So, about Champagnie being on the court in the first place?
“I didn’t like any of the other guys,” Nurse said. “I thought the other guys were soft and unenergetic and not playing their roles. They’re supposed to come off the bench and provide energy. And they weren’t getting any stops, weren’t getting any rebounds, were fumbling balls around. So I went to Justin.”
So sick of the world of canned comments and protected egos of coddled players, eh?
Frankly, this might have been a bit harsh from the coach. Chris Boucher stepped into a starting role and was mostly fine. Yuta Watanabe had a great first half before falling off a bit in the second half. Same with Isaac Bonga, who is in a similar situation as Champagnie. The only two guys who were clearly bad all night were Dalano Banton and Svi Mykhailiuk, and they combined to play 18 minutes.
If Nurse was a bit overzealous with his comments, you get the frustration. The Raptors missed a few wide-open 3-pointers that would have changed the game as the Thunder took control, but allowing a 33-point third quarter to the worst offensive team in basketball is inexcusable. However, the blame should hang on VanVleet, Siakam and Scottie Barnes as much or more than on Bonga, Watanabe and Banton.
Nurse said the Raptors were stuck in “second gear,” but that might be more mental than physical.
“It seems to be our pattern: play well, play really bad, get yelled at, play really hard, do it all over again,” VanVleet said.
When you lose a basketball game by one point, the tendency is to look at the final moments to see where things went wrong. A 48-minute contest is a lot more complicated than that, but honestly, that simple response isn’t necessarily wrong.
Up by two with 18 seconds left, you cannot lose the game if you stay fundamentally sound: Don’t leave shooters beyond the 3-point arc, stay on the ground so you don’t risk allowing an and-1, contest well and defend fundamentally. You cannot lose on a layup, even if you’d prefer not to allow it.
That sounds good right up until the first line of defence fails and players have to start making decisions in real time. Two extra Raptors shaded over to Gilgeous-Alexander when he beat Barnes to the right. Siakam came off Darius Bazley somewhat understandably, as the Thunder wing was lodged in the paint. And, yes: It was Champagnie who came in needlessly off Muscala late when Gilgeous-Alexander tried to make a play after he stopped his dribble. It was the crucial mistake.
Expecting an undrafted rookie to make the correct decision in a deliriously loud arena, after a manic comeback, which it appeared he had capped just moments prior? Definitely unfair. Multiple people should be yelling “no 3s” coming out of that timeout, but it’s natural that Champagnie was a little jumpy in the moment.
More to the point: The Raptors have bet on aggressiveness and youth above all else this year. The Raptors could have fortified the team with more veterans on the end of the roster, but that’s not Masai Ujiri’s preference. Accordingly, when there are injuries, players are forced into brand new situations. That’s part of the calculus.
The loss blunted the Raptors’ modest two-game winning streak and dropped them to 4-9 at home and 11-14 overall.
The Raptors did storm back from down 14 with just over six minutes to play, with Fred VanVleet sparking them with three deep threes, the last tying the game with a minute left. Toronto went up by two twice after that before Thunder veteran big Mike Muscala hit what proved to be a game-winning three with 9.4 seconds left after the defence collapsed on Gilgeous-Alexander one more time. A VanVleet runner in the final seconds appeared to be blocked and Champagnie’s game-winning tap was waived off.
Injuries aside, the Raptors were left questioning their own effort in the face of what Thunder delivered — led by a pair with Canadian passports.
“I don’t have a great answer for you,” VanVleet said when asked about the Raptors’ lack of spark. “It seems to be our pattern: play well, play really bad, get yelled at, play really hard, do it all over again. So, it’s disappointing for sure but it is what it is.”
It shouldn’t be, is the point, and VanVleet made it clearly.
“I mean, we’re professionals, it shouldn’t take that. You gotta show up to work and do your job every day. It’s not about box score stats, it’s not about scoring, it’s not about awards, it’s not about individual accolades or individual plays,” VanVleet added. “It’s about winning ball games and doing things the right and we just can’t seem to sustain that long enough to win against teams we must think we’re better than. It doesn’t work like that in the NBA because they were the better team tonight.”
The Thunder? They’ve now won two straight and are 7-10 since early November, which may run counter to their seemingly endless rebuilding project as they try find their way through the NBA with the league’s youngest roster, an unprecedented collection of future draft picks and a situation in which Gilgeous-Alexander, 23 and Dort, 22 are de facto veterans.
“I know for a fact we’re getting better every day,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “Now, what the future holds? I can’t control it. That’s what I try to do, just stay in the moment. Focus on day to day, try to get better every day, wherever that takes us, that takes us. But we’re headed in the right direction for sure.”
