TORONTO — Concerns? Yeah, Nick Nurse has got a few of them. It’s tough not to after your team falls flat against the best in your conference for a third time in four attempts. And although the Toronto Raptors showed a great deal of fight down the stretch to make the score of Thursday’s game with the Milwaukee Bucks — 105-92 — much closer than it could have been, there still isn’t a fight column next to the wins and losses in the NBA standings.
“I’m probably more concerned that there isn’t a little bit more solid play from our main guys, rather than the fight back,” the Raptors head coach said after the game. “The fight back’s great. It’s great. But I’m more concerned with how we’re playing.”
How they’re playing would not be well, as the Raptors have now dropped three of four, and very nearly coughed up their lone triumph in that stretch, hanging on for a three-point win over the well-below .500 Dallas Mavericks. And that’s why Nurse’s list of concerns is surely a long one — but here’s three coming out of Thursday’s loss that have to be somewhere near the top.
The inconsistency of Toronto’s starters
The Raptors spent much of the first quarter Thursday looking like a team that was playing together for the first time, committing four turnovers in the first five minutes, each somehow clumsier than the last. And somehow the start of the third quarter was even worse, as Milwaukee got practically anything it wanted and built a 24-point lead that sustained them through the end.
The commonality between the beginnings of the first and third quarters? Your starters are on the floor. For one reason or another, Toronto’s starting unit — Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka — has looked lost at times during Toronto’s skid.
That’s the Raptors most-used lineup this season, and for good reason — it had a 10.1 net rating over 309 minutes in the first 20 games it appeared in. But over the five games in which its played together since, the group’s net rating is minus-6.8 over 106 minutes. That’s nearly halved the unit’s net rating on the season, dragging it all the way down to 5.7.
The Lowry, Leonard, Green, Siakam, and Ibaka starting lineup
|First 20 games||Last five games|
“I certainly like those guys as individual pieces. Maybe it’s a group thing, I don’t know. I’ve got to take a look at it and think about it again,” Nurse said. “It seems to be coming and going a little bit.
“We’re addressing that a little bit and trying to get them to make sure we come out at the start of each half with some more pace. Mostly on offence so we don’t stand around to start. Get everybody touching it, feeling it, cutting, etcetera. Sharing it.”
The biggest card Nurse has to play in problem-solving this issue is juggling his starters, but it doesn’t seem like he’s quite there yet. And the group does deserve the benefit of fighting its way out of it. They’ve been good before. But the clock won’t stop ticking.
“Every day, we’ve got to continue to get better. It’s a long year — we’re in February,” Lowry said. “We’re starting to get to that point where we need to be. We know exactly what we’re doing. We’re adding things now. We’ve got to get better, quicker. We don’t have the whole year, we’ve got a couple months. We’ve got to make sure that we know exactly what we want to do and continue to work on that. Every chance we have to practise and watch film, it’s a positive.”
Serge Ibaka’s in a slump
After practically disappearing during last season’s playoffs, Ibaka’s been having a quietly effective campaign. His points, assists, rebounds, and free throw attempts are all up from last season, and he’s improved his shooting percentage by five per cent. While Toronto’s net rating as a team is down three points from last season, Ibaka’s is up by two. He’s been a surprising success story.
And some of his best games of the season have come against Milwaukee. He had 30 points with 9 boards when they first played in October. He scored 22 when they met again in December. He was plus-19 with 25 points and 9 boards in a 35-minute January effort.
Thursday? Ibaka scored only a dozen on 4-of-15 shooting, and finished minus-9. Really, he’s been struggling since the middle of the month, turning in four consecutive performances on the wrong side of plus/minus. And after going 0-for-5 from beyond the arc Thursday, he’s now 0-for-18 over his last eight games.
There’s a very good chance Ibaka’s skid is workload related. He’s been logging some heavy miles in Jonas Valanciunas’s absence, seeing 30 minutes or more in 12 of the 19 games he’s played since Toronto’s other centre went down, and fewer than 25 minutes only three times. In 29 games prior, Ibaka played more than 30 minutes on only 9 occasions, and fewer than 25 in eight. Thursday, he played a game-high 39.
It takes a toll. And, considering there are some matchups you simply cannot play the plodding Greg Monroe in, it will likely continue until Valanciunas is back to health. Nurse would be wise to steal Ibaka some nights of rest down the stretch once Valanciunas returns. But for now, Ibaka remains on his own.
It always comes down to three-point shooting
You’ve heard this one before, but it can’t be reiterated enough how much better Toronto is when they’re clicking from beyond the arc. The Raptors have lost only four times in the 28 games in which they’ve shot 34 per cent or better from three-point range. In the 25 games they’ve shot below that mark, including Thursday’s 25.9 per cent (7-of-27) performance, the Raptors are 13-12.
Toronto’s now shooting 34.6 per cent from distance on the season, good for 19th in the NBA, despite averaging 33.2 attempts per night, the league’s 10th highest rate. In Toronto’s three losses to the Bucks, they shot 34 per cent or well below from distance. In their lone win, the Raptors shot 45 per cent.
Anything can happen between now and spring, but there’s a fairly decent chance that if the Raptors are to advance to the NBA Finals, they’ll have to get through the Bucks to do it. And three-point shooting’s the biggest swing statistic they can improve down the stretch if they’re going to do it.
“We got some good shots. But I think the way they guard, they play over top, force you back below the three-point line,” Lowry said. “But we got some good looks, got some good shots. It’s a make-or-miss league.”