5 things: Raptors record season-low eight assists in nightmare loss to Pelicans

CJ McCollum stayed hot on Monday, dropping a game-high 23 points on just 13 shots, and the New Orleans Pelicans defeated the Toronto Raptors 120-90.

Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 120-90 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday.

1. This game was a disaster from start to finish: The Raptors started slow, which isn't unusual, but it spiraled out of control. The Raptors could not find any semblance of rhythm on offence, and it bled over into their defensive play. Coach Nick Nurse reached into his bag of tricks of zone and pressure defences to try and jolt the team into a response, but there was nothing there to spark. The Raptors got to the point where even stringing together three solid possessions in a row became a challenge, as most of their offence came down to desperate attempts at heroball against a Pelicans defence that was locked in with five defenders waiting in and around the paint. What's worse is that they took the same approach towards defence, where players constantly gambled for steals rather than nailing the basics like keeping their man in front or making the extra rotation to help each other after getting beat. The end result was their worst showing in more than two months, and given how comprehensively bad the Raptors were from start to finish, it's more of an anomaly than anything else. Attempting to take anything significant from this game is silly, and it is best to be forgotten.

2. The most mind-boggling stat to come out of this game is that the Raptors only recorded eight assists: That's tied for the third-lowest total in franchise history (the Raptors recorded only six assists twice in a month's span in 1999). There were a few cases of missed threes or bricked dunks, but the general pattern is that the Raptors' main initiators all had tunnel vision. The biggest offender was Gary Trent Jr., who nailed two threes in the third quarter but otherwise had a miserable game where he forced contested shots without any rhythm and without any thought to pass. Pascal Siakam was also guilty of this , most notably on a 3-on-2 fast break where he had Trent Jr. open in the corner but decided to take it to the basket himself and came up short on the contested layup. Fred VanVleet tried his best to jumpstart the team as well, and he had the most success out of the three, but at least there was some intent behind his scoring since he was trying to get the Pelicans to adjust out of their drop-back coverages by shooting pull-up jumpers around the high screen. VanVleet also had five of the team's eight total assists before sitting for the fourth quarter because of what the team says is right knee soreness.

3. The Raptors' lack of shooters allowed the Pelicans to pack the paint for most of the night: Toronto is middle of the pack in threes made and three-point percentage, but the Raptors are top-heavy as VanVleet and Trent Jr. account for half of the team's total, and they are the only two who can get threes on their own. So on a night where Trent Jr. is ice-cold, and when it coincides with the Pelicans being able to lock down the paint, which took away the drive-and-kick sequences that Siakam and VanVleet can usually generate, it also meant fewer chances for OG Anunoby, who looked slow to the point where even dunks weren't converted. Nobody else in the rotation warrants a reaction from beyond the arc, as they are all iffy shooters, and the spacing gets even worse with the Raptors now bringing four centres off the bench. One way to counter is to capitalize on offensive rebounds, which the Raptors won 19-4 to secure extra possessions, but nothing was dropping. The Raptors attempted 18 more field goals and shot 15 more free throws, yet lost by 30. It doesn't even seem mathematically possible.

4. Nurse understandably needs time to find a new rotation now that Thaddeus Young has joined the mix, but he would be wise to scrap this one: Nurse ran with his usual starters, which put them in a hole with yet another slow start, and then it got weird. Khem Birch was the first reserve to check in, which meant he skipped ahead of Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa, then all three centres were in at once to close the first quarter which went disastrously as the Pelicans closed on a 7-0 run. Nurse the broke away from the second unit that was working so well over the past month by using Young in place of Dalano Banton, who was the odd man out in the first half, and then Siakam was forced to exit after he got raked in the eye. Thankfully, he was able to return later in the quarter, but the game was already out of hand by that point. Nurse shuffled the rotations in the second half, shelving the triple centre lineup while also re-introducing Banton, but none of it quite clicked since the Raptors lacked both energy and cohesion. It's unfair to judge the team after one bad night without even a full practice to integrate a new piece, but this will be a tricky one for Nurse to solve. The Raptors like to say that they see the game as being positionless, but there is no talking around the redundancies in their second unit. There is not enough shooting and ball-handling between Young, Birch, Achiuwa, Boucher, and Banton, and playing even three at once will strain the offence to the point where the two token starters with the group will be asked to create the entirety of the offence.

5. Young's debut went as expected: He finished a pair of drives using his heavily-favoured left hand, including a tidy spin move that even Siakam would be proud of. He also hustled for extra chances and generally looked to make plays in the middle of the floor, including a bit of a two-man game that resulted in a kickout to Anunoby for his only triple on the night. The trouble with Young is the shooting. There was a sequence in the second quarter where Banton, Boucher and Young all passed up a chance at an open three, and the possession devolved into Young having to create something off the dribble against multiple defenders in the post, which resulted in him getting stripped. Young's comfort zone is either distributing from the mid or high post, or playing pick-and-roll. However, the Raptors mostly like to keep the post clear unless it's for Siakam and Anunoby, and Young even got waved off despite having a size advantage on a play where Siakam wanted to take his man off the dribble instead. And in terms of being the screener, that overlaps with what Achiuwa, Boucher, and even Scottie Barnes like to do. Nurse will have to get creative to make it work, but chances are that his choices will be to sacrifice touches from some of his main scorers, or to bench one of their existing hustle bigs.

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