t work so I’m a bad timeout caller. But I just felt like we needed to like be together a little bit more. I thought we needed to have a little bit more energy. I feel like we needed to do a little bit more and we just weren’t playing as hard as we possibly could, at that moment.
“It wasn’t about anything but just, ‘Hey, let’s get back on the same page, let’s, like, let’s not let this get out of hand, we still got an opportunity to win this game,’” added Lowry, who finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists in 40 minutes. “We’re playing like we’re down 50 already, we got to find ways to just chip back at it and get it done. I don’t do stuff for the camera, I do stuff to try to win games and to help our guys get better.”
And even after Lowry’s exhortations, Cleveland kept rolling, pushing their lead to 17 at the end of the third and then 22 after a Sexton three with 40 seconds gone in the fourth quarter.
At that point, the Raptors finally dug their heels in. Nurse went to a ‘defence first’ lineup with heavy doses of Pat McCaw – in just his fourth game of the season after missing time due to knee surgery and more recently health-and-safety protocols – and Stanley Johnson at the expense of Pascal Siakam and Powell. He was rewarded, as Cleveland was held to just 5-of-16 shooting from that point and Toronto forced eight turnovers.
It wasn’t enough, though. The closest the Raptors got was within five points on a leaning triple by VanVleet with 53 seconds left. Sexton iced it at the line with 23 seconds to play. The Raptors held Cleveland (16-26) to 23 points in the first quarter and 25 in the fourth quarter but allowed the Cavs 68 points in the ones in between.
Cue the soul searching. The Raptors have certainly struggled this season, but it’s hard to believe they’re this bad. With five players in either their third game back after missing nearly three weeks due to COVID-related health-and-safety protocols or – in the case of OG Anunoby – just their second, it could just be that they don’t have the legs to keep up with a young, energetic club like the Cavaliers.
Both teams started the game doing everything humanly possible to not win the game. The Cavaliers turned the ball over seven times in the game’s first five minutes, but the Raptors returned the favor by scoring just 2 points off them. It was an ugly first half, but an even one, as only two points separated the team at intermission.
But Sexton had a disagreement with Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell in the final seconds of the half. And, well, he’s not called Young Bull because he’s got a laissez-faire demeanor about him. Sexton paid the Raptors back in blood and buckets, torching the red shirts for 14 third-quarter points and finishing with a game-high 36.
To be clear, Sexton didn’t have to go it alone. Garland played tag-team with his backcourt partner to blitz the Raptors with five straight buckets out of the half to push a two-point lead to 14, Isaac Okoro knocked down a pair of threes, and the Cavaliers scored 32 points on 65 percent shooting in the quarter to enter the final frame up 16.
The Cavs ended the game the same way they started it: desperately trying to give the game away. A season-high 27 turnovers and ghastly fourth-quarter shooting allowed the North to cut the lead to five with under a minute to play, but the Cavaliers hit enough free throws to survive the comeback attempt.
The Cavs are now just one game behind the Raptors in the standings.
A relatively run-on-the-mill game had a new wrinkle added to it as the buzzer sounded to signal the end of first half. Cleveland’s young guard Collin Sexton had some words for Fred VanVleet, and Powell clearly took exception to it. Powell flew in and got in Sexton’s face, standing up for his teammate and giving the young Cavalier an earful.
Unfortunately, the moment that felt like it might spark the Raptors turned out to get Collin Sexton going. He came out locked in and determined, picking up Fred VanVleet for the entirety of the court on defense, and getting buckets from all over the court. He wore an intense stare as he dominated Toronto, clearly getting an extra boost from his confrontation with the Raptors. Evidently, Kyle Lowry is not the only bear who should not be poked.
The Cavaliers followed Sexton’s lead, as the team really found a rhythm offensively in the third quarter. Cleveland heating up coincided with Toronto going ice-cold, allowing the Cavaliers to go for a run in the period. The Raptors came out of the locker room down 59-57, but found themselves in a hole as big as 17 in the third. Even as they found a little bit of momentum, Sexton quickly quelled it by closing the quarter with a couple baskets. He had 30 on 12-20 shooting after three, and went 6-7 in the third alone. He would finish with 36 points.
The lead grew to as much as 22 for the Cavs in the fourth. The Raptors would not roll over, however, and, as is custom, an unconventional lineup provided a spark for the team. OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Kyle Lowry were joined by Patrick McCaw and Stanley Johnson as the team went all in on a switch-heavy, fast, high-pressure defense. OG, in particular, was spectacular, proving to be the only Raptor who could stymie Sexton, while attacking with success on offense.
