The series loss makes it three consecutive losses in a row for the Raptors 905, despite having Dalano Banton in the fold. The team is now 1-3 and stuck at the bottom, but unlike the Showcase Cup, the Regular Season has more games to play until March.
The Raptors just happened to face the better team talent-wise, as the Nets had David Duke Jr. (TW) and Kessler Edwards (NBA) both erupting for their G League career-highs and a strong bench led by their other two-way player Alondes Williams. Day’Ron Sharpe, the Nets’ other assignee, played on the second game and was a load in the middle.
However, both games were winnable for the Mississauga team, as they held a commanding 22-point lead in the first game and had a 10-point lead early in the fourth in the second game. It’s just unfortunate that coach Eric Khoury could not get a solid effort from the team for an entire game, as their spurts of excellent two-way plays were good enough to give them a great advantage.
The Nets’ adjustments after being down 22 points in the first game were commendable, as they out-executed the Raptors since the first period, while the Raptors’ offense faltered as they tried to make a rally late in the game. The Nets’ defensive game plan concentrated on stopping Dalano Banton — not just from the point of attack but from getting the ball at all. It led to Banton’s career-low four points at the G League level.
In the second game, the Raptors 905 were solid defensively for around 30 minutes, but their last nine minutes were like a floodgate being opened for the Nets as they closed the game with a 28-8 run despite trailing the Raptors 905 by ten three minutes into the fourth period.
During this trip, Reggie Perry and Saben Lee led the way for the Raptors 905, with Perry putting up 25.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and Lee back to his form with 24.5 points, 9.5 assists, and 3.5 steals. Dalano Banton shook off the defensive attention that he got in the first game and managed to put up 13 points for the series, but his turnover rate continues to be alarming, at 4.5 per game for this trip. Ron Harper Jr. had OK counting stats of 16 points and 6.5 rebounds, and two blocks, but his 1-for-14 shooting from behind the arc was ugly.
Sterling Brown, who’s been starting for the Raptors 905 since joining the team, was signed by the Los Angeles Lakers on a 10-day contract. Brown gave the Raptors 905 balance on the starting lineup with his well-rounded play as a perimeter threat (catch-and-shoot or pullup), playmaking, shot-creation, rebounding, and defense. We wish him all the best, but if the Lakers don’t keep him, the Raptors 905 still have his rights and he can rejoin the team.
With Brown’s absence, the Raptors 905 picked up Kylor Kelley, a 7’ big that should help shore up the front court of Perry and Kenny Wooten. He last played for the Austin Spurs two years ago.
For the first time all season, it can honestly be said that every single Raptors player was able to contribute. Toronto got contributions across the board to outlast Portland in a game that featured wild swings and comically bad officiating. The starters started poorly on defence, allowing the Blazers to waltz in for two layups and two open threes to start before Nick Nurse called an early first timeout. Toronto then locked in, including an impressive defensive stretch where Portland didn’t score a field goal over nine minutes between the first and second quarters. As with all games involving Damian Lillard, the fourth quarter produced nervous moments but the Raptors closed it out to snap their dreadful losing streak.
Bontemps says that “Toronto has been put in a position where the rest of the NBA is waiting to see which direction the franchise will take with its underperforming roster,” before detailing all of the problems that have led the team to their 17-23 record (regression from Scottie Barnes and Fred VanVleet, poor shooting, bad transition defense… it’s actually kind of depressing!).
Bontemps also details how the play-in tournament has messed up the traditional playoffs-or-tank model. With now 10 teams instead of eight with a chance at the postseason, franchises in 9-10 range might take that bet that they can win the play-in and get to the postseason.
With 10 teams from each conference now guaranteed, at minimum, the chance to win two games and make the playoffs, it’s both given more teams the opportunity to wait for standings to shake out and has decreased the pool of selling teams.
So while scouts and executives pointed at teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards joining Toronto as potential active teams ahead of next month’s trade deadline, there’s less urgency for middling teams to make moves.
“It makes team less inclined to throw in the towel,” another East executive told ESPN.
