As Raptors' implosion continues, time to salvage 2021 season is running out

Saben Lee scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half in his second career start, and the Detroit Pistons beat the Toronto Raptors 118-104.

The Toronto Raptors better get on with it.

The rationalizations – they aren’t quite excuses – for why a traditional Eastern Conference powerhouse is mired in the bottom third of the standings are getting stale.

They’ve had plenty of time to adjust to life in Tampa.

The trade deadline is in the rear-view mirror and, while Norman Powell will be missed, they added two rotation players to a team lacking quality depth and they kept Kyle Lowry.

And the COVID outbreak that saw three starters miss five or six games over the course of nearly three weeks is behind them, too – although the Raptors' depth has been further compromised recently with DeAndre' Bembry and Paul Watson missing their third games due to health-and-safety protocols as they sat against the Detroit Pistons on Monday night.

All that aside, they simply have to get rolling. Time is getting scarce to make something of a season that’s been all broken eggs and no breakfast omelet.

“I'm not living in fantasy land,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, when I asked him what he thinks when he looks at the standings. "We've had numerous issues. What I'm usually more surprised at is how well we contend with most of these teams that have 30-plus wins every night and give ourselves a chance and all those kinda things. So I think we're doing the best we can …[but] we don't really have anything to wait for now …we gotta start making some ground now if we're gonna make any. It's not like we need to plan for the future. The future is now.”

Are things really that dire?

The temptation is to look at the standings, let your gaze wander up to the top-four in the East – the neighbourhood the Raptors have comfortably called home every season since 2013-14 – see the neophyte New York Knicks slotted in there, barely over .500 with a 24-22 mark before play Monday night and figure, how hard can that be?

The Raptors have played at a 59-win pace for three-straight seasons prior to this year.

But here’s the catch: In a pandemic-shortened 72-game season, the Raptors are already up against it.

Toronto’s wire-to-wire 118-104 beatdown at the hands of the lowly Pistons is just the latest warning flare of an imploding season streaking across the bleak night sky.

There’s real doubt at this point if it can be salvaged. And, if things don’t start trending positively, the real question is whether it should be.

The Raptors looked tired and a step slow and frustrated. All five starters were in double-figures, but only OG Anunoby – who finished with 19 points on 12 shots – shot .500 from the field.

It’s a mistake to say the Raptors aren’t working at it; but there’s little doubt that they’re not succeeding.

“It's really hard right now to sit here and be upset,” said Nurse. “I think the guys are attentive and they're trying [but] they just can't quite move like they'd like to right now and I can't put my finger on it other than it's a little harder to come back from all this [COVID-19] stuff than we're realizing. We're just in the middle of it, kind of, as experimental guys and I don't know. I'm hoping we can get some rest and some juice back in our legs and get ready for the next one and play a lot more physical, a lot tougher mentally and physically.”

Meanwhile the Pistons had enough juice for two teams. They had four players in double-figures off their bench, led by former Raptor Cory Joseph, who had 17. But it was the Pistons' young talent that shone under the guidance of Pistons head coach Dwane Casey. Detroit shot 51 per cent from the floor, 15-of-30 from deep and counted 26 field goals on 38 made baskets. The Raptors shot just 40.7 per cent from the floor.

The Raptors have one win to show for March and can double their total as they head to Oklahoma City Wednesday night.

They are putting on a brave face: “We could win 10 in a row very easily,” said Anunoby, a bright spot in a bleak season.

But opportunities have already passed them by, what is even realistic is getting narrower all the time.

Presuming the fourth-place Knicks continue on their current trajectory, they’ll finish 38-34. That means the Raptors would now have to – double-checks his calculator app – go 21-4 to catch New York. That’s a 69-win pace in a normal 82-game season, which only four teams have managed in NBA history.

Umm … that ain’t happening.

So, the Raptors' streak of seven straight top-four finishes is done, let’s just agree on that.

But what about the playoffs – and we’ll save a discussion of whether they should be thinking more about tanking than anything else for another day.

What would it take for Toronto to catch the sixth-place Atlanta Hawks, who are all of .500 right now? That way they would avoid the uncertainty of the play-in tournament.

The Raptors would have to catch fire and go 19-6 to finish 37-35 and one game up on the Hawks – again, presuming Atlanta doesn’t pick up their pace. That’s a .760 winning percentage. If Toronto had managed to play at that level to this stage, they’d have the best record in the NBA, fractions ahead of Utah.

Again, given Toronto is now 18-29 and has lost 14 of their last 16 games, that seems like a stretch.

Okay, what about eighth place? That at least means Toronto would have to lose two games in the play-in tournament to have their season end before the traditional playoffs.

If Toronto can reel off a 17-8 stretch, they just might do it. But that’s better basketball than the Raptors have played for any 25-game stretch this season, and it’s never seemed farther away than after Monday night.

The hope the Raptors are clinging to is that the team that has lost to the Pistons three times this month – once while undermanned due to COVID, once when they just got their players back, then Monday night while in the midst of their worst slump in a decade – is not really them.

Similarly, the group that went 2-8 to start the year during their sudden relocation to Tampa was an imposter.

They see themselves as the group that went 15-7 over their next 22. All they need to do is play like it.

“I know that this team is capable of it,” said Nurse. “[But] … one of the things that concerns me, and I’ve got to get back, is it seems there are a lot of individuals that aren’t playing with a lot of confidence.

“In this league, you can’t do that. Individually, you’ve got to be hitting the floor feeling like you know what you’re gonna do and what you’re capable of doing and you’re doing it to the best of your ability.”

Even 10th place, the last point of entry for the play-in tournament, is far from a sure thing. Toronto trailed Chicago by two-and-a-half games before the Bulls tipped off against Golden State Monday night.

The Raptors will likely need to go 14-11 from here to think about catching the Bulls, who added all-star Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline to bolster their playoff push.

Think they can do it? Should they? Do they believe the can?

For all the apparent urgency of the situation, the Raptors didn’t come out of the gate Monday playing with much. It wasn’t all that surprising, given they were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and had to fly north from Tampa to play the Pistons, who were off on Sunday and at home waiting. The Raptors had only won once on the second night of a back-to-back coming into the game and are now 1-9 in those situations, a reflection of the compressed nature of the schedule, the Raptors' injury woes and mostly their overall lack of quality depth.

Their start against the Pistons was all of that.

The Raptors trailed 35-27 and were down 21 with 4:11 to go in the half and there was no corner of the game the Pistons weren’t dominating. They looked young, fresh and were playing for each other, the ball popping and baskets dropping. If it looks familiar it should: it’s the way the Raptors play at their best, but just not very often this season and even less lately.

Toronto went into the half in a 66-50 hole, and given the overall circumstances, it felt like double that. The Raptors never got the Pistons' lead under 13 and trailed by as many as 23 early in the fourth quarter.

There are 25 games left in what is giving every indication of being a lost season.

The odds of the Raptors finding something redemptive in it – other than a lottery pick – are getting longer by the day.

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