Suddenly and shockingly, the Raptors look absolutely lost

Toronto Raptors' Gary Trent Jr. battles Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young on Feb. 26 in NBA action. (AP Photo)

The Toronto Raptors were rolling heading into the NBA All-Star break.

Coming out of it, they’ve been rolled over.

It’s a strange and worrisome turn of events for a team that had got healthy and good in January, which in turn built on an improved December.

By early February as the Raptors were the hottest team in the Eastern Conference and going on an impressive eight-game winning streak, their injury-riddled, sub-.500 November was in the distant past, a lingering left-over from the Tampa Tank from the season before.

Suddenly the Raptors weren’t worried about the NBA’s play-in tournament, they were gunning for a spot in the top six and a guaranteed first-round series. Toronto was officially a dark horse in a deep, competitive conference.

Hopes were high.

But it might be time to recalibrate. The Raptors were blown out for the second consecutive game after an eight-day hiatus over the All-Star break as they lost 127-100 to the Atlanta Hawks. It came 24 hours after the Raptors were smacked by 32 points by the Charlotte Hornets.

The losses marked the first time in 10 years that Toronto had lost consecutive games by more than 20 points and very nearly became the first back-to-back losses of 30 points or more in franchise history – which, given some of the dark places the Raptors have been, is saying something.

Toronto fell to 32-27 and is now two-and-a-half games behind Boston for sixth place and two-and-a-half games ahead of the eighth-place Brooklyn Nets heading into a home-and-home series Monday and Tuesday.

The 10th-place Hawks improved to 29-31.

In both of their post All-Star losses, the Raptors’ work was done by the start of the fourth quarter, although in this case Toronto trailed by just 30 heading into the final frame, rather than being down 39.

Does it mean something? Anything? Is it worth mentioning that the Raptors lost by 30 in their second-last game before the All-Star break, making Saturday their third blowout loss in four games, with an average deficit of 29.67 points?

It can’t be ignored, let’s just say that.

“You guys can overreact and write whatever you want, I really don’t care,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, who is shooting 11-of-34 over his past two games. “… We come out and play like ass and everybody wants to jump to conclusions and make deep dives and break down what went wrong and who did what and I shouldn’t have played in the All-Star Game and Pascal [Siakam] was on vacation, like, it is what it is.

“All-Star break is in the middle of the season, we didn’t come out of the gate performing like we wanted to [but] … I believe in this team, I believe we’ll be back, playing at the level we need to be playing at, hopefully sooner than later and I take full responsibility for the poor performances and I’m looking forward to getting this team back to where we need to be.”

The Raptors were without OG Anunoby for the second night in a row as he awaits word from a specialist on Monday regarding a fracture in the ring finger of his shooting hand, but that’s hardly an excuse for being cast aside like a flip phone.

What’s becoming evident – if it wasn’t clear prior – is Toronto is not a team with a huge margin for error. Their identity is playing hard, playing smart, being painful on defence and hoping that advantages they can generate on the offensive glass or with turnovers can create enough chances to make up for some shortcomings shooting the ball or rebounding around their own basket.

But that identity hasn’t been present since they reassembled after the break. The Raptors gave up 125 points Friday to the Hornets in a game in which they simply didn’t look interested. The hope was that – embarrassed – Toronto would respond and take out their frustrations against the Hawks.

It didn’t happen. The Hawks took the game midway through the second quarter and owned it by the start of the fourth.

The Raptors allowed Atlanta to shoot 57.8 per cent from the floor and had no answer for Hawks All-Star Trae Young, who rang up 41 points and 11 assists. The third period was the decider as the Hawks outscored the Raptors 38-16, matching their five threes with five dunks as they shot 14-of-20 for the quarter.

The Raptors shot just 40 per cent from the floor. VanVleet had 24 points and nine assists but was 8-of-22 from the floor. The Raptors’ bright spot was Precious Achiuwa, who finished with 21 points and nine rebounds in 30 minutes off the bench.

It was slim pickings after that.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Toronto came into the game 8-3 on the second night of back-to-backs, a testament to their tenacity.

It’s their tenacity that seems to be missing for now.

“We had a pretty long talk there [after the game],” said coach Nick Nurse, who cited his club’s lack of focus, sharpness and conditioning as issues of concern. “We don’t normally have much of a talk at all, but we had a pretty long talk about a lot of the stuff I just mentioned … they’re obviously not happy, right? [But] It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how you respond to it when the ball goes up next and we’ll have to wait and see on that.”

Before the game Nurse was hoping their lack of effort on Friday night and the smackdown that flowed from it would spur them to bigger things Saturday.

“… All I’m ever really asking that we’re ready to compete, give it everything we got and that usually gives us a chance to be in the ball game with a chance to win,” was his pre-game message.

Sure enough, the Raptors rose to the challenge in the opening quarter against Atlanta and the spark came from two sources – one likely and another a little less so.

The first was VanVleet, who no one thought was going to play until moments before the game. He’s been dealing with a sore knee that was sore after the all-star break, and sore the morning after Toronto’s loss to Charlotte. Nurse said it was ‘looking unlikely’ that VanVleet was going to play and then there he was in the starting lineup.

“It’s nothing major, but it’s a pain in the ass,” was VanVleet’s assessment of his balky joint.

VanVleet showed no signs of it bothering him early. The Hawks jumped out to a quick 14-7 lead and it appeared the Raptors’ best intentions were left on the bus.

But VanVleet – who was just 3-of-12 against the Hornets – wasn’t having it. He hit three triples and assisted on another as part of 16-3 run.

No surprise there: playing hard almost all the time is an essential part of the Raptors make-up, and no one embodies it better than VanVleet.

But what was surprising was who was supporting the cause. Achiuwa is the Raptors’ most athletic player and perhaps the most inconsistent too, with the highs few and relatively rare, and the lows many and common.

However, the potential dazzles in between the awkward finishing attempts, the wayward passes and the balls that simply don’t get caught.

But on Saturday, Achiuwa showed why the 22-year-old has so many fans in the organization. On one sequence, the six-foot-nine big man smoothly stroked a corner three, sprinted back defensively and corralled the elusive Young off the dribble, making him miss at the rim before gathering up the rebound, taking a dribble to escape traffic and snapping a hit-ahead bounce pass to a streaking Gary Trent Jr. for a layup. It was all the Raptors have ever dreamed of played out in 17 seconds of running time.

He wasn’t done, either. Achiuwa made a smart baseline cut for a dunk. In the opening moments of the second quarter, he converted right from the left wing and brought the Raptors bench to their feet with one of the best dunks of the season.

Toronto was up 39-32 at that point and its effort against Charlotte seemed to be a fading memory. VanVleet had 14 and Achiuwa had 10. A pair of threes set up by Pascal Siakam penetration on consecutive possessions put Toronto up by 12.

But Atlanta was determined to be heard from. The Eastern Conference finalists from a year ago have been languishing at the bottom of the play-in tournament standings but are still loaded with talent – even if high-flying forward John Collins was sitting out.

Young took over, taking the ball wherever he wanted and scoring or finding open teammates as the Raptors defence crumbled around him. Atlanta went on a 16-0 run and ended up taking a 66-58 lead into the half, with Young logging 25 points and six assists by the break.

It only got better for Young from there, and worse for Toronto

How bad it gets from here for the reeling Raptors is an open question.

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