I wouldn’t personally take that bet with the Raptors — while I think their defense gives them a chance in a 7-game series, given their shooting woes and general lack of offensive creativity, I think winning one, do-or-die game (let alone two!) is actually the tougher task.
In any event, Bontemps says the Raptors will wait until the end of the month before making any decisions.
As for Stein, he reports that Gary Trent Jr. — who can opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer — is the lone player Toronto has made “available” — but, he says, “I wouldn’t expect a broad fire sale,” and that “it would take lots — LOTS — to pry either O.G. Anunoby or Pascal Siakam away from the Raptors, who have been firm in their desire to keep both players.”
That aligns with my thinking — they’re too good to give up on — but that brings us around to Fred VanVleet. Like Trent, VanVleet can opt out of his contract this summer and become a free agent. Both Bontemps and Stein mention that VanVleet didn’t sign the maximum $114 million contract extension that he could have last summer; VanVleet himself says the contract was never officially offered, but is seems clear the Raptors were willing to give him the max — and he is, once again, betting on himself that he’s worth more.
Oh and by the way, he’ll win that bet.
By all accounts, the team’s decision makers – led by president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster – have yet to definitively commit to a path. It seems increasingly unlikely that they would be looking to buy, given how the first half of the season has gone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll operate as aggressive sellers either.
Currently, they don’t appear to be shopping any of their core players, according to multiple league sources, but they do seem willing to listen to offers.
“They’re keeping their options open,” as one source described their process, which means they also haven’t ruled out anything.
Assuming that’s the case, the coming weeks will be a crucial period of evaluation for an organization at a crossroads. Internally, they believe they’re better than their 17-23 record and there’s still hope that they can go on a run and turn their season around.
As bleak as things have felt at times during their recent slide, games like Sunday’s 117-105 win over the Trail Blazers offer that cause for optimism, a reminder of what they look like when things are clicking.
The Raptors held Portland without a field goal for nearly nine minutes in the first half and then again for four and a half minutes in the third quarter. They hit 39 per cent of their three-point attempts, all five starters made an impact, and they finally got something out of their struggling bench. It was one of their most complete outings of the season and their first win of 2023, snapping a three-game losing skid. They’ll have a chance to build on it with the 11-30 Charlotte Hornets – one of the five teams below Toronto in the league standings – coming to town for a two-game set this week.
Their regular starting lineup is gelling again since they were reassembled last week (they’ve outscored opponents by 8.7 points per 100 possessions in 106 minutes over the last four games), the defence has looked better, and they’ve got the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA. Of the 16 games they’ll play prior to the trade deadline, 10 of them come against teams that are currently at or below .500.
Whether they can take advantage of this stretch and continue to show signs of life could determine what happens next. Time is no longer on their side, with Tuesday’s game marking the official halfway point of the campaign, and decisions need to be made.
“Look at our record, we’re just trying to chip away,” Pascal Siakam said after practice on Monday. “In the grand scheme of things we obviously know we’re not where we’re supposed to be but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got to focus on every single game, treat it like it’s our last, and try to stay together… Nobody feels sorry for us. And I feel like I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve just got to go out there and do it, and hopefully we build a little momentum and get some wins in a row.”
It’s a precarious time. Even as they were putting the finishing touches on Sunday’s impressive win, a video showing Scottie Barnes and Thaddeus Young locked in a heated verbal exchange during halftime warmups began to surface. Both players downplayed it afterwards, with the sophomore calling it “a little disagreement” and the 16-year vet saying it was “no different than brothers going back and forth.” They hugged it out and smoothed things over quickly.
No doubt president Masai Ujiri has been in Barnes’s ear providing his unique brand of unvarnished-while-compassionate truth-telling. And Sunday’s win over the Trail Blazers saw Barnes engaged in a halftime-warmup back-and-forth with veteran forward Thaddeus Young.
Exactly what the two players were jawing about isn’t clear. They’ve since publicly insisted they share nothing but mutual love and respect.
“I spoke to both of them today, and they were like barely anything happened,” Nurse said after Monday’s practice. “So we’ll just move on from there.”
