TORONTO — Despite winning 20 of their last 24 and sitting atop the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors are doing a little soul-searching these days.
A 117-106 loss Sunday to the Los Angeles Clippers was the Raptors’ third defeat in five games. And that stretch included a 116-112 comeback win over Brooklyn that left coach Dwane Casey shaking his head at his team’s lack of focus.
"We’ve got a lot to learn from," Casey said after the latest setback. "I’ve said it before, we’ve got to make sure we do the little things and don’t let them slip. And they’ve slipped. Our defence has slipped, our offensive execution, passing. And all that affects your rhythm."
After trailing by as many as 18 early, the Clippers finally took the lead in a third quarter in which they outscored Toronto 27-20. Tied at 80-80 going into the fourth, Los Angeles opened the quarter on a 16-2 run against Toronto’s second unit.
The Raptors closed to within five at 105-100 after a 7-0 run. But Lou Williams carried the Los Angeles offence with 18 of his 26 points in the final quarter.
"He’s a handful," Casey said of the former Raptor. "We knew that going in and we did not do a good job of getting him under control."
The visitors outscored Toronto 37-26 in the final quarter.
"There’s a lot of things from that game that we didn’t do well," said Toronto backup guard Fred VanVleet.
Casey pointed to a subpar night by the second unit, turnovers and some poor shooting.
The Clippers (39-34) are looking to claw their way back into the playoff picture. Toronto (54-20) is looking to get its game right going into the playoffs.
Tobias Harris had 20 points and Montrezl Harrell added 19 for the Clippers.
"We challenged them at halftime and I thought every single guy … everybody came out and played great," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
Added Williams: "We knew we were coming out against a high-power team. They came out and hit us in the mouth early and we responded. I think the second half we responded well."
Jonas Valanciunas led the Raptors with 16 points. Seven Raptors scored in double figures with DeMar DeRozan, on 3-of-12 shooting, and birthday boy Kyle Lowry, on 4-of-9, each having 11 points.
"Tough night for him offensively, going against bigger bodies," Casey said of DeRozan.
"Just one of those nights," said DeRozan. "You can’t play how you want to play every single night. And when you play bad, you can’t kind of cry about it. Understand it happens. Not just me, just us as a team … We’ve got to use getting knocked down, the adversity, as a positive"
That’s how Casey chose to see it.
"In a crazy way it’s good for us that we’re facing it now, that we’re not cake-walking through these last eight games, nine games," he said. "But at the same time we’ve got to improve."
Leaving Valanciunas aside, the Toronto starters shot 15-of-41.
The Clippers won 96-91 when the teams met in Los Angeles in December.
Valanciunas scored the Raptors’ first eight points and 12 of their first 14 as Toronto, showing the focus it lacked for most of Friday’s comeback win over lowly Brooklyn, ran up a 27-9 lead. The Clippers missed 10 of their first 14 shots.
A 17-5 Clippers run helped reduce Toronto’s advantage to 35-28 at the end of the first.
The Raptors maintained their lead in the second. Despite a 9-0 L.A. run and four-minute-plus Toronto scoring drought, the Raptors led 60-53 at the half.
Valanciunas saw little action in the second quarter after picking up a third foul. DeRozan and Serge Ibaka shot a combined 1-of-11 in the half. On the other side, Williams and Austin Rivers were a combined 4-of-17 as the Raptors led for the entire half.
Toronto made eight of its first 12 three-point attempts en route to making at least 10 three-pointers for a franchise-record 16th straight game. But after making their first eight, they hit on just one of the next 10 until C.J. Miles finally hit the Raptors’ 10th three-pointer of the night late in the third quarter.
After Valanciunas went to the bench early in the third with his fourth foul, the Clippers closed to within one at 64-63 by taking advantage of a Lowry technical foul. Los Angeles then took its first lead of the game at 66-64 on a Rivers three-pointer with 7:23 remaining in the third.
Miles and Pascal Siakam combined for 15 points in the third quarter to keep the Raptors in it.
The Clippers used seven-foot-three Boban Marjanovic in the fourth for rim protection.
Toronto came into the game having lost two of its last four — against Cleveland and Oklahoma City — and Casey lamenting his team’s sluggish play against the Nets last time out.
Casey’s wish list includes a return to consistency and playing to the Raptors’ own identity, so as to avoid an "emotional roller-coaster ride."
The Clippers, who started the day in 10th spot in the West, are fighting for a playoff berth. But they have been headed in the wrong direction recently. Los Angeles, on the final stop of a four-game road trip, arrived having lost five of its last six.
Casey looked past that record, saying "they’ve got a lot of excellent pieces."
The Clippers have now won nine of their last 10 against Eastern opponents.
Miles returned to the Raptors’ lineup after missing two games due to gastroenteritis. Toronto hosts Denver on Tuesday.