10 Things: Raptors’ five-game win streak ends in bitter fashion

Toronto Raptors centre Khem Birch (24) reacts after his team’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in NBA action. (Evan Buhler/CP)

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 102-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

One — That was a bitter way to end the five-game win streak. The Raptors led for the entire game, save for the final five seconds, as a slew of unfortunate decisions went against them. It was not a well-officiated game in the slightest, with a missed travel call, a missed goaltending, and a handful of over-the-back decisions that all burned the Raptors in the fourth quarter — allowing the plucky Cavaliers to complete their valiant comeback. The Raptors didn’t do themselves that many favours either by not capitalizing on opportunities in the fourth, including missed point-blank looks or ill-advised jumpers, but they were just one possession short tonight.

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Two — The Raptors were not happy about the whistle in this game, and for good reason. Despite it being even in points in the paint, the Cavaliers took 19 free throws compared to only nine for the Raptors. It was absurd to see how much contact was permitted in this game, with Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley constantly banging into people in the lane, but none of it was called. Allen finished the game without a single foul on his ledger, while OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes combined to take 40 field goals without a single trip to the foul line. Anunoby and head coach Nick Nurse both made passive-aggressive digs at the officials tonight, who were shockingly bad. There were even sequences where the Cavaliers were trying to intentionally foul, and even those were somehow missed.

Three — Anunoby got himself a reasonable look at the end. He was the obvious candidate to take the last shot since VanVleet was cold, and the Raptors did create a switch on the inbound where Anunoby found himself matched up against Allen. Anunoby smartly turned down the contested three out top in favour of a drive to the baseline, where he found a pocket of space between two defenders to rise up for a short jumper. The look went long, but Barnes crashed the glass from the weak side and nearly tipped it in for the game-winner. Anunoby will be a popular pick for the last shot this season, particularly in short-clock situations, because his size allows him to create space to fire it off. The execution was good, he just missed it.

Four — Fred VanVleet might regret some of the shots he took in the fourth, where he was just 2-of-9 from the field. To his credit, VanVleet took plenty of difficult fourth-quarter shots in their recent games, but the matchup wasn’t there for him tonight. Collin Sexton hounded VanVleet, pushing and shoving him all over the floor without a call from the officials, and VanVleet responded to the aggression by forcing off-balanced looks.

Sexton fought hard to stay in front, and instead of resetting the play, VanVleet tried fadeaways and other off-balanced techniques to get his shot off which resulted in some pretty bad misses. And of course, it didn’t help that VanVleet had a layup that was goaltended by Cedi Osman in the last three minutes which could have flipped the game. In any case, it will always be a struggle for VanVleet to create space late in games because of his size, yet the Raptors need him to be aggressive at all times, so he will need to pick his opportunities a bit better.

Five — Barnes was up and down in his return from a sprained thumb. He was adjusting his hand throughout the game, which is hardly surprising given that he jammed his thumb last week, and it likely impacted his touch as Barnes missed a few of the push shots and short jumpers which have sustained him early on this season. Defensively, there were also a few sequences where Barnes was outmatched by Mobley’s length in the post, as Mobley was able to muscle to his spots and shoot over the top.

But on the whole, Barnes was aggressive, he snagged six offensive rebounds, and was just as much of a problem for the Cavaliers in terms of his physical play. Late in the game, Barnes was tied up on a loose ball and flipped a 7-footer in Allen flat on his back, which is just one of many displays of outrageous strength for the rookie forward.

Six — Gary Trent Jr. created two deflections on the final play for the Cavaliers. Both times he stripped Sexton, who had a hellacious night shooting 4-of-17 while being hounded constantly by Trent Jr., but both times Sexton was able to salvage the possession. That was the level at which Trent Jr. played all night, where he collected six steals and two blocks in an all-out effort on the defensive end.

Offensively, Trent Jr. played within himself, found gaps in the defence from both the arc and at the basket, while peppering in some fairly difficult makes. It might have been the best game he’s played as a Raptor when you account for both sides of the ball. Even though starting lineup changes are inevitable, there is no way Nurse can bench Trent Jr. while he is in this type of groove.

Seven — Pascal Siakam is nearing his return. Siakam got full clearance to return from the surgeon, and has already been in live practices over the past week. He was on the floor before the game participating in his usual warmup routine, going for a good 30 minutes on 1-on-1 drills and rounds of three-point shooting, before capping off his workout with an acrobatic dunk.

The Raptors have two days off for practice on Monday and Tuesday, before playing the Celtics on Wednesday, and if all goes well, Siakam will be back in the starting five to give the Raptors a fully healthy rotation for the first time all season. The main beneficiaries will be Anunoby and VanVleet, who won’t have to play so many minutes with Siakam coming in to share the load offensively.

Eight — The fit with Siakam will be interesting, and it does force a concession somewhere in the lineup. The best option would be to put Siakam in place of Precious Achiuwa, who is the most underperforming member of the current starting lineup. The only downside to this move would be that the Raptors would be undersized in the paint, with one of Siakam, Anunoby, or Barnes having to wrestle with centers on a consistent basis, but the Raptors would undoubtedly have their best five players on the floor. Swapping Siakam in for Trent Jr. is another possibility, but that leaves them too light on shooting and Trent Jr.’s defence will be missed. Siakam could also come in for Barnes, but he’s already too productive to ever think of benching. Either way, it feels like the Raptors will have to sacrifice size or shooting.

Nine — Siakam’s return will push Chris Boucher out of the rotation entirely. Boucher has been a train wreck all season, making rookie mistakes on defence that even the Raptors’ rookies wouldn’t do, while also being a non-factor offensively. Nurse benched Boucher after a disastrous first shift that saw Boucher get outmuscled in the post for an and-one, fail to rotate over at the rim for a layup, brick an open three, fumble a pass out of bounds, while also leaving his feet on a pair of pump fakes that allowed the Cavaliers to score.

Last season, Boucher was a productive player at a position of weakness, who made many of the same mistakes but hit just enough sidespin threes to make it work. Now he’s hitting under 20 percent from three, and all that’s left are the same unforced errors that would make even the most patient of coaches go bald. The offence will come around eventually, but he will always be limited by his inability to read the game. Rookies like Barnes and Dalano Banton have more discipline a month into their careers than Boucher who is now in his fourth season with the Raptors.

Ten — Nurse continues to use a platoon at backup point guard to great effect. Banton brings a change of pace and a dose of size which comes in handy around the rim, as he scored a quick 11 points in just nine minutes of play. Malachi Flynn is in for his quickness on defence against smaller guards, and for his outside shooting, and he collected three steals while knocking in a three. Flynn even took some of Svi Mykhailiuk’s minutes tonight, although that was more about the matchup than it was about Mykhailiuk’s individual production.


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