The gap, however, would to be too large, and the Cavaliers held on even as their lead got down to seven, to pull this one out.
While, as previously noted, the Raptors have drawn the short straw in many ways, they need to beat lesser teams to have any shot at salvaging this season. They did not do so tonight and we are left, once again, with more questions than we have answers about this Raptors team.
They’ll have another chance to get back in the win column with a game against the Houston Rockets tomorrow, though a win against the worst team in basketball right now will do little to ease the concerns of the Toronto faithful.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst explains that there is tons of interest from around the NBA about signing Raptors free agent Norman Powell.
It is soul-searching time.
“It’s more an individual thing. You wake up in the morning, how much does it mean to you? What is your effort going to be?” VanVleet said. “And if you play the whole game, and you end up sitting in the locker room after the game … and you try to think back to every play that you could (have done) better, and if you feel like at least you gave it all, and you left your heart out there, then you go to sleep and wake up and you try to fight again tomorrow.”
But — because there’s always a but.
“But if you can’t answer those questions all the way then you’ve got some soul-searching to do,” VanVleet said. “And that goes for myself — and I’m not singling out anybody, I’m just speaking in general. That’s really my perspective of the urgency part of it. It’s not like we’re all sitting around ready to jump off a bridge, but at the same time we’ve got to get (a win).”
Sunday, it was as if a switch got turned off and the energy disappeared as the Raptors got down and eventually buried.
A horrid middle two quarters — 68 points given up on 58 per cent shooting for the Cavaliers — sent Toronto tumbling and even a boisterous fourth-quarter rally couldn’t put a pretty picture on the night.
“Sorry, I’m going to curse, but I’m really pissed right now,” point guard Kyle Lowry said. “We should be better than we are. I just have to keep a high spirit and a positive attitude, because I know what we can do.
“So I’m not really happy right now, but like, I have to keep a positive spirit. But just right now, it’s a tough time, weird time for us … I haven’t been like this in eight years, but I’m never going to give up on us. I think we have an opportunity to still make a run and chip at it, game by game. Just got to get one win.”
The defence, which coach Nick Nurse felt showed signs of promise in a tough Friday loss to the NBA-leading Utah Jazz, regressed against the Cavaliers, who came into the game third-last in the Eastern Conference.
The bench, which has been shaky all season, was terrible for most of Sunday. Chris Boucher was a non-factor and was benched down the stretch, while Paul Watson was eventually replaced by Patrick McCaw in the fourth quarter.
The offence disappeared for long stretches — Toronto missed its first 10 field-goal attempts after halftime — and there was precious little pace all night.
None of those are new issues, of course. The Raptors might be able to steal games here and there if one aspect is lacking, but if all three are factors they’ve got basically no chance any night.
With three minutes left, Cleveland had 25 turnovers.
A VanVleet three following Cleveland’s 26th turnover made it a 107-100 game with 2:18 left.
But that’s as close as the Raptors would get and now they prepare to face a Rockets team that has been at home and lost yet another game Sunday afternoon to visiting OKC Thunder.
“Our defence was sporadic,’’ Nurse said. “We had 10 stops in a row in the first quarter, force five turnovers and we had six points.”
Too many open looks, Nurse would lament, too many shots made by the Cavs, too little from the Raptors until they found a way to rally.
Nurse was proud of the way his players fought in the fourth, hoping guys such as Siakam and even Norm Powell can find the necessary juice and energy in Houston is what is shaping up as a must-win proposition for the Raptors.
“We didn’t have it (Sunday night) from some guys,’’ Nurse said. “Hopefully they’ll bounce back.”
They have to because it does not bode well if Nurse has to rely on players such as McCaw and Johnson because neither is known for their offence.
Their length and energy can be effective, and it was against the Cavs, but it’s hard to see either sustaining this kind of defensive effort, especially if they are asked to play meaningful minutes in the back end of a back to back.
As Nurse can attest, defence requires all five players on the floor to execute.
When one or two aren’t in sync, opens looks are yielded and points surrendered.
Nurse saw some great plays produced on defence, but also some he classified as discouraging.
Sunday’s loss, as a whole, could be aptly summed up as discouraging.
Collin Sexton, who got into a verbal shouting match with Powell at the end of the opening half, poured in a game-high 36 points.
