Toronto has fought hard to remain relevant in the East through an injury-riddled first half of the season. With the trade deadline on the not-to-distant horizon, it’s the time of year when management will be making final assessments on whether they have a roster worthy of investing in or not. The faint outlines of playoff scenarios are taking shape.
And the five-game jaunt is full of tripwires. After the Pistons the Raptors get the Milwaukee Bucks on the second night of a back-to-back, then their first game against Kyle Lowry and the Heat -- after an off day in Miami, which is not always as restful as it sounds -- followed by a trip to Dallas to confront the improving Mavericks before flying back across the continent and finishing against the Wizards.
If you have hopes of winning the trip -- and a 3-2 mark (or even 2-3) would be an accomplishment -- starting off with a win against the rebuilding Pistons was a must.
This is not a Wordle puzzle. It’s a fact in plain sight.
Well, the Raptors certainly didn’t play like it, their frantic fourth-quarter push aside. They didn’t look like a team that can make some noise in the second half, that management should be considering giving up future assets to shore up holes.
They looked terrible as they fell 103-87 to the bottom-feeding Pistons. They looked small and played small. Their bench -- such as it is -- was badly outplayed again. And this time Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam couldn’t bail them out as they fell to 20-19, their second consecutive loss after their six-game winning streak.
It was also their fifth straight loss to Detroit as former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey improved to 8-3 against his old club.
No one really knows why Casey’s Pistons – who improved to 10-31 with the win and have been rebuilding for two seasons -- handle the Raptors so easily. This was their second win over Toronto this season, and neither was particularly close.
“They came out, they kind of threw the first punch and we didn't bring the fight in the beginning,” said Siakam, who got his NBA start playing two seasons under Casey in Toronto. “I think we played better as the game went on, but sometimes it's just giving the team confidence, you know, as it carries through the game... hopefully we have another time, you know, to play and we can play better against them. [But] I think they played better today.”
Toronto trailed by 21 with 8:39 to play in the fourth and -- to their credit -- mounted a credible comeback. A trio of VanVleet threes sparked a 13-0 run that cut the Pistons lead to eight with just under three minutes to play. But Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham -- who looked every part a No. 1 pick for most of the night -- hit a three in the corner that immediately put Detroit up by double figures again and the Raptors couldn’t gain any more traction from there.
VanVleet finished with 24 points and 10 assists but his only made shots were from deep, where he was 6-of-14. He was 0-of-7 on twos. Siakam finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, but they didn’t get the requisite support as the Pistons bench outscored the Raptors 43-16.
In the battle of the prized rookies it was Cunningham coming out on top of Scottie Barnes as the Pistons guard finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists, while the Raptors rookie shot 4-of-13 from the floor for eight points and seven rebounds.
Barnes has looked not himself since missing two games due to COVID-19 and two more due to tendonitis in his knee, and may be hitting the proverbial ‘rookie wall’ -- he’s averaging just 9.6 points on 39 per cent shooting in January compared to 15.6 points on 49.4 per cent shooting in the first 27 games of the season.
“I would probably just say coming off the COVID break just made my knee hurt a little bit,” said Barnes, who played high school basketball with Cunningham. “But I’m gonna say I feel better now but of course just coming back can’t really run as well, jump as well, do certain things as well as I could. It’s just getting better right now, that’s all I can say about it.”
But the most concerning boxscore number was the minutes the Raptors' key players had to log. VanVleet played 42 minutes and Siakam 41 as they start a stretch of three games in four nights and got nothing to show for it.
The Raptors' problems started in the first half, during which the Pistons were the better, smarter, more unselfish and tougher team.
It wasn’t the Pistons, with an eye on another lottery pick to compliment Cunningham, who looked lethargic and sloppy and only half-interested in winning 50-50 battles.
It was the Raptors, winners of seven of their past eight and coming off an impressive effort in a loss to the Phoenix Suns.
There were consecutive, largely unforced turnovers in the first quarter by OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher that led to fastbreak dunks by Hamidou Diallo which helped Detroit get out to a 20-13 lead.
There was Precious Achiuwa dribbling into a contested baseline jumper early in the shot clock as the Raptors started 1-of-14 from the floor, outside of three early threes by Anunoby. The Pistons converted on the other end when Boucher lost Cunningham on a simple post cut, and Detroit was up 11.
“We just again get out on the road and need to respond to being ready at the start,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And needing some lifts when guys aren't ready off the bench and we were just kind of searching for some answers most of the night and didn't seem to have any.”
The Raptors scrambled back to cut the Pistons lead to 31-27 at the end of the first quarter, but the Pistons were just getting started.
Toronto was without Gary Trent Jr. (ankle) and then were without Khem Birch after he took a shot to the nose four minutes into the game. Birch broke his nose and will have surgery in Toronto, keeping him out of the lineup indefinitely. The Raptors are vulnerable at the centre position at the best of the times, and were never more so than in the second quarter.
The most impactful player on the floor at that point? How about six-foot-10 journeyman Trey Lyles, last seen rimming out a 12-foot that would have sent the Canadian national team into double overtime against the Czechs in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament this past summer.
Lyles plowed through the Raptors zone for 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting. The Saskatoon native is neither big nor explosive and has bounced around the NBA since being a lottery pick in 2015. He finished with a season-high 21 points off the bench, to go along with seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 33 minutes. Former Raptor Cory Joseph had nine points and four assists in 26 minutes.
Birch is a journeyman too, but the slight build that hampers Boucher and the erratic output from Achiuwa makes the pick-up from the Orlando Magic the Raptors' best option.
“[He’s] certainly a big part of what we do,” Nurse was saying before the game. “Kind of keeps the offence moving… he’s a reliable screener. He’s also pretty alert when there’s a play to be made for him. He’s getting his share of offensive rebounds or at least tips to keep the ball alive, as well. He just kind of takes what comes to him. It’s good to have one of those guys out there that can do the other things on offence to keep us rolling.”
That Birch being unavailable after the opening minutes of the game was the difference seems like an absurd notion, but it’s as good as any.
Not only were the Raptors being outworked and outhustled, they couldn’t shoot. They finished the half trailing 56-43 and shot 29 per cent from the floor on their way to 32.6 per cent for the game.
There was no miracle third quarter on deck either. Siakam got going, but he was largely on his own and the Raptors once again couldn’t get stops against a Detroit team that came into the game with the NBA’s worst offence. Lyles continued to have his way and Joseph chipped in as the Pistons bench continued to dominate their Raptors counterparts.
A 9-0 run built on a VanVleet three, a Siakam three-point play and a three by Boucher cut what was an 18-point Pistons lead in half, but then they gave up a 10-2 run to Detroit as the Pistons started the fourth quarter with an 83-66 bulge.
But the Raptors couldn’t climb out of the hole they dug for themselves and now face an uphill climb on a road trip that just got tougher.