This was not Lowry’s or the Raptors’ best night. It hasn’t been their best season. Lowry finished with a game-worst minus-25. He was not notably responsible for that as he had 17 points and eight rebounds with just a single turnover on 8-for-15 shooting. His team’s horrid shooting was the biggest reason for the loss. Still, it is clear he is not impacting winning in the way that he used to. Obviously. He is not single-handedly lifting bench-heavy lineups to success as he so often has.
In Sunday’s loss in Cleveland, Lowry called a timeout himself early in the third quarter, asking the coaching staff to stay out of the huddle so he could try to refocus and maybe inspire the group. He thought the team was playing like it was down 50 points. It didn’t work. The Cavaliers’ run continued, and it was only later in the fourth quarter that the Raptors made an ill-fated comeback attempt.
That he was so engaged when he could be kicking up his feet in a lost season, thinking more about the potential of being traded than the game at hand, was evidence of Lowry’s mentality that has translated to the floor year after year.
“I’m really pissed right now. We should be better than we are,” Lowry said after the game. “I just have to keep a high spirit and a positive attitude because I know what we can do. I wanna continue to push my teammates, I wanna continue to watch Freddie grow, Pascal, OG (Anunoby), Norm, I wanna continue. So I’m gonna keep positive. So I’m not really happy right now, but I have to keep a positive spirit. But just right now it’s a tough time, weird time for us. … I haven’t been (in a situation) like this in eight years, but I’m never gonna give up on us. I think we have an opportunity to still make a run and chip at it, game by game.”
At the end of that story back in 2012, I wrote that I thought Lowry’s style of play should be a perfect match for what Torontonians love to see from their pro athletes.
“If the love affair has not started between player and city, well, that is only because the city is being too cautious with its heart,” I wrote.
It’s fair to say that as the relationship might be nearing its end, hearts on both sides of the equation are wide-open and full.
One — Rock bottom: The Raptors just lost to the Rockets, who were on a 20-game losing streak, and not only did they lose, but it was a blowout. There is no excuse for it, there’s no running from facts, the reality is in the result. At the moment, the Raptors are decidedly playing like the worst team in the league, and while the unofficial slogan of the season is that the Raptors aren’t really that bad, they just are what they are. A variety of unfortunate circumstances has left this team broken and without their spirit. Even the bare basics elude them, and that’s why they can get blown out by the worst team in the league.
So if Houston is spiralling, where does that leave Toronto?
A team in a hole that’s getting deeper, losers of nine straight and 11 of 12, while getting mired even more deeply into 11th place in the Eastern Conference. Two seasons ago the Raptors won the NBA title and last season they had the second-best record in the league. So far in this pandemic-altered season, Toronto is struggling to even keep touch with 10th place – the minimum requirement to qualify for the play-in tournament.
They’re 2.5 games behind Indiana, which is hardly insurmountable, but with just 29 games left they’re running out of time to completely reverse course. The trade deadline looming on Thursday could be another wrench in a season where the gears never stop grinding.
The 117-99 loss on Monday dropped Toronto to 17-26 and the schedule only gets more difficult from here, with dates with Denver, Phoenix and Portland – Western Conference playoff fixtures – all up next.
“We’ve just gotta play better,” said Kyle Lowry, who had 17 points and eight assists and, along with Norm Powell, has figured prominently in trade speculation for weeks. “It ain’t no secret, we’ve gotta play defence and we’ve gotta play better. It’s literally no secret to it, like I swear. I wish I could give you guys some other magical answer, but it’s literally no groundhog day. Every game’s different and we’re just not playing hard enough and we’re not playing well enough.”
The Raptors do need to figure out their defence. After giving up 116 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday – the 30th-ranked offence this season — Toronto was trailing 88-86 to Houston to start the fourth quarter, who have the NBA’s 29th-ranked offence and had been ranked 30th during their 20-game losing streak.
The Raptors trailed by five with 8:56 to play but allowed Houston to go on a 16-5 run that put the game out of reach. The Rockets controlled the pace and attacked the paint at will, led by John Wall who finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
The Raptors didn’t help themselves as they seemed to run out of gas, legs, and offence down the stretch – it’s hard to win games coming from behind when you score just 13 points in the fourth quarter.
Down two heading into the fourth, the Raptors stuck with the lineup that got them there — DeAndre’ Bembry, Flynn, Watson, Chris Boucher, and, VanVleet. The energy of that late third quarter run didn’t quite translate though, and even with Lowry on the court (in place of VanVleet), the Raptors were back down again by ten in a hurry. It didn’t help that Bembry, fresh on the floor, somehow earned himself an ejection in seven minutes — but that also fits in with the evening’s narrative. One of Toronto’s established players would do something good, then one of their wildcards do something inexplicable, and we’d all go back to square one. Or in this case, a 13-3 run from Houston put the game back out of reach. It should be noted that this sequence ended with Siakam and Lowry tripping each other up and losing the ball. That’s when it became crystal clear that even with any other heroics, there would be no “winning” this game.
Houston’s run grew to 28-8, the lead grew larger, and despite any other efforts from the Raptors, there was nothing left to salvage. Lowry got a continuation call for three of his 17 points, VanVleet dropped in a team-leading 27 points, Pascal was quiet down the stretch but still had 21-and-10, there was a nice dunk by Norm in the mix too (two of his four second half points). But what are we even talking about here? While any of this was happening, the Raptors were sliding into defeat, the game done, the season totally off the rails. That sounds harsh, but there really is so little runway left to work with for the Raptors, who now sit at 17-26. Or to put it a different way: it feels fair to ask if it is fair to make the team continue in this way.
A 360 layup by John Wall. A halfcourt shot by Danuel House Jr. The Houston Rockets ended the first half of Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors with one of their most entertaining offensive possessions of the season. Houston’s electric play to close out the second quarter resulted in the Rockets securing a 117-99 victory over the Raptors.
With the win, the Rockets ended a franchise-worst 20 game losing streak — their first victory since Feb. 4 in Memphis. While picking up a home victory, the Rockets also recorded their first win inside the Toyota Center since Jan. 28 against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Wall ended the night with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, his first triple-double since February of 2016 as a member of the Washington Wizards.
Twenty-four hours after Christian Wood criticized the team for not playing together, Houston’s 18-point victory over the Raptors was a joint effort. All five starters scored in double-figures with Jae’Sean Tate leading the way with a team-best 22 points (8-9 FG, 3-4 3PT). Wood ended the night with 19 points (8-15 FG, 2-4 3PT) — all coming in the second half.
Sterling Brown got things going early for the Rockets to open the game. Brown started the night connecting on his first five shots from the field —three of which coming from behind the arc — while scoring 13 of the Rockets’ first 15 points. He would end the game with 19 total points.
Brown’s hot start kept the Rockets close despite trailing 28-27 after the first quarter. But what helped the Rockets take a five-point lead into halftime was their 3-point shooting.
Houston shot 61.5 percent from deep in the second period to take a lead they never surrendered. While they were clicking on all cylinders offensively, the Rockets played one of their best defensives halves of the season. Houston forced the Raptors into committing 10 turnovers in which they converted into 17 points.
The closest the Raptors got to ending a losing streak of their own came late in the third quarter. Toronto closed the third period on a 13-2 run to cut Houston’s lead down to 88-86 entering the fourth quarter.
“I wish I could give you guys some other magical answer, but it’s literally no Groundhog Day. Every game’s different and we’re just not playing hard enough and we’re not playing well enough.”
It really is that simple.
The Raptors have to play better, play with more spirit and consistent effort. They have to defend better and play smarter on offence.
That’s an undeniable fact and maybe too big a request, but it’s the reality of the current situation.
“For whatever reason, the defence is not what it needs to be,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “That’s what it feels like right now. As much as I’m looking at a 13-point (Raptors) fourth quarter, it didn’t feel like the offence was a problem. It didn’t feel that way out there. It just felt like we couldn’t get a stop when we needed to.
“We just got to keep staying together, stay locked in and understand there’s a lot of basketball in front of us, but there definitely needs to be a big change or improvement to our defensive focus and intensity and attention to detail.”
The galling fact was that Monday’s loss came to a team in even more dire straits.
The Rockets had lost 20 straight games — a streak dating back to early February — and their season is entirely in the toilet, yet they were able to summon a better effort all told than the Raptors did. It’s mystifying.
“We’ll find out why,” VanVleet said. “We will figure it out, man. We don’t have a choice. We got to figure it out.”
It is the worst stretch for a Raptors team since January 2012, and they are fully responsible for their own demise.
They go through terrible stretches at the most critical times in games, and look more dispirited than they have at any point in about the last decade.
The fading down the stretch Monday was astonishing. The Raptors got within a basket to start the fourth quarter, but instead of finding the will to snap the losing streak and ease some of the pressure, they capitulated to a team that hadn’t won a game since the first week of last month.
Down by double digits for most of the third quarter against a Houston club trying to bust out of a 20-game losing streak of their own, Fred VanVleet got Toronto back in it leading a 13-2 run to end the quarter, most of it his own doing.
