Performance against Kings questions Raptors’ elite status

DeMar DeRozan led with 21 points to get the Raptors a 108-93 win against the visiting Sacramento Kings, along with Vince Carter in what could be his last game in Toronto.

TORONTO — As good as the Toronto Raptors are — and make no mistake, this team is very good — it’s performances like Sunday’s against the Sacramento Kings that will always give even the most glass-half-full optimists pause and add more fuel to the naysayers’ ever-burning bonfire.

Toronto looks like everything that should garner more high-profile U.S national attention. This is a team that features two all-stars and, coming into Sunday’s game, was the third best team in the league according to net rating (just behind the likes of championship-favourites Golden State and Houston).

So they’re awesome, right?

Well, when you allow a lottery-bound Kings club to hang 63 points on you while shooting 61.9 per cent from the field at halftime it’s hard to really justify that statement with any sort of emphatic fervour.

Despite those alarming numbers, the Raptors did get their act together in the third quarter and clamped down on the Kings, holding them to 14 points in the frame, riding the momentum of a 12-4 run to end the third to a convincing 108-93 victory.

“We picked it up aggressively — very aggressively,” said DeMar DeRozan, who finished with a game-high 21 points, of the Raptors’ second-half turnaround. “Especially the bench. I think I was in there with a couple of guys off the bench and they came in with high energy, got their hands on the basketball, got out in transition.”

The second unit was indeed key on Sunday for Toronto’s fortunes as the combination of Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet helped helped the Raptors hold Sacramento to just 30.8 per cent shooting in the entire second half.

“I just think we got more locked into the game plan, understanding what they were trying to do,” Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry said. “We just did a better job of being focused on what we needed to do, changed a few things at the half and fixed the coverages a little.”

Lowry’s not wrong in thinking his team could just flick the light switch on at any moment against Sacramento — that’s exactly what they did after all. And while a win’s a win, the fact the Raptors took half the game to rev up before putting away a bad Kings team who was without their talented rookie point guard De’Aaron Fox (right quadriceps contusion) and a resting Zach Randolph — even if it was a notorious Sunday afternoon start — speaks to a problem this team has been facing for a while now.

Analytically, the Raptors are great. Optically, not so much.

“When you let a team shoot 61 per cent in the first half, whatever game that is, that’s dangerous,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after the game. “Anytime in this league if you let a team shoot 61 per cent it is way too high. We held them to 31 per cent in the second half, which is admirable, but we can’t play with fire.”

Too late.

Unfortunately for Casey, Toronto has made a habit this season of playing with fire and falling short just as it seems it will formally introduce itself as one of the NBA’s elite.

Remember that loss to a John Wall-less Washington Wizards? Or to the New York Knicks in November? How about just a few days ago against the Clippers in Los Angeles with a seven-point lead midway through the fourth quarter only to see it evaporate right before their eyes?

Or how about against the San Antonio Spurs back in October? Leading by six with about nine minutes to play in the fourth, the Raptors crumbled under pressure and were unable to close out a signature win ripe for the taking — a mistake that was repeated to a lesser degree when they visited the Warriors in Oakland.

The above examples were cases of Raptors losses, but it’s not even as if this is a pattern that’s reserved mutually to defeats, we’ve seen this same thing in victory as well.

In Toronto’s second game of the season with the Chicago Bulls, it came dangerously close from completely collapsing in on itself despite leading by 19 entering the fourth quarter.

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For longtime Raptors observers, this trend of seemingly playing and up and down to the level of their competition, coming up short in so-called big-time games and falling short — optically and actually — against lesser opponents is all-too familiar.

It’s been who the Raptors are when Vince Carter — who, in potentially his final appearance at Air Canada Centre finished with a measly four points and five personal fouls — was known as “Half-man, half-amazing,” when Chris Bosh was swinging his dreads around like nobody was looking and, now, as DeRozan and Lowry lead the club to the most success it’s ever had.

So while Sunday’s final score ultimately left the sellout crowd of 19,800 in attendance at Air Canada Centre happy, the actual team’s performance still leads a fair bit to be desired.

Yes, you can point to the fact that the Raptors were shorthanded with Serge Ibaka out with a sore left knee; yes, Sunday afternoon games have a tendency to be played at a more lethargic pace to start with; and yes, it’s kind of difficult to get up for a game with the Kings — even with Carter in the building.

But those are all things the Raptors should be doing if they’re truly as elite as their numbers indicate.