Still, after all we’ve seen and heard about Barnes this season, the sight of a straight-talking 15-year NBAer like Young getting in Barnes’s face wasn’t particularly surprising beyond the fact it happened in public.
To whom much is given, much is expected. And there are those around the team who clearly believe it’s time for Barnes to get accustomed to a level of scrutiny that simply didn’t come his way during his gilded rookie year.
“He was pretty much a golden child all last year and then nobody said any bad things about him,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “So [he can] get it out the way now. Let people talk about him, and he’ll be able to bounce back and push through that.”
With losses in 14 of their past 20 games, the Raptors are in desperate need of a bounce-back response, and pronto. Perhaps consecutive home games against woeful Charlotte on Tuesday and Thursday, followed by another home game against 10th-place Atlanta on Saturday, will allow the Raptors to put together a rare multi-game winning streak, this in a season in which they’ve yet to win more than two straight.
For that to happen, they’ll need more of what they got Sunday — a relatively full team effort, including solid stretches from the much-maligned bench, that included a first quarter in which the Raptors outscored Portland 34-27. Speaking of slow starts – the lax early-game minutes that have been one of Barnes’s blind spots have also been a team problem, at least in the eyes of Pascal Siakam.
“I feel like a lot of the times we get hit first and then we react,” Siakam said. “But we’ve gotta be the aggressors. We’ve gotta come in with a focus and mentality to attack no matter what we’re doing on defence and offence. Just be aggressive.”
Barnes is far from the only Raptor who has under-performed this season. While Siakam has taken his game to another level and OG Anunoby has been the best version of himself, VanVleet has seen a nagging back injury morph into chronic shooting woes. The problem for Barnes is that he hasn’t taken the step forward that a franchise allegedly focussed on internal development ought to expect. So instead of lifting his team in its quest to improve on last season’s 48 wins — what seemed like a realistic goal at the season’s outset — Toronto is on pace for 34 wins and no doubt mulling the pros and cons of selling at the Feb. 9 trade deadline with an eye toward improving their odds in the draft lottery.
In a league that’s become so superstar-centered in which star players are constantly trying to build super teams, maneuver their way into better situations, and play alongside friends, Siakam is an exception. It’s as if he’s not concerned with anything other than becoming the best basketball player he can be. And despite the rumors swirling around the Toronto Raptors with a month to go before the trade deadline, Siakam is unfazed.
“Literally doesn’t concern me,” he said Monday following Raptors practice. “What is that gonna get me to worry about what’s gonna happen at the trade deadline?
“Unless my phone starts ringing and it’s like you’re going somewhere, like, that’s the only thing. But other than that, I’m here. I’m coming to work every day. And you know, I let the people that do their job do their job.”
By all accounts, Toronto has not made Siakam available in trade talks. The 28-year-old is playing the best basketball of his career and has situated himself as a cornerstone part of the Raptors organization. With a year left on his contract and the prospect of a max contract extension looming this summer, it would be shocking if Toronto decided to part ways with Siakam.
The same, however, cannot be said for the rest of the roster. At 16-23 and with the sixth-worst record in the league, decisions are looming for the Raptors. Gary Trent Jr. is expected to hit unrestricted free agency this summer and is thought to be Toronto’s most likely trade candidate. Fred VanVleet also has a player option for next year he’s expected to opt out of, though a deal involving him seems less likely. O.G. Anunoby’s situation is less urgent considering he’s under contract through next season but there’s little doubt rival teams would be lining up to blow the Raptors away should the 25-year-old forward be made available.
For Siakam, all the chatter is pretty much business as usual. He’s seen franchise icons like DeMar DeRozan get traded and watched as his peers Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, and Norman Powell have all been shipped away over the past handful of seasons.
“It hurts. You build relationships with these people and you consider them family and they get moved, it’s hurtful,” he said. “But, at the same time, it’s Year 7 for me and I get it.
“It’s hard but you get over it. At the end of the day, we are still doing our jobs and no matter where these people go they still get to wake up and play basketball for a living which is incredible and amazing. That’s really what it is. We stay in touch, but like I said, it’s a business.”