Raptors 'not on the same page' yet as search for team identity continues

Joel Embiid scored a game-high 29 points as the 76ers beat the Raptors 100-93, making it three straight losses for Toronto to start the season.

The last Toronto Raptors team to start a season 0-4 featured Loren Woods at centre, Mike James at point guard and Joey Graham at small forward.

Rafael Araujo came off the bench. Rob Babcock was the general manager and Sam Mitchell the head coach. They eventually started the season 0-9 and won only 27 games on merit.

That was in 2005-06.

The current edition of the Raptors is a lot better than that, but they're still 0-3, tied for last in the Eastern Conference and seemingly incapable of not getting in their own way in crunch time.

A four-game losing streak to close out 2020?

Not impossible.

As Kyle Lowry put it after his team coughed up on themselves in the fourth quarter of their 100-93 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers: they’re in a bad spot.

“I just think we’re not all on the same page right now,” Lowry said after a rare loss against his hometown team, a series the Raptors have dominated over his career in Toronto. “That’s a big thing with us. We’re not on the same page but we’re working towards that. It’s just that right now we’re adding a couple of new guys, new positions and new roles and this and that and I think the shortened pre-season, the short time off, guys are still getting their legs under them a little bit.

“[But] we don’t have time to waste no more, we’re 0-3 and we need a win really, really bad. I feel like we’re getting to that point where it’s a must-win. We gotta do everything we possibly can to win the next game."

That would be New Year’s Eve back in Tampa when the Raptors host the New York Knicks. Normally that would be guaranteed-win-night, a moment where the mature, mentally tough former champions feast on a young team trying to find their way in the league.

But this edition of the Raptors seems short on guarantees.

For a few years, it was a lock that the Raptors would make life miserable for Sixers centre Joel Embiid. It was only a season ago — though it seems like another age — that the Raptors held the Philadelphia big man scoreless in 32 minutes. Embiid was 0-for-11 from the floor and 0-of-3 from the free-throw line and turned it over four times, too.

That came on the heels of the Raptors reducing Embiid to tears after Toronto booted Philadelphia from the playoffs en route to the 2019 NBA title.

But that was another time and another Raptors team, where the centre tandem was Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, not some combination of Aron Baynes, Chris Boucher and Alex Len.

This 2020-21 version of the Raptors is very much trying to find their identity. Proof? Little-used and all but forgotten Stanley Johnson was even getting key minutes off the bench. Anything is possible, it seems, with this group, good or bad. What they land on is yet to be determined.

In the meantime, freed from his constraints Embiid roamed comfortably. The Raptors' primary solution was, seemingly, to foul the seven-foot, 300-pounder. Embiid finished with 29 points and 16 rebounds while shooting 14-of-16 from the line. The Raptors got to the line 14 times as a team and their trio of centres was a combined 2-of-12 from the floor for nine points.

Embiid dominated down the stretch, clogging the paint and protecting the rim as the Raptors collapsed on offence. Toronto managed just two field goals and scored six points in the game’s final 6:55, giving up a five-point lead without much of a fight in the process. On the other end, Embiid was able to get to the line or create plays for others — such as when he found Seth Curry wide open for a three with a minute left that pushed the Sixers' lead to five.

It was a nice play by Embiid, but another breakdown by the Raptors in a key moment — a theme to this point in the season.

“We’ve had a little bit of an issue of finding that guy in the first three games, from [JJ Reddick on New Orleans] to Patty Mills [on San Antonio] to Curry tonight,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “That just comes down to being in sync, connected or whatever defensively … It was like nine guys under the basket because everybody thought Embiid was shooting. He kicked it out to Curry who was the only guy left out there on both teams, I think.”

Lowry was Lowry — he finished with 24 points, nine assists and eight rebounds — but he was a man on an island. He got some assistance as OG Anunoby — a ghost through the first two games since signing his four-year, $72 million contract — stepped up with 20 points and five steals.

But elsewhere the Raptors were lacking, and the question is do they lack something tangible or can they find a way to cover the gaps? The Raptors have blown double-digit leads — they were up by 14 midway through the third quarter against the Sixers — in all three of their losses.

“[We’re] Just letting our foot off the pedal and just not keeping the same urgency that we have when we're going on our runs, getting these big leads,” said Anunoby. “Just playing smarter too, where sometimes, you know, we take bad shots, don't play as hard on defence. So just keeping our foot on the pedal the whole 48 minutes to finish out the game."

A more complete effort would help and, optimistically, there was some promise on Tuesday night. Coming into the game the Raptors were ranked 20th in the NBA in points allowed but made a more concerted effort to gum things up against Philadelphia.

It worked to an extent — if Toronto can hold their opponents to 38 per cent shooting and force 18 turnovers more often, their three-game losing streaks will be few and far between. But they’ll need some offence, too, as they aren’t going to win many games shooting just 36 per cent from the floor and making 19 turnovers themselves — including three in the final seven minutes.

“I think we’re not being strong enough with the ball,” said Nurse, perhaps talking about Pascal Siakam, who was 8-of-23 from the floor, didn’t take a free throw and was last seen walking off the floor and directly to the dressing room in a huff after fouling out with 25.6 seconds left in the game.

“We’re making some hard driving things and it seems like we’re either having a late pass handling issue, a finishing issue — or even when we do go up without a pass, we lost the ball out of bounds a few times,” Nurse said. “… We just kind of have not handled the ball with enough strength late in the game.”

The Raptors have a day to regroup before hosting the Knicks — who are 2-1 — on Dec. 31 back in Tampa.

It’s a must-win game to close out 2020. Lowry even said so. Stranger things have happened, but through three games, the Raptors have shown anything is possible and not all of it is good.

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