That’s the Raptors’ hope too, even as they try to weather steady drip of injuries. The latest was Precious Achiuwa being a late scratch as he reaggravated the shoulder tendinitis that held him out for three games last month. He joined Khem Birch (knee) and OG Anunoby (hip) on the sidelines as the Raptors figure out how to make do with makeshift lineups.
The third quarter is where the Oklahoma City Thunder landed their counterpunch, outscoring Toronto 33-12 in the frame and taking an 87-76 lead into the fourth period. After a silent first half, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got going during the third. The OKC Thunder lead came thanks to a 25-3 scoring run.
After SGA picked up the first technical foul of his career (it only took 208 games!), he came alive ending the Third with 24-points, knocking down a pair of side-step triples, dishing out seven assists, swiping two steals, and even collecting a rebound.
We all knew a Nick Nurse-led squad would not go down without a fight. Fred Van Vleet threw punches after punches, eventually cutting the OKC Thunder down to six. Van Vleet knocked down a triple to tie this game with a minute to go, prompted by a 21-7 run.
On the other end, Josh Giddey got a good look at the rim before his layup rolled off which allowed Toronto to capture a two-point lead with 40 ticks to go. The Raptors took a two-point lead with 18 seconds left, as Mark Daigneault called an OKC Thunder timeout.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did a fantastic job driving into the lane, appearing as though he would go for the tie, as the Raptors collapsed on him, he kicked the ball out to the top of the key as Mike Musclaa buried a triple to take a one-point lead for the OKC Thunder.
On the other end, the Raptors missed a floater in the lane and as the tip-back went in, it was a millisecond too late and the OKC Thunder held on for the win in Toronto 110-109.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 26 points, nine assists, two rebounds, a steal, and 12-for-12 at the free-throw line. Dort chipped in 22, Bazley contributed 15, and Josh Giddey hit three big shots from beyond the arc on his way to 15 points. A fun game, and the best win you will see all year because it was the young guns that got it done and held on in a clutch situation. This is a “look back” game as the Thunder try to grow this team, and get back to title contention in the future.
The Raptors attempted to claw out a fourth-quarter comeback, and with a mid-quarter 11-3 stint, they were back in business. Oklahoma City’s play stagnated in the clutch, watching as a Fred VanVleet three-pointer evened the game at 105 apiece inside the final minute.
In the closing segments, Toronto pushed their first lead of the frame with a pair of VanVleet foul shots, and following two tying Shai Gilgeous-Alexander free throws on the other end – Justin Champagne pushed the Raptors back up with a driving layup. On the other end a slashing SGA found an open Mike Muscala at the top-of-the-key – money.
In the final possession, VanVleet lofted a floater nowhere close to the basket, however, a Champagnie tip-in at the buzzer put Toronto on the high side 111-110. Upon review, officials decided Champagnie’s tip-in came past the final horn – Oklahoma City wins.
OKC’s colossal third-quarter played the leading role in their 14-point swing, however, their four quarters of shooting dominance became the primary talking point. The Thunder coated Wednesday evening with a 45.2-percent clip from the field, upped by a prestigious 17-of-40 (42.5%) going from three.
Gilgeous-Alexander took home cooking to a new level Wednesday as the Toronto-native placed 26 points, 2 rebounds, and 9 assists across 37 minutes. He played an instrumental role in the decisive moments of play, posting 16 points in the third period. SGA’s free-throw line appearances hit astute levels again in Toronto as the 23-year-old notched 12 free throw attempts, canning all tries.
It was a tough loss for the Raptors, as they struggled to find the right combination in the third, as they shot brick after brick. What’s more disappointing about this loss is the defensive letdown in the third period, which led to easy transition points for the Thunder. Svi Mykhailiuk had another tough game, but rookie Justin Champagnie showed his nose for the ball.
Chris Boucher looked energetic for his first start of the season, catching a lob from Scottie Barnes, emphatically blocking OKC rookie Josh Giddey’s layup on one end, and rim running for a layup on another. However, a sloppy start for the Raptors kept OKC toe-to-toe with them, despite Pascal Siakam’s smooth midrange game. The Raptors tightened up their game and went on a 21-7 run to close the quarter, leading 36-26.
Kenrich Williams and Scottie Barnes exchanged three-pointers to start the second frame, and it was a showcase of ugly basketball that would ensue over the next few minutes. The Raptors failed to capitalize and extend their lead. Instead, they allowed the Thunder to inch closer, turnover the ball over several times, allowing the Thunder to get within three via Lu Dort’s five quick points. Gary Trent Jr. and Pascal Siakam led the Raptors on a 16-6 run and helped maintain a decent lead at the half, 64-54.