Toronto missed 31 three-point attempts and ended the night with a minus-17 on the boards.
If Lowry actively wants a trade, then yes, sure, Ujiri and Webster should do what they can to oblige him and develop a mutually beneficial exit strategy. But if he does indeed want to remain a Raptor until he decides to hang ‘em up for good, would what’ll likely be a hodge-podge return—something like rookie Tyrese Maxey plus the expiring contracts of Danny Green, Mike Scott, and Vincent Poirier—really be enough to make that worthwhile?
Maybe it is, if you really like Maxey, or if Ujiri’s somehow able to snare Matisse Thybulle in the bargain, too. But I think we’ve reached a point in our transactional discourse where we tend to privilege the buyer’s side of a deal—why Team A should want Player X, how he’d fit, how he’d help—to the detriment of considering the seller’s, and whether “we got a young guy and some cap flexibility” in and of itself always best serves the team with the player under consideration. Especially when there’s an argument that just keeping said player may well be the thing that keeps the team most competitive in the near term.
And especially when that player just so happens to be the most beloved one in your franchise’s history—one to whom millions of fans have developed lasting emotional attachments, who has come to define the identity that permeates every aspect of the organization, and who walked every step of that tortuous path of perennial playoff disaster alongside the fan base before finally reaching the mountaintop. Maybe the Mavericks could’ve gotten an extra draft pick or good young player if they’d traded Dirk Nowitzki in, say, 2015, after he made what would be his final All-Star Game (not counting the ceremonial selection in his farewell season). It would’ve been wrong, though: a franchise failing to recognize its saints. Basketball is a business, we’re constantly reminded, and business is bloodless. But it doesn’t have to be; it can be something else, too. Sometimes, it should.
Maybe it won’t here. Maybe Lowry takes stock of the state of affairs and decides he wants a better shot at a ring while he’s still close to his best self, and we’re watching him sprint the court in a new uniform by the end of next week. And maybe that’ll be exciting, invigorating—something new to talk and write about in an environment always searching for more. But in a league where rosters now never seem to stop churning, and where connections like the one Lowry has built with fans in Toronto seem to become rarer by the year, the idea of a trade deadline quieted because teams decide not to ship out their cultural cornerstones in pursuit of marginal future upgrades … well, it might not be the worst thing in the world. Maybe we’ll even wind up talking a bit more about how good and special Lowry is as he continues to work to elevate the Raptors; maybe Torontonians will get their wish, no monkey’s paw required.
One of the problems is the Raptors are a middle-of-the-pack team at getting to the line themselves. They are second-last in the East in scoring off the drive and first in the league in passing off it. Good luck drawing fouls while you’re so inept at finishing at the rim and so predictable with the drive-and-kick.
Another is Toronto’s subpar ability to protect its rim. Stuff like this didn’t happen when Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol were manning the lane. With Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher standing in, opposing paint attackers are showing out.
Boucher, of course, has been a revelation on the offensive end. But on the defensive end, he is still endeavouring to climb a considerable learning curve. Heading into Friday’s game, Nurse offered a stern critique of the state of the Montrealer’s game, pointing out a laundry list of deficiencies, among them: his softness on the defensive boards, his relative slowness as a perimeter defender and the importance that he learn to choose between knowing when to make an attempt to block a shot (a Boucher strength) and when to stand his ground and take a charge (to which he’s shown a recent aversion).
“It’s a tricky spot we’re in, I’ve got to be honest with you,” Nurse said, speaking of Boucher.
The decisions have been tricky going back to the off-season. There are fans who still lament management’s choice to allow both Gasol and Ibaka to depart as free agents last fall, but the move was clearly by design. The Raptors especially wanted to see what they had in Boucher, who wouldn’t have been afforded a real opportunity playing behind a championship-hardened veteran. The fact that he can be on the books for about $7 million (U.S.) at the team’s discretion next season already makes him a commendable bargain. The way to add value, of course, is to keep adding to his defensive repertoire — a bit of skill acquisition that would theoretically cut down on those forgettable nights when opposing rim attackers take up residence on Toronto’s charity stripe.
“It’s a tricky spot we’re in because (Boucher) looks great on offence,” Nurse said this past week. “Even the blocked shots look great. But we’re giving up a lot of things at the other end. We’ve got to figure it out.”
When it comes to close games and closing down the paint, the figuring continues even as Thursday’s trade deadline approaches.