Raptors struggle to get anything going vs. long, lanky Pelicans

CJ McCollum stayed hot on Monday, dropping a game-high 23 points on just 13 shots, and the New Orