Excuses are for losers and Raptors had plenty against Wizards

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) walks off the court after getting ejected following back to back technical fouls during first half NBA basketball action against the Washington Wizards (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – Excuses are always at hand if you want to use them, in all walks of life.

Didn’t get enough sleep. Got too much sleep. Got stuck in traffic. Dog ate my homework. Subway broke down.

Or … your all-star point guard got thrown out in the middle of the second-quarter for jawing about some questionable refereeing.

But In the NBA the first game home after a long road trip is the first one that gets pulled off the shelf when available.

The Toronto Raptors, for most of their 107-96 loss to the visiting Washington Wizards, seemed to have taken it off the shelf, pulled up a comfortable chair, poured themselves a hot chocolate and read from it at their leisure.

“Our starts have been horrendous,” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey after the game. “We talked about the travel situation, how tough it is to find energy and professionalism and playing with purpose once you come back after you come home off a long road trip, but I guess it didn’t sink in. Our young guys played their behinds off … but we have to find consistency. We can be a good team if we’re consistent and have consistent performance or we can be average the way we are now. I told the guys they have to decide what they’re going to be.”

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In their first game at Air Canada Centre after a season-long six-game, 13-day road trip – they got home in the middle of the night on Saturday – the Raptors (5-4) looked like they wanted to be done work and get back to bed as quickly as possible.

“At this point most of us have been in the league multiple years now and none of that is an excuse,” said DeMar DeRozan. “Every game that we have to go out to play, if we’re healthy and can go out there and play, we should bring that same intensity, no matter where we at. That’s the mindset we’ve got to have. We can’t find a cop-out or an excuse or anything else.”

Yes, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

They were down by 10 after five minutes and trailed by 16 by the time the starters went to the bench. The reserves – usually counted on to provide an energy boost – weren’t any less depleted in the early going.

As evidence of their lack of focus the Raptors – who shoot 80 per cent from the free-throw line as a team – were just four of their first 11 from the line.

Everyone seemed grumpy. DeRozan looked irritated at every whistle and Kyle Lowry wasn’t far behind. When Lowry started yapping at referee JB DeRosa midway through the second quarter – while the play was live and Lowry was defending the ball, amazingly – he picked up one quick technical foul. Lowry upped the ante a little bit – complaining about the uncalled foul still – and DeRosa ran him. The whole sequence took about five seconds.

“I thought it was unfortunate,” said Casey. “People have said worse than that, far worse than what he said to the official. First of all, if you’re a young official, walk away. Don’t stand there and debate with a player who’s frustrated, upset in that situation. I was surprised. Players have said worse to officials than what Kyle did [and not been ejected].”

DeRozan said he can’t recall a player getting T’d up while in the middle of the play but otherwise didn’t want to comment on the call and getting fined, which tells you all you need to know about his opinion of the sequence.

But you couldn’t help but feel that Lowry, sensing the inevitable, wasn’t all that unhappy about beating the rush to the showers. He got there so quickly was gone by the time the locker rooms opened to the media, so his view on it all will have to wait, but his box score line says he was barely there in any case: Two points, an assist and a turnover and minus-17 in 12 minutes of court time.

The game was all but in the books, it seemed.

But with their star gone the Raptors seemed emboldened. They kept played a scrappy second quarter to keep Washington in view and for a long stretch in the second half looked like they were going to send the Wizards – playing without an injured John Wall (shoulder) to their fifth loss in five games.

Hope peaked early in the fourth quarter when Fred VanVleet, the Raptors’ undersized third point guard, began doing a passable impression of his mentor, Lowry.

At 5-foot-10 VanVleet struggles mightily to finish in the paint – it’s his primary drawback as an NBA player. He came into the game shooting just 40 per cent from at the rim this season. In contrast, 6-foot-5 Delon Wright – his competition for backup minutes – uses his size and wingspan to finish 64 per cent of his lay-up attempts.

VanVleet has been struggling to stay in the rotation and he leveraged Lowry’s ejection perfectly. Three times he drove into the lane into heavy traffic and all three times he bounced off a body or two, twisted and stretched and managed to get the ball to drop, a welcome bonus given the Raptors shot 5-of-24 from three as their struggle from beyond the arc continued.

He found Lucas Nogueira for a ferocious alley-oop. He even blocked a couple of shots is his own 18 minutes of small ball. By the time DeRozan converted a three-point play the Raptors had come back from 19 down and trailed 88-85 with 7:24 to play.

“Yeah, you can’t really live like that, by the three,” said VanVleet, who finished with 10 points and four assists on seven shots in 19 minutes. “It’s nice, and it’ll help, but at the end of the day you still gotta get layups, you gotta get easy buckets, get paint points, and then once you collapse in the paint, you’ll get easier threes. It’s not about the number of threes, it’s about the quality. And then you gotta make ‘em, right? You could shoot 50 bad shots, they’re not gonna go in. I think attacking the paint first will open up the outside and we were able to do that a little bit there.”

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Cutting the Wizards lead to three was as close as they got. That was the point where Raptors head coach Dwane Casey subbed big man Jonas Valanciunas in for VanVleet and Norman Powell back in for OJ Anunoby. Casey said it was because the second unit was winded and struggling to score in the half court.

Regardless, the Wizards got their wind back and the Raptors neither scored nor got stops and Valanciunas struggled to contain the pick-and-roll – a theme all night. A triple from Bradley Beal on his way to 38 on the night and a pair of lay-ups on breakdowns by Toronto and the lead was quickly back to 10 and the Raptors let go of the rope, looking like a team that had exhausted its turbo boost.

Casey saw his team’s effort – the initial one, at least – coming a mile away.

“This is the toughest game, the scariest game,” Casey said of the ‘first-game back’ phenomena. “Just because of energy level, time changes. Not only this, we’re still fighting the time change from two weeks ago. We went out to Hawaii [as part of training camp], come back, had a few days here, went back out to the west coast, now we’re coming back.

“The energy level, feeling sorry for ourselves, saying, ‘oh, we’re a little tired’ or whatever, that’s what we’ve gotta fight as much as a talented Washington Wizards team who’s coming in upset and angry they lost what, four out of five. So they’re gonna be playing with a purpose. Today is about our energy level, our fight, our toughness, our mental toughness, and fighting through the age-old excuse of coming back home and thinking that home’s gonna take care of you, and it doesn’t unless you take care of it with fight, with energy, with all-out play. We’ve gotta come with the same mindset we had in Utah. Anything less, we’re selling ourselves short.”

The all-out play wasn’t there, and the results reflected it.

The Raptors ended up shooting 46.3 per cent from the floor, but couldn’t overcome shooting 5-of-19 in the first 12 minutes when the game was largely decided. Once again they struggled from deep, as the NBA’s second-worst three-point shooting team was 5-of-24 for the game, and they really hurt themselves by going an uncharacteristic 17-of-27 from the free-throw line.

The Raptors’ bright light was VanVleet who had 10 points and four assists in 19 minutes on seven shots while DeRozan found a way to score 26 and Powell had 19.

The Raptors’ bright light was VanVleet and the bench group generally, but without Lowry the Raptors flailed down the stretch, while the Wizards – playing without their superstar and stinging from an embarrassing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at home – got a huge performance from Beal and able support from Otto Porter Jr. while shooting 11-of-23 from three as a team.

Excuses are for losers, as the saying goes, and on the occasion of the Raptors’ first home game in two weeks, the cliché fits.


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