TORONTO – If you’re looking for something to nitpick in a 12-2 Toronto Raptors team that only just lost for the first time in six games — a 126-110 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans at Scotiabank Arena Monday night — here’s something for all the glass-half-empty types out there.
Though 14 games isn’t quite enough to call this a trend, an odd tendency has emerged as the Raptors hit a pebble on what has been an otherwise perfectly paved road for them thus far.
Toronto’s been involved in five games that’s seen them win by less than 10 points. In three of those games, the Raptors were facing teams that, coming into Monday night, were ranked within the top-10 in pace – the number of possessions a team records per 48 minutes.
Those teams would be Washington (No. 7), Minnesota (No. 9) and Sacramento (No. 2). More interestingly, the only defeats Toronto has suffered this season have come at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that averages the fifth-most possessions per game, and, now, the fourth-ranked Pelicans.
For comparison’s sake, the Raptors ranked 12th coming into Monday’s game, averaging 102.2 possessions per game.
Over the course of an 82-game grind, a loss here and there is going to happen, especially when your all-star point guard goes just 1-for-9 from the field, 0-for-6 from three, puts up just four points and the team as a whole goes 13-for-45 (28.9 per cent) from three.
What’s more important than just dwelling on the ‘L,’ however, is asking the question of whether this odd stat could be a potential greater cause for concern further down the line?
During morning shootaround, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made specific warning of the blistering speed that the Pelicans want to play at and how it could cause problems for his team later that night.
"They’re an offensive juggernaut. They really can score," Nurse said. "They push it up the floor fast. They play at a fast pace. They play with incredible space, they have shooters all over the place, they don’t mess around with the ball, this is not walk it up and set a bunch of screens and pass, pass, pass, pass. They’re so talented and well-organized offensively they try to hit you quick with everything they do."
New Orleans entered Monday with the sixth highest offensive rating, averaging 111.5 points per 100 possessions, the Raptors were third. Couple this with the fact the Pelicans are a sieve on defence with the fifth-worst defensive rating in the league and the Raptors eighth-best, Monday should’ve been a cakewalk for Toronto.
But it wasn’t. And pace, along with the fact the Pelicans just couldn’t seem to miss, played large in the final result.
For the game, the Pelicans scored 72 points in the paint as they shot 54.5 per cent from the field.
Both teams ended with the same number of possessions, 101, but the speed and pressure New Orleans put on the Raptors was still felt.
"I don’t think we were quite fast enough back," Nurse said after the game of the Pelicans’ pace.
This was most apparent early in the fourth quarter when Raptors guard Fred VanVleet nailed a triple — part of a mini 8-0 spurt to start the frame — to bring Toronto within six points. New Orleans then took a timeout and ran a play that got E’Twaun Moore, who finished with a game-high 30 points, an easy floater.
This was then followed up by a Raptors possession that saw them run the shot clock down to seven before turning it over with a three-second violation in the paint.
From there, the Pelicans managed to run a play to set up a Darius Miller triple and balloon their lead back up 11 points. Game, effectively, over.
Pace was at play throughout this sequence as the Raptors shot themselves in the foot by not recognizing the situation and speeding up with New Orleans on it heels.
Alas, it just wasn’t to be.
All of this is to say that this was just the team’s second loss in 14 games played. So there’s no need for panic – "It’s one game,” the aforementioned all-star point guard Kyle Lowry said – but with a team as good as the Raptors have proven to be thus far, every small fault will be magnified.
So, is playing fast against the Raptors really their weakness? It’s too soon to say for sure right now, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on, at the very least.