MILWAUKEE – As they began sorting through their own entrails after being gutted by friend-turned-foe DeMar DeRozan, the Toronto Raptors were left with two pressing questions:
What the hell happened and – more importantly — what is happening?
An 82-game schedule guarantees that there are going to be some weird results that raise eyebrows and mean nothing in the grand scheme — ‘one-of-82’ and all of that.
But not every game is meaningless and not every trend can be dismissed.
Sometimes things that look like red flags might actually be. And after a charmed start when it seemed like the ‘Kawhi Leonard era’ would be an endless loop of six-game winning streaks – the Raptors had three of those before the season was 24-games old – there are some flags flapping in the wind. You’d have to be wilfully blind not to see them.
“We’ve got a lot of issues right now that we need to deal with,” Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet said after Thursday night’s beat down at the hands of DeRozan’s San Antonio Spurs. “We’re not going to lie about that or try to hide it. We can’t mask that. There’s things we need to deal with. That’s the beauty of the season … there’s ups-and-downs, and we’re at that road block right now and we have to figure out how to get around it.”
1. In the month of December every meaningful member or their rotation missed at least one game and several of them more than one. Jonas Valanciunas has missed 10 games with a dislocated thumb and could be out until the all-star break in mid-February. Kyle Lowry has missed nine of his past 10 games – the first with a thigh injury and the last five with a back problem that required multiple injections on the advice of a specialist on Dec. 29. Lowry and Leonard haven’t played in the same game since Dec. 9 and given that Lowry is doubtful for Saturday’s game against Milwaukee and Leonard – who hasn’t played a back-to-back yet this season – may be doubtful against the Indiana Pacers in Toronto on Sunday, their next chance to play together won’t be until Jan. 8 – a full month.
2. The Raptors’ schedule seemingly continues to serve up a steady diet of head-high fastballs tracking well inside of the plate. Unfortunately they have no option to duck. After getting dismantled by the red-hot Spurs and following their Bucks-Pacers back-to-back – the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the East — Toronto will have played 13 of their last 18 games against teams currently in the playoffs and eight of those 13 games on the road. Not easy.
However. This is a team that is supposed to be a championship contender and by definition capable of rolling through adversity and beating other elite teams. The Raptors looked the part when they were 20-4 on Dec. 1. At that point they were the NBA’s second-best offensive team and were ninth-rated defensively.
Since? Toronto heads into Milwaukee with an 8-8 record in their past 16.
Over their long stretch of ordinary, Toronto is 21st offensively and 14th defensively. In particular they’ve done nothing to suggest the game plan that was always so successful against the Raptors in the playoffs – load up multiple defenders on the ball and don’t bother covering anyone else – is still entirely viable: Raptors three-point shooters are converting just 32.5 per cent of their chances from deep since Dec. 1 — 29th in the league. They remain committed to shooting from three – they rank eighth in the NBA in threes taken, which makes for a large number of missed shots that a team like the Spurs was all too happy to encourage as they watched the Raptors shoot 6-of-30 from beyond the arc.
But beyond some concerning numbers the teams’ long stretch of blah may be hinting at some deeper-rooted problems that could mean nothing – a few wins magically solve most woes – but could mean a whole lot in the final accounting.
With Lowry on the shelf the closest thing the Raptors have to a spokesman with in-house seniority is VanVleet, the third-year guard who could be going into his 13th season if you didn’t know better.
His post-game observations Thursday didn’t name names and weren’t completely unsheathed, but were fairly pointed nonetheless.
“Me, just speaking honestly, I just want us to have more discipline. Whether that’s following the game plan, discipline offensively, running plays, shot discipline, defensive discipline, there’s a lot of things where we’re making a lot of errors that we can’t afford to make,” he said after the Spurs loss. “… We have a lot of freedom to where everybody can do their own thing and in a game like this, you saw it in the second half, where every guy that got it just wanted to make the play and try to get us back in the game. It’s not a malicious thing by any means but it’s not a good way to play the game.”
Among the new faces Danny Green’s voice carries weight, as it should given how wisely he uses it and his veteran pedigree. He lived through his own nightmare in his return to San Antonio, where he played for eight seasons, only to go scoreless in 26 minutes while going 0-of-7 from the floor. He called himself out on his own showing, but was also critical of the slippage in the Raptors’ overall standards of late.
“There are things that we probably need to nip in the bud soon,” he said Thursday. “… I think we’re being too patient at times and waiting. I think we need to jump on it right away and fix these problems ASAP, regardless of who’s healthy and who’s not.”
And Leonard, perhaps the most important voice of all? He’s not all that impressed either.
“We didn’t do a good job in transition defence. We didn’t play well at all defensively,” he said. “The Spurs did a great job pushing the pace and kicking out for wide open shots … [and] we just didn’t play defence tonight. The rotation wasn’t there.”
And who knows where Lowry stands — he hasn’t been available to the media since his injury other than his single-game showing against the Philadelphia 76ers.
To recap: The Raptors’ interim starting point guard and respected locker room voice said the team isn’t playing with any discipline; one of their key veterans said it’s time to stop using injuries and the schedule as an excuse for why a number of bad habits haven’t been addressed and the player the franchise turned itself upside down to acquire rips – quite accurately — his new team’s defensive effort in his first game against his old team.
Translated: This is first-year head coach Nick Nurse’s first official challenge.
Can he address the problems his respected locker room voices seem to be hinting at? Can he do it without ruffling feathers, or if he does, can he do it without damaging still emerging relationships?
How much is he accountable for it, given it’s his strategy to embrace a wide-open, free-flowing style which looks great when shots fall, but looks – and apparently feels – disjointed and unconnected when they don’t.
And an even more broad question: Does the situation the Raptors have found themselves in, where in Leonard they have their cornerstone player with no apparent long-term connection to the city or the franchise, lend itself to the kind of selfless sacrifice that high-level winning would seemingly require?
As telling as any comment about the Raptors’ on-floor performance was VanVleet’s explanation of the Raptors’ outlook as they took the floor with a sold-out crowd venting at Leonard in his first visit back to San Antonio:
“We tried to have our guy’s back,” he said. “Through all the speculation that’s going on, that’s still our teammate, that’s still our guy. We just want to be there for him and support him and try to get him going.”
The tendency is to read too much into things at moments like this but it’s hard not to surmise that uncertainty about Leonard’s future – through all the speculation – could well be the elephant in the middle of the Raptors’ locker room.
It’s not to suggest that the Raptors as constructed can’t find the kind of chemistry that can be the difference between winning and losing in the guts of games and at key moments of a season, just that there are more obstacles in the way.
What happened? What’s happening?
Nothing, potentially, that some good health and another six-game winning streak can’t fix.
Or – if things continue to falter — a little bit of everything. Maybe a lot.
The possibility is that if it’s the latter, no one may really know until it’s too late.