At the end of the first half in the Toronto Raptors’ humiliating 116-105 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Norman Powell and Collin Sexton exchanged words. Fred VanVleet had initiated the conversation, telling Sexton that some of his talk had crossed a line, and he needed to carry himself with more respect for the game. Powell seemed prepared to fight somewhere off camera, though nothing came of it. It was the most fight the Raptors showed on camera all night.
The Raptors entered the game on a seven-game losing streak, second-longest in the NBA and longest in any of the NBA careers of VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, or Powell.
If you thought Toronto’s desperate situation might inspire some desperate play in this one, you were fooled. Toronto outplayed Cleveland by a wide margin, with far better offensive possessions in the first quarter, yet they couldn’t build a lead and didn’t bother with much effort in the middle frames. If you thought Powell’s pre-halftime feistiness might inspire feistier play on the court from Toronto, you were fooled.
Before a fake comeback in the fourth quarter, Toronto’s desperation manifested in players overreacting to every pass — every dribble — that a Cavalier took. They opened massive driving lanes by selling out to take away shots; gave up easy shots by leaping to annihilate passes. They couldn’t differentiate between real actions and fluff. Their defensive poise was gone, and their mindset was the wrong kind of panic.
Every emergency timeout the Raptors took to remind each other that this was, indeed, a must-win game seemed to result in a poor shot or turnover on the ensuing play. This is new territory for the Raptors.
“I’m not really happy right now, but, I have to keep a positive spirit,” said Lowry. “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 gonna give up on us.”
Toronto opened the third quarter giving up a 7-0 run in a mere 90 seconds, as it was Sexton himself hitting pull-up triples to build Cleveland’s lead.
“We lost this game on spirit alone,” explained VanVleet. “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.”
At one point while Sexton was on Cleveland’s bench, Siakam shot a corner triple in front of Sexton, and he screamed in the Raptor’s ear as he shot. Siakam missed and eventually didn’t play in the fourth quarter, even during Toronto’s fake comeback that cut the lead at one point to five before fizzling. One factor contributing to Siakam’s absence in the fourth was his conditioning after his long layoff. But it was also a strategic choice; Nurse benched Siakam.
“That group had it going, and I just didn’t want to break that up,” explained Nurse when I asked why Siakam didn’t play in the fourth. “I thought that was our best chance to win. There’s a theory on that, too, that sometimes they’ve done their job to get it to a point … and I almost decided to put P back in there but, again, I just thought Stanley was making so many plays that I just wanted to let him ride it out.”
Nurse claimed before the game that his rotation is set, that Malachi Flynn and Paul Watson are entrenched as key bench pieces. They’ve played well in recent days, and both offer great defense while consistently hitting shots on the other end.
Then Flynn played a total of 12 minutes and Watson five.
“[That rotation decision] didn’t last very long, did it,” said Nurse after the game. “The thing was, it wasn’t really on them, either. I thought those guys were okay, from Malachi to Paul to Chris to Aron; it was just, the game got funky, and I had to go funky with it.”
It’s not like Toronto was beaten by a better team, as happened in the previous contest against the Utah Jazz. Cleveland committed 27 turnovers, many of them unforced. The Cavaliers shot well from deep, sure, but the Raptors had 18 extra shot attempts. That ought to balance out in the long run. Of course, it didn’t.
The reality of the situation now is that the Raptors are on an eight-game losing streak, and they’re now in 11th place in the East, 2.5 games out of 10th. The trade deadline is Thursday March 25. The Raptors have three young core players entering huge contracts in Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby. They have two core pieces expiring after the season in Lowry and Powell, and questions abound about the status of their continued tenure in Toronto. The Raptors have the talent. They’re now questioning if they have the spirit.
“What is your effort going to be?” asked VanVleet, rhetorically, after the game. “And if you play the whole game, and you end up sitting in the locker room after the game like we all do, or in the shower or whatever, and you try to think back to every play that you coulda did 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 if you can’t answer those questions all the way then you’ve got some soul-searching to do.”