NBA grappling with COVID-19 cases puts Raptors' struggles into perspective

The Toronto Raptors scored 33 points in the fourth quarter but it wasn't enough as they dropped a close one against the Golden Warriors 106-105.

The Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors played a game. And it was a legitimate, regular-season NBA game where all the key figures were on the floor, the coaches had full rotations to work with and no one had to leave the bench midway through because of an inconclusive COVID-19 testing result.

In 2021, that qualifies as a win-win.

Still, the Raptors couldn’t get the on-court win itself as they lost 106-105 to the Warriors to fall to 2-7 on the season.

Now, who actually won wasn’t decided until the finals seconds in what was a scrappy contest at Chase Center, the Warriors' new arena in San Francisco.

Kyle Lowry’s 16 fourth-quarter points helped the Raptors come back from down 17 with 11:41 left, and the team appeared to be in good shape for the win after a Fred VanVleet leaner put them up one with 45 seconds to play.

But Golden State’s Damion Lee knocked down a pair of free throws with 4.3 seconds to go after being fouled on a wild attempt to put the Warriors up one. Then Pascal Siakam couldn’t convert after settling for a turnaround jumper from 18 feet over Andrew Wiggins at the buzzer.

The miss spoiled an otherwise excellent effort by Siakam, who has been on a roll after an early season slump. He finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and three assists and was 9-of-18 from the floor before his final shot.

Besides, the Raptors' biggest misses came at the free-throw line as they ended up shooting just 14-of-22 from the stripe. Lowry uncharacteristically missed a pair down the stretch and Siakam was 5-of-9 on the night.

The poor results at the foul line ruined an impressive defensive effort, as Toronto managed to hold Stephen Curry — who came into the game averaging 30.6 points per game — to just 11 points on 2-of-16 shooting, with VanVleet reprising his effort from the 2019 NBA Finals when he basically moved in with the two-time Finals MVP.

“… His defensive efforts - I think he could have made first-team-all defence last year. I think he has a right to it this year,” said Lowry of his backcourt mate, who also contributed 21 points and five assists to continue a fantastic start to his fifth season. “I think he’s smart. He understands what he has to do. He understands how to play and the kid is just getting better every single year. It’s from the hard work he puts in every single year and the belief that we all have in him.”

VanVleet’s best play might have been kick-starting Lowry, who admittedly wasn’t fully present early in the game after missing Friday’s game for unspecified personal reasons. He had one point through the first three quarters and was unstoppable from there. But afterwards all he could do was lament the silly reach-in foul he took on Lee in a scrambled play, when he and VanVleet successfully forced Curry to give up the ball but ended up bunched with Lee in the space of a bus shelter. Lee went up and Lowry’s hand happened to be there.

“It was kind of a messed up play,” said Lowry. “Our help kicked it back to Damion Lee and he took a dribble. Steph kind of slipped out and me and Freddy were in a position. I kind of put my hands out and hit him in the arm. It was a stupid play. I shouldn’t have put my hands back. In that situation you gotta be smart. You gotta think the game a little bit better and that was my fault. I was just a little too aggressive. We had him right where we needed him to be and he had to throw up a prayer. But we put ourselves in that position and I messed up. And we lost the game. I take a lot of ... I take that one on me tonight. “

The Raptors finished playing with their small lineup, which is how they started. Coming off an encouraging offensive explosion in a much-needed win over Sacramento on Friday night, Nurse said it was still not settled on how to get the most out of his roster after a dismal start to the season.

He’s been fiddling with his rotation constantly. Sunday night he bypassed both his traditional centres – Aron Baynes and Alex Len – in favour of a lineup that featured OG Anunoby and Siakam as the bigs with Norman Powell at forward.

Expect more of it, is the smart bet. But it’s becoming more and more evident that the Raptors very best lineup features Chris Boucher in it somewhere. The Montrealer who started his career with the Warriors G-League team put up 15 points, grabbed six rebounds and had six blocked shots and was prominently featured in the Raptors' fourth-quarter comeback before fouling out.

"I think we're getting closer with knowing who to play, how to play. Getting closer to who we think can help us off the bench, you know, those kind of things,” said Nurse. “ So, I think just again those little tweaks here and there, you know, you add up, add up a couple of games and your team starts getting over the hump.”

There was some satisfaction in even having the Raptors and Warriors get their game played, the way the dominoes are falling around the league. The Boston Celtics' game with the Miami Heat was postponed Sunday night after the Heat couldn’t field the minimum eight players due to health and safety protocols, while the Celtics only had eight themselves.

It was just the second COVID-related postponement of the season, but the coming week could change that. The Celtics have three games scheduled between Tuesday and Friday and the Heat have games Tuesday and Thursday against the Philadelphia 76ers — who only had eight players available in a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

But when the rolling daily average for positive tests across the U.S. is approaching 300,000 — it was 206 on March 11 when the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season — players being with their teams, being tested daily and otherwise being monitored closely might mean that keeping the season going may be safer for all involved than shutting it down. There have been 63 players test positive since training camps opened in early December — but 48 of them came when they were coming back to work after the off-season.

“The league is really, I think, doing a great job of testing everybody every day. I know our team has been very disciplined following the guidelines, and then, at that point, you just have to hope for the best,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. “I know there are people on both sides of the issue in terms of whether we should be playing or not. Personally, I feel lucky to be able to coach and for our team to be able to play and I feel like the league is putting us in a good position where we are getting constant testing. I feel safe, but I’m also well-aware of what’s happening around the country and the world and of course now with two games being postponed. We have to remain vigilant with everything we are doing.”

The Raptors have largely stayed free from COVID scares and on the floor have recently been more vigilant than their record suggests. It can only be frustrating that they held the Warriors to 40.9 per cent shooting – and just 5-of-20 in the fourth quarter – while rendering the red-hot Curry to bystander-status and still lost. But the embers of solid, consistent play are there, they just need some time and some oxygen. The Raptors swear it.

“Listen, I think we are building,” said Lowry. “Our record is 2-7. That’s terrible. We are not this bad of a team, but we are building toward something. Just give us a little more time and that record will swing pretty drastically when we get a little bit better.”

That said, the Raptors are nearly done their four-game, west-coast road trip. They flew out to Portland after the game where they will play the Trail Blazers on the second night of a back-to-back. Assuming the game goes as planned — and nothing can be assumed this season — the Raptors will need the win to split the trip.

Once more they gave themselves something to build on, but the hole is just a little bit deeper.

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