This is what a “retool” really means

The Raptors lost a pretty casual one, but there were still lessons to learn.

It didn’t take long for the Los Angeles Clippers to beat the Toronto Raptors. Really, they did it in the first quarter, going up by 10 midway through and never cruising. The Clippers only left first gear once or twice, only when they needed to. Mostly it was a game of rest and relaxation for them. And this is what a retool really means.

The Raptors have other ambitions. Not winning a championship, or even an individual game. Pascal Siakam would have very much helped there. No, the idea now is to improve around the edges to give a better chance at a championship later. And that was absolutely the correct choice to make for the team. Still, it doesn’t make such games as Toronto’s loss to the Clippers a whole lot easier to watch.

Early on, RJ Barrett’s drives were all into thickets, resulting in turnovers or stalled plays. When he did reach the rim, such as after a great back screen from Bruce Brown, he smoked the layup. He would find his way later in the game, multiple times doubling back middle after being overplayed. Eventually the lanes opened up, and he found his way to 22 points and 4 assists. It was impressive that he found those lanes, and he was more or less the only one on Toronto outside of Dennis Schroder who could reach the paint.

“We talked over the course of the game,” explained Darko Rajakovic. “I thought early in the game, he was trying to drive the ball. They were first of all putting two people on him. And they were really active with their hands, they were getting some deflections. So we were talking about protecting the ball better and being strong with the ball and also finding his teammates. I thought he did a much better job in the second half with that.”

Of course, he was back cut multiple times on the other end and never found his way into the shell of Toronto’s defense. Two steps forward, two steps back — that’s what retool means, at least in the short term.

Thad Young played well on offense, but he wasn’t able to get stops on the defensive end. When the Clippers wanted a basket, they simply ran an empty-side pick and roll with Young as the screener defender. It was brutal, and it worked.

Scottie Barnes mostly settled for pull-up jumpers until the fourth quarter. He eventually found his way into driving lanes, but he did little for three quarters to set a foot inside the paint. And on the defensive end, he jumped and swung for a lot of volleyball blocks, but missed them all. That meant a lot of layups. That’s what retool means.

On the plus side, Gradey Dick had one of his best games as a pro, if not his best — shotmaking be darned. He missed all the triples he took, but he defended with force, drawing a charge on Norm Powell and trying to get one earlier on Russell Westbrook. (He, and I, thought he got Russ too.) He took a number of shoulders to his chest. He got under James Harden on a pull-up triple and was called for a foul, then a flagrant foul. First Rajakovic spoke to him, then Young and Chris Boucher. He laughed after the game because he knew what he did wrong, but the Raptors are very focused on discussion and positive improvement. No one was upset with Dick. He won’t make the same mistake the next time, or at least not the one after that.

On the offensive end, he turned the corner on pindowns and in transition and finished at the rim. He threw two lobs out of second-side actions when the tagger didn’t come. He fit well into the shape of Toronto’s plans on both ends. This, too, is what retool means.

“Right now our wins are those small gains in small experiences that guys are improving getting better at,” said Rajakovic after the game.

Toronto did make a little run in the fourth. They played very well with Barnes at center, with the size and athleticism to actually contest around the rim on defense, and the juice to run and gun on offense. That group, with Gary Trent jr., Schroder, Barrett, and Bruce Brown, won its minutes. The Clippers parried the thrust with ease, only having to leave first gear once or twice in the fourth. But it was still good to see Toronto find something. Eventually, Barnes at center will be a killing group for the Raptors.

But for now, it’s wins and lessons time. The Raptors learned a few lessons: Don’t get under Harden when he shoots triples. Don’t drive into crowds. Don’t settle for pull-up jumpers. Those are wins during retool season. Wins are lessons, and lessons are wins. Toronto will be better for all of this. Eventually.