Four-game skid has Raptors facing tough questions

Play-by-play voice Eric Smith says the loss to Charlotte was the biggest letdown of the year for the Raps, and says they have a giant hole within their rotation of ‘bigs.’

“Tonight we sucked as a team, and we have to figure it out soon.”

That was Kyle Lowry’s frank assessment of the Toronto Raptors after last night’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets. And he’s right—Toronto does have to figure “it” out soon—but what is “it” exactly? Nobody seems to know the answer.

Dwane Casey is a defensive-minded coach who came to Toronto and turned one of the worst defences in the league into one of the best. And last year, the Raptors—in spite of some of the issues they may have had in the post-season—were known for their hard-nosed D and for being a tough out on any given night.

This year started with a similar tone. For the first month of the season, give or take, Toronto was one of only a few teams to rank in the NBA’s top 10 in both offence and defence. But in the last four to six weeks, the wheels have fallen off. The Raptors can’t seem to stop anyone with any kind of consistency. Even in victory they’ve ridden their juggernaut offence, masking defensive deficiencies.

The team has now lost four games in a row—their longest skid in more than a year—but relief could be coming soon, with the return of DeMar DeRozan. His presence in the lineup should allow Toronto to slow the pace a little bit. And DeRozan's ability to get to the free-throw line will enable the Raptors to get back and set up defensively as well. His impact—though he's still not a great one-on-one defender—will be felt on both ends of the floor.

“One of the silver linings about this situation is that DeMar is not out there,” said Patrick Patterson. “Maybe DeMar is the cure for all this.”

Maybe. But is his return enough?

Toronto's struggles can't be pinned on one player. As much as DeRozan’s absence isn’t the sole reason for the four-game slide or the defensive slippage, nor can anyone else be individually blamed for what has ailed this team for so long. However, if there is one area of need that seems to stand out, it's the Raptors' frontcourt.

Jonas Valanciunas is progressing well in his young career and his rebounding and scoring numbers are good. But he's not (yet?) a true shot-blocker or rim-protector. Amir Johnson doesn't fit that bill either. Without an imposing presence around the rim, Toronto has struggled. If there's a hole on this team for Masai Ujiri to fill, it’s found up front.

But one must be careful to not pin all of the blame on the bigs. The guards must do their job as well, and be the first line of defence. They can't lean on the big men behind them to clean up their miscues and blow-bys.

After Thursday's loss to Charlotte, Casey spent much longer than usual talking to his team. When he finally met with the media, he was asked about that extra time. He acknowledged that he spent much of it talking about “defensive energy and focus” and—in a separate answer—added, “I don't know what it is but we have to find seven or eight guys that are interested in competing at a high level.”

Those were strong words coming from a coach that had just spent two days of intense practice with his team. The Raptors hadn't played since Sunday (a blowout loss in Phoenix).

“We had two solid days of practice, so our lack of intensity, our lack of focus and our lack of will out there is as baffling to me as it is to anyone else on this team,” said Patterson after Thursday's loss. “I thought we had great rhythm with those two practices and that everyone's mindset was on the same page, but when we started off the game it was just sloppy. The start of the second half, the third quarter, it was just downhill from there.”

That comment—combined with Casey's plea for guys that simply want to play the right way—may lead one to think that Toronto is entertaining a change to the starting lineup. Casey acknowledged that possibility during Thursday's post-game press conference.

“For whatever reason we are not getting that energy at the start of the game and at the start of the third quarter, and those were back breakers,” he said. “Whether it's a lineup change or whatever it is, we have to find an answer for that.”

If a change is coming, we'll find out on Saturday night when the Raptors try to get back in the win column with the Boston Celtics in town.