It was the last real push by the Raptors.
Whether it was fatigue or just having been beaten down over a taxing three weeks, that was as close as the Raptors could come as the Rockets ended their near seven-week losing skid with an 117-99 win, pushing the Raptors’ losing streak to a season-high nine games.
Both teams were playing on a back-to-back, though the Raptors had to make the flight from Cleveland to Houston while Houston was home for both of them.
VanVleet finished the night with 27 points, four steals, seven rebounds and a couple of assists but it wasn’t enough as the Rockets got double-digit scoring from all five starters in a nice well-rounded effort.
“He’s doing everything humanly possible to will us to a win,” Nurse said of VanVleet. “He just needs a little more help.”
Pascal Siakam, who like VanVleet had a two-week-plus stint on the league’s Health and Safety Protocols list, had his best game since returning finishing with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Houston’s last win came Feb. 4 against Memphis. There were a few postponed games in there as well as weather issues in the Houston area made hosting a game impossible.
The Raptors could have used OG Anunoby in this one, but the decision was made to rest him on the back-to-back and protect against any further issues with a calf injury that he sustained earlier in the year.
“I think I liked our spirit, I liked our togetherness,” VanVleet said of the game. “I liked for the most part that we were ready to play. For whatever reason, the defence is not what it needs to be. That’s what it feels like right now … It just felt like we couldn’t get a stop when we needed to.
“We just got to keep staying together, stay locked in and understand there’s a lot of basketball in front of us but there definitely needs to be a big change or improvement to our defensive focus and intensity and attention to detail,” VanVleet said.
This Week: 22
Last Week: 20
2020-21 record: 17-25
The Raptors have lost eight in a row, including a dispiriting loss to the Cavaliers on Sunday after blowing yet another lead in the final two minutes Friday against Utah. After plummeting to 11th in the East, we’ll see whether Toronto will decide to part ways with Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell between now and Thursday’s trade deadline. — Bontemps
This Week: 22
Last Week: 21
17-25, -0.1 net rating
Weekly slate: Loss at Pistons, Loss to Jazz, Loss at Cavs
Who is ballin’ lately? Norman Powell
The Toronto Raptors have been in a really bad way lately, but Powell is thriving individually. Over the Raptors’ last nine games, he’s been out of control with his scoring efforts. In five of those nine games, Powell has dropped at least 30 points. His high during this stretch was the 43 he put up trying to will the Raptors to a victory over Detroit. Unfortunately, his scoring just hasn’t been enough to get the Raptors on the right track. His 27.4 points per game on 70.4 percent true shooting almost doesn’t make sense. That’s the true shooting percentage of a center who only plays around the rim and doesn’t shoot like Chris Dudley from the free throw line. Powell can’t be blamed for these losses.
Why are they ranked here? It just doesn’t seem like the Raptors can catch a break right now. Eight straight losses and 10 of their last 11. They could really use a great stretch to get back into it.
This Week: 27
Last Week: 23
Pace: 100.1 (14) OffRtg: 112.2 (14) DefRtg: 112.2 (22) NetRtg: -0.1 (16)
The Raptors are finally #fullsquad. OG Anunoby looked great in totaling 32 points and seven steals in his first two games back, Norman Powell has been on fire, and their best-five lineup — Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Powell, Anunoby and Pascal Siakam — outscored the Jazz by 12 points in its 21 minutes on Friday. But their losing streak has hit eight games, because their bench, their defense and Siakam’s last-second luck all remain poor.
The Raptors (who had the league’s second best defense last season) are now in the bottom 10 defensively. They rank 29th on that end over the losing streak, having allowed almost 126 points per 100 possessions in Chris Boucher’s 210 minutes on the floor. They actually lead the league in opponent turnover rate by a wide margin over the last 19 days (two of the four times a team has committed 27 turnovers this season have come against the Raptors since the All-Star break), but they’re last in opponent effective field goal percentage, last in opponent free throw rate, and 28th in defensive rebounding percentage over the course of the streak.
This Week: 27
Last Week: 23
The Raptors’ downward spiral continued this week with three more losses, including to the Pistons and Cavs, despite getting some players back from health and safety protocols. At 17-25, you have to wonder whether the front office will be more proactive in shopping Kyle Lowry, whose contract expires after this season. Lowry is one of the few difference-making assets as the trade deadline approaches, but trading him would indicate that Toronto is ready to hit reset — or at least the pause button — while its young talent continues to develop.