The Thunder came out of the half determined to let everybody else except VanVleet and Siakam get a wide-open look, which led to a lot of Boucher. Way too much Boucher. OKC clogged the paint and let the Raptors hoist brick-after-brick, missing all ten three-pointers in this quarter. The Thunder jumped on this opportunity as they went on a 33-12 quarter behind Gilgeous-Alexander’s 16 points. That’s right, Shai scored more points than the entire Raptors in the 3rd quarter. The Thunder turned a 10-point deficit and made it 87-76 to their advantage at the end of the quarter.
The Thunder got up as many as thirteen points as the Raptors opened up with more bricks in the final frame, with only one field goal to show in the first four-and-a-half minutes of the final frame. They also extended their perimeter futility to thirteen straight misses before VanVleet got out of his funk and snapped the streak. Perhaps seeing VanVleet’s perimeter shot go in inspired the Raptors to mount a comeback, as they went on a 22-12 run to tie the game at 105 with under a minute to go.
VanVleet and Gilgeous-Alexander exchanged two free throws on the next two plays. VanVleet got in the paint with about 18 seconds to go and found a cutting Justin Champagnie for an acrobatic layup to take the lead, 109-107. This time, Gilgeous-Alexander did the same on the other end, collapsing the Raptors’ defense and tracking Mike Muscala around the perimeter for a three-pointer to take the lead, 110-109 with eight seconds to go. VanVleet got into the paint but had his shot blocked, and Champagnie’s tip was just a nail too long for it to count, and that was game.
That the Raptors got back in the game in the final three minutes of the second half only made the first 21 more galling. They got their offence untracked for about a six-minute stretch to take a two-point lead with about 50 seconds left on two VanVleet free throws.
After the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tied it, the Raptors got a bucket from the most unlikely of sources when Champagnie finished a tough layup while absorbing contact with 18 seconds left.
But Mike Muscala made the Raptors pay for over-helping on defence to hit the game-winning three-pointer with about nine seconds left.
For all the injuries to all the players the Raptors have had to deal with, Wednesday was the first time in 25 games they haven’t had at least one of their two centres available.
The trickle-down effect, Nurse feared, would be more felt on the offensive end where a handful of players needed to shift spots during the game.
“They’ve just got to make the adjustments on the offensive side of where they’re running to, how sets are run, where they are on out-of-bounds plays,” the coach said before the game. “That’s the trickle-down effect of it offensively.
“Defensively, a lot of times you have a lot of different coverages with your five, because you’re playing … what (the) skill set is of the opponent you’re playing.”
The skill set of the Thunder is hardly imposing and is only anchored by solid guard play.
Oklahoma City went in the game ranked dead last in the NBA in points per game, assists per game, three-point field goal percentage, fast-break points and offensive rating.
But they scorched the Raptors for most of the night, with a couple of Canadians playing leading roles.
Luguentz Dort of Montreal was key for the the Thunder with 22 points as he continues to add scoring punch to a game predicated mainly on defence early in his career. Not only did he harass VanVleet most of the night with his physical style, his offence kept OKC in the game.
“Obviously, Lu’s a great defender, he did a really good job on Fred,” Nurse said. “I thought there were some opportunities there for Fred, he got past him and in the paint some, had some of those shorter shots right across the free-throw line that were available.
“But, no, he did a good job, he didn’t get by him much to get many layups that’s for sure.”
It’s what Dort does.
After rookie Justin Champagnie had given the Raptors a two-point lead with 18 seconds remaining, Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander found Mike Muscala for a wide open three-pointer.
But the drama wasn’t done.
Not. Even. Close.
Fred VanVleet missed a layup in the dying seconds, but Champagnie somehow managed to tip in the rebound as time expired.
The question was did he release the shot in time. The celebrating fans thought so, but after a review, the call of a made basket was overturned and the only people celebrating were wearing Thunder colours.
“It hurts,” Champagnie said afterward.
He had not played much this season, but head coach Nick Nurse bluntly said afterward “I didn’t like any of the other (options). The other guys were soft and unenergetic and not playing their role.”
Gilgeous-Alexander, the pride of Hamilton, shook off a tough first half and led the way with 26 points, while Montreal’s Lu Dort added 22 for the 8-16 Thunder.
Toronto dropped to 11-14, despite 24 points from Gary Trent Jr., 23 from Pascal Siakam and 19 from VanVleet, who erupted in the fourth to give them a chance after a rough first three quarters.
“Seems to be our pattern: Play well, play really bad, get yelled at. Play hard, then do it all over again,” VanVleet said of a Raptors team that hasn’t been able to string together several wins. It’s disappointing, but it is what it is.”
VanVleet added the Raptors must think they are better than some teams (heading in, like a Thunder team that has been one of the NBA’s worst and recently lost a game by 73 points), “but it doesn’t work that way.”
Nurse added that it looked like the Raptors were in “second gear all night.”
That said, things looked OK for the Raptors early on, even though the team was without its two top centres, Khem Birch, who has a knee issue, and Precious Achiuwa, who was a late scratch due to shoulder inflammation.
Siakam started the game 7-of-8 from the field and had 16 points at halftime. Trent caught fire in the second quarter and had 19 and the Raptors were ahead by 10 points, despite Dort’s 16 points and strong defence.
But Gilgeous-Alexander hinted at what was coming by immediately scoring out of the break. Two years after coming to town and dropping 32 points and a game-winning shot on the Raptors, he unleashed a 16-point barrage in the third, propelling a stunning 25-3 Thunder run that flipped the game.
Although the Raptors have only had both of their centres, Birch and Achiuwa, in 12 of their 25 games this season, this was the first time that neither of them was available. If the team’s biggest need wasn’t glaring already, it’ll be pretty hard to miss for as long as those two are out.
With Chris Boucher getting the start at centre, they actually held their own in the paint and on the boards. Ranked last in the NBA on the defensive glass coming in, Toronto actually out-rebounded OKC 46-40. Most of their breakdowns came on the perimeter. But the Thunder don’t have much size and aren’t especially physical. Tougher opponents await.
The bigger issue, with three key rotation players missing, was that Nurse had to go deep into his bench and play guys out of position. Sparingly used wing Isaac Bonga logged 14 mostly ineffective minutes as the backup centre before Nurse eventually went to Champagnie in the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t like any of the other guys,” Nurse said of the decision. “I thought the other guys were soft, and unenergetic and not playing their role. They’re suppose to come off the bench and provide energy and they weren’t getting any stops, weren’t getting any rebounds, were fumbling balls around so I went to Justin.”
It’s not just that the Raptors don’t have enough size or physicality in the middle; they also don’t have enough depth at the position.
It just so happens that two of the league’s most coveted big men may have become available this week. On Tuesday, The Athletic reported that the perennially middling Indiana Pacers are expected to shop some of their veteran players, including two-time all-star Domantas Sabonis and centre Myles Turner.
The Raptors have had “their eyes on” both of Indiana’s bigs for years, according to a league source; Turner in particular. It’s not hard to see the fit. The seventh-year centre and former lottery pick is leading the NBA in blocked shots for the third time in four seasons. He’s also hitting 40 per cent of his threes. Sabonis isn’t the defender that Turner is, but he’s one of the craftiest low-post scoring threats in the game.
Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster will surely make a call and kick the tires, as they do whenever an impact player is believed to be available. But as the trade market heats up – this summer’s free agent signees are eligible to be moved starting next Wednesday, with the deadline scheduled for February 10 – they’ll have some big decisions to make.
There are two factors that need to be taken into consideration that trump all others, though.
The first is what the Pacers would want to get back in any transaction and what their goals — long- and short-term — would be.
Even taking away one of Turner or Sabonis, they are not going to have significant money to use in the free agent market for at least a couple of years so it’s likely they would want players back in return rather than simple monetary relief.
That would preclude the easy transaction — Goran Dragic’s expiring contract for either player — but dangling Gary Trent Jr. and Malachi Flynn might make some sense.
If the Raptors have to sweeten the pot with a future draft pick or two, so be it. If Toronto gets as good as it thinks it can be with a trade, any pick would be so late in the first round it’s easy to give it up.
The second is that trades are the way the Raptors make bold moves. Simply saving money to attract free agents hasn’t worked, it seldom does for a vast majority of teams. Turning players into players — DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl into Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green; Terrence Ross into Serge Ibaka; Jonas Valanciunas and Delon Wright into Gasol — has worked so well in the past for Toronto that management shouldn’t be afraid to take another shot.
It is often how good teams turn into great ones and while it’s always a gamble, the chance to gamble doesn’t come along too often. A missed opportunity is sometimes a lost opportunity and this one seems too good to let go without a full, aggressive exploration of all possibilities.
Make no mistake, though: The Raptors think they have a special group right now, one that might be a year or two away from its absolute best but one that has most of the necessary pieces to be very, very good.
All the caveats apply — good health, nothing untoward happening to turn over middle of the pack teams into giants — but the group Ujiri and Webster have put together looks solid.
It’s got a gaping hole, though. Not enough size, not enough frontcourt experience and either of the Indiana big men solve that problem.
Webster and Ujiri have constructed this team to give themselves flexibility for the next move they know they’ll have to make. They have managed salaries well, built a group that has myriad pieces that might be attractive to other teams.