Raptors must solve search for elusive 'energy' to stay alive in playoffs

TORONTO -- If the Toronto Raptors are panicking after getting bombed out by the Boston Celtics in Game 5 of their second-round series -- putting them on the brink of elimination in a playoff series for the first time since Game 7 against the 76ers last year -- they sure don’t sound like it.

“Honestly, it wasn’t as crazy as it felt,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet Tuesday afternoon. “When you watch the film it’s pretty simple, you know, we miss a couple layups, they make a couple layups, we miss a three, they make a three, we go in soft and they go down and dunk it. It’s pretty simple stuff that we can fix and correct.

“We give them credit for playing a good game, but I don’t think they played outstanding, they didn’t play, like, out of the world. We just played like crap and they played good. It was that simple.”

An honest assessment from VanVleet of how his team performed in Game 5 and, yes, though there was a lot that went wrong Monday, it’s not like Toronto can’t clean things up, just because Game 6 comes with higher stakes.

“I mean, listen, I don’t think any assessment of that game would be wrong,” said VanVleet. “Like, you could pick your poison. There were holes all over the place, there’s bad play everywhere, so you can pick whatever you want, whether it was shot-making, bad defence, no effort, soft, not physical, you name it, it was about as bad as it gets for us.

"The good thing about it is it only counts for one and we’ve got to turn it around and play better tomorrow.”

Again, VanVleet was stating the obvious Tuesday, but his point is well made: The Raptors poisoned themselves in many areas in Game 5, but coming into Wednesday’s do-or-die Game 6, they do have an antidote to at least some of their ills.

Perhaps more frustrating than anything to watch in Toronto’s Game 5 debacle was just how lifeless the Raptors appeared to be after its disastrous 11-point first quarter. It’s one thing for a team’s offence to dry up, but what was absolutely unacceptable was the drop-off defensively in the aftermath.

The Raptors looked to lose their fighting spirit in that second quarter and they can’t afford to let that happen again. To do that, they need to find the fickle, undefined spark more commonly just called “energy.”

A stupidly obvious-sounding solution, we know, but it's also difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly.

Is energy shot-making? The Raptors could certainly use some of that as they’ve only shot 30.9 per cent from three-point range in this series with the Celtics and a not-much-better 34.5 per on three-point looks that NBA.com defines as "open" and "wide open."

“I don’t care how much you cheer and scream and run and play hard, you’re not making, shots none of that stuff matters. So, the shot-making kind of builds the energy for you and we’ve got to continue to step up and be confident and take and make those open looks.”

What about rim protection? Energy could manifest itself there as well and the Raptors have appeared to lack it. They went from being among the best teams at protecting the rim this season to suddenly looking pretty bad at it, allowing Boston to shoot 63.7 per cent on defended field goals attempt from six feet or less away from the basket so far this season.

A matter made even more problematic by the fact that Raptors sixth man, and key backup centre, Serge Ibaka was spotted in a walking boot on his left foot Tuesday and was listed as questionable ahead of Game 6 with a sprained left ankle.

Should Ibaka not be available, the Raptors will be without not just one of their only relatively consistent sources of offence in this series -- he’s averaging 11.8 points per game on 51.2 per cent shooting from the field and 50 per cent shooting from three-point range -- but also the Raptors’ best interior defender, as he’s defended more shots from the Celtics in this series from six feet or less than any other Raptor (27) and has defended them the best (only allowing 51.9 per cent of those attempts to score).

A Game 6 without Ibaka is, overall, very bad news for the Raptors, and if they’re forced to play without him they’ll need to find a way to replace the “energy” he brings to the team -- the most likely candidates, according to Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, being Chris Boucher or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

And, in general, as a reserve player, Ibaka is often asked to bring more oomph into the game, the same as any other bench player, and it’s another area where the Raptors can look to find more energy for themselves heading into Game 6

In this series, the Raptors’ bench has only averaged 26.4 points per game -- an advantage over Boston’s reserves, for sure, but when you consider the fact that Norman Powell, the team’s fourth-leading scorer in the regular season, is only averaging 8.6 points per game on 35.7-per cent shooting off the bench in this series, that’s a significant drop-off in production from a source Nurse was likely banking on.

All of these issues that have plagued the Raptors in this second-round series can, in some form or fashion, come down to a lack of energy, as evidenced by some of the competitive games we’ve seen in this series and past ugly Raptors playoff losses.

“I think a lot of this game, in general, has to do with -- you always hear me talking about (it) -- with energy and rhythm,” said Nurse on Tuesday. “It's kind of hard to explain how we don't have a little bit more energy last night, and it's even probably harder to explain how we don't have it in Game 1 of the series, either, or really hard to explain how we don't have it in Game 2 in Milwaukee last year, and Game 4 in Philly.

“The energy has gotta be there. I think when we do bring the energy, we're right there, we're super competitive, for sure, and look great.”

Added VanVleet: “We know that we have a chance, we know that we’re good enough to win and advance, but we’ve got to go out there and play and perform and prove it. Can’t just rest on our laurels and feel like we’re a championship team, you’ve got to go out there and perform like one every night.”

If all that ails the Raptors really is just an energy thing, then they’re going to need to conjure as much of it as they possibly can and channel it into as many facets of the game as they’re able to. If they do anything less, they’ll be facing a rather disappointing conclusion to what has been a season so full of promise.

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