Draft picks and young players are not answers unto themselves, especially in the short term, but the Raptors need to find a way to supplement their core players, who are in the beginning or middle of their primes, with younger contributors. It is not all about finding a star, although maybe landing a lottery pick if their slide continues isn’t the worst outcome, but about rebuilding atop an admirable foundation. Just as VanVleet, Anunoby, Powell and Pascal Siakam grew behind Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Leonard, they now need players to grow behind this generation. It is the only way to sustain success.
Picks are necessary for that. VanVleet and Powell are the exceptions, but as good as the Raptors are at identifying talent, they can’t merely play the lightly scouted game come draft time every year. The system does not maintain itself. It took three picks to acquire Leonard (former first-round picks DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl and a future selection), two to get Marc Gasol (Valanciunas and Delon Wright), one to get Lowry (the pick Oklahoma City eventually used on Steven Adams), and that’s before you get to the picks the Raptors used and have kept: Siakam and Anunoby.
Currently, the Raptors have no core piece as good as Lowry at his peak, the Raptors’ rising tide. It’s not impossible that VanVleet, Siakam or Anunoby could get there, although odds are against it. Regardless, you have to give yourself as many chances as possible to do that essential building.
I wrote in this space a few weeks ago that the Raptors should lean toward keeping Lowry, and I still believe the ideal organizational outcome is for Lowry to remain a Raptor and retire as one. There are multiple ways to acquire young players and draft prospects, but watching a franchise player age gracefully and help usher in a new era is a generational opportunity. That presupposes Lowry is keen on staying in Toronto at a price that adequately recognizes his past and present contributions as well as allows the Raptors to be flexible in building a competitive team.
Let’s face it: Lowry is not going to be happy on a team stuck in the middle. As much as it’s on the Raptors to remain an intriguing option for Lowry, it’s also on Lowry to be honest with himself and the front office about what he wants as his career winds down. When he spoke about the trade deadline after the All-Star break, Lowry was enthusiastic about his relationship with the city and the franchise, from management to the younger players to the fans. That is not the same thing as saying he wants to be a Raptor, and only a Raptor, for the rest of his career. If he is on the market, he would be the biggest difference-maker available and could net the Raptors quite a haul.
Can the Raptors still make the playoffs even without Lowry?
This question gets to the central issue for this Raptors team as they try to navigate the deadline. Their floor is not that of a tanking team. Even with their current losing streak, the Raptors still have too many wins at this time to even consider themselves for the top of the lottery standings. And even if they get there, the new draft lottery rules make it impossible to truly control your destiny of the range of draft picks you might receive. On the other hand, the Raptors are probably for the short-term still in a similar spot with or without Lowry. The young core has proven they can win games without him, but there’s also a particular ceiling to where they can go. A climb back to .500 would almost certainly guarantee at least a play-in tournament spot, but it’s hard to be optimistic about anything more than that at this point. The Raptors just look exhausted. Three starters just returned from health and safety protocols, and the grind of an entire season away from home isn’t helping the glaring flaws on the roster. The short answer is yes, but no one should be upset at the front office if they take the long view on Thursday and make moves that will benefit the franchise beyond this season.
These are hard, new times. A difficult road, indeed.
But it can only be travelled one day at a time, one game at a time, and by taking the short term more seriously than worrying about the bigger picture.
It’s like a comeback in any game: You can’t make it all up in one play. The enormity of the task makes it doubly difficult to overcome.
“We can’t go out there like maniacs and … be going crazy and like, ‘We got to win, we got to win,’” point guard Kyle Lowry said. “We’ve just got to string together a couple … maybe lose one, string together another couple.
“You can’t say urgency, because we can’t be frantic. We just go out there and (play) one game, one minute, one possession at a time. We’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity that we can possibly have.”
It truly is the only way a team that dragged an eight-game losing streak into Houston on Monday night can approach things. One win might ease the mental burden of the last two weeks and relieve some of the pressure that has to be building up.
“I would just say, I think we’re all learning it’s a lot harder than we thought it was to flip that switch,” guard Fred Van Vleet said. “It’s because we’ve been there before. A lot of us have played some amazing basketball at some of the highest, pressurized moments of our lives. We’ve reached the pinnacle of the basketball world. And so you always have that in your back pocket.
“But it doesn’t save you every night. You’ve got to go out there and earn that every possession, every day, every practice, every workout, every shootaround. You’ve got to earn that every single day.”
Lately, they’ve earned nothing. The Raptors have lost to good teams and to bad ones. They’ve lost heartbreakers at the buzzer and been blown out. They’ve lost at home and on the road, been beaten because they’ve been bad defensively some nights and staid offensively on others.
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