Toronto – The Toronto Raptors have put so much money in the bank so far this season that they can draw down on their accounts and hardly feel it.
But they do seem to letting their hard-earned early season savings fall out of their pockets lately.
On Sunday night Toronto lost for the third time in five games — 117-106 to the Los Angeles Clippers — with only a pair of all-the-way-to-the-wire wins over a pair of the NBA’s lesser-thans saving them from their first losing streak of an otherwise impeccable season.
Toronto’s hasn’t lost more than two consecutive games all year, and haven’t done that since Jan. 13 and Jan. 15 to the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers, respectively.
So with true adversity hard to come by, this will have to do.
It’s not a losing streak but the porous defence, the sloppy play, the preventable losses – does it kind of feel like a five-game slide?
“Yeah. Yeah. It definitely doesn’t feel good at all, even the games we did win,” said Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan. “But like I said, it’s fine to face adversity right now, that can’t do nothing but make us better. One thing about it is were going to respond to it and be a lot better.”
They need to be, although the beauty of having won 18-of-19 before their mini-slide is that it likely won’t cost them if they don’t figure it all out right away. They have a cushion they can likely float on until the playoffs start. Whether they would be wise to rest on it is another story.
The Clippers (39-34) are hardly a typical lottery team, having been rendered to the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race by a slew of injuries, and they did come into the Air Canada Centre having lost five of their past six games. But even after spotting Toronto a 16-point first-quarter lead Los Angeles was able to calmly reel the Eastern Conference leaders back in before eventually pulling away in the fourth.
It was a familiar face doing most of the damage as former Raptor Lou Williams – who leads the NBA in fourth quarter scoring with 7.7/game – unloaded for 18 of his game-high 26 in the final frame.
The Clippers also rolled out Boban Marjanovic the seven-foot-three, 300 pound Serbian centre who always seems lethally effective in the brief stretches of playing time he gets, making him a favourite of basketball Twitter. He had four points, three rebounds and an assist in six fourth quarter minutes and was plus-10, while altering shots without blocking them.
The Raptors were trailing by eight when Serge Ibaka energized the crowd with a corner three with three minutes to play, prompting a Clippers timeout. Williams came back with a three-point play on a phantom foul by Fred VanVleet though VanVleet responded with his own triple to cut the lead to five again. But Williams had one more dagger three with two minutes to play that seemed to take Raptors’ spirit.
With the loss the Raptors fell to 54-20 and 30-7 at home. With Boston winning in Sacramento, Toronto’s lead in the Eastern Conference standings has shrunk to 3.5 games with eight to play – two of them against Boston. At the other end of the playoff picture the Milwaukee Bucks held on to win against the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat lost to the Indiana Pacers. As a result the Heat fell to eighth place and would be the Raptors first-round opponent if the playoffs started tomorrow.
Missing in action for Toronto was DeRozan who finished with 11 points on 3-of-12 shooting while Kyle Lowry had 11 points and eight assists to go along with four turnovers. The Raptors were led by Jonas Valanciunas who had 16 points but only four after the first three minutes of the game. Toronto shot 44 per cent from the floor and made 16-of-36 threes but coughed up 16 turnovers to just nine by the Clippers, who got to the line 27 times compared with 14 by Toronto.
“It’s just one of those nights,” said DeRozan of his struggles. “You can’t play how you want to play every single night. When you play bad you can’t cry about it. You’ve got to understand it happens, not just me but us as a team. We weren’t supposed to come out here and lose on our home floor but we did. We’ve got to use us getting knocked down, adversity, as a positive. That’s the way we have to look at it.”
If there was a mission for the Raptors Sunday evening it was to play the first quarter like they meant it. Even during their 11-game winning streak the Raptors were wobbling early in games and in recent outings against Orlando, Oklahoma City, Cleveland and even the lowly Brooklyn Nets they’ve been coming out of the gates slowly, giving up an average of 37.25 points in the opening 12 minutes and trailing on all four occasions.
It’s even worse in fancy stats where there defensive rating is a league-worst 137.7 points/100 minutes.
How bad is bad?
That’s 13 points worse than the Sacramento Kings.
They have been pulling it together by playing respectably defence the rest of the way. Their rankings in the second, third and fourth quarters are 17th, 18th and 12th, respectively. Not where they should be based on their fifth-overall defensive ranking, but it’s clear that they need to start better to give themselves a chance and to take pressure off their fourth quarter defence, which is first in the league (98.1) by a wide margin.
“Other than a 2-by-4?” said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey when asked what it would take to get his club to bring a defensive effort to start games comparable to what they end them with.
“It’s the old thing. Part of the year it was the third quarter, now it’s skipped over to the first quarter. Again, just a sense of urgency,” said Casey. “Understanding other teams are coming out with their foot on the gas pedal, and we’ve got one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas pedal. We can’t do that.”
The Raptors got half the job done. For six minutes in late March it looked like the heady days of February when Toronto’s average winning margin was more than 15 points a game. Jonas Valanciunas scored 12 points in the first three minutes of the game (though only four for the next 45) and OG Anunoby (seven points) had another field goal, putting the Raptors up 14-4. Birthday boy Lowry – who turned 32 Sunday — hit a three and there were some points in transition and a three from Serge Ibaka to put Toronto up 27-9 after six minutes.
But then Toronto seemed to remember what time it was and promptly offered up the Clippers a 14-5 to finish the quarter. The Raptors led 35-28 but the Clippers were in the game and it was a sign of what was to come.
After leading at the half 60-53 the Raptors started the fourth quarter tied 80-80, lucky to be even in that position thanks to a late energy boost from Pascal Siakam who has been required to provide it too often of late. Siakam scored seven of his 15 points in a four-minute spurt to end the period after the Raptors had fallen behind by six – a 24-point swing dating to midway through the opening quarter. He got them with a corner three – he’s made six of his last nine, not bad for someone who only made 21 in his first 121 attempts (17 per cent) to start the season – and a pair of runouts where he simply read the play sooner than everyone else and rushed down the floor past the defence.
But his energy was the exception, not the rule down the stretch as the second unit struggled uncharacteristically for most of the game.
The Clippers started the fourth quarter on a 16-2 run, shredding Toronto’s late-game defence as they scored 37 points in the final 12 minutes while shooting a comfortable 15-of-25 from the floor.
It all fed into Casey’s pre-game concerns; that the Raptors current slippage is due to a difficulty keeping focus on the job at hand with the playoffs around the corner.
The good news is the Raptors have been saving for a rainy day and don’t have to pay too steep a price for 10 days of sub-par basketball. They host Denver on Tuesday – who handed Toronto one of their rare blowout losses this season earlier in the year – but then get a few days off to prepare for a challenging final stretch where they play Boston, Cleveland and then Boston again.
“Our destiny is in our own hands,” said Casey. “Our attitude, our approach, our chemistry, staying together, fighting through adversity — in a crazy way it’s good for us that we’re facing it now so we’re not cakewalking through these last eight games, nine games.
“At the same time, we’ve got to improve and be better.”
Figure it out now and the Raptors can head into the playoffs with everything accounted for. Let their problems linger and they could end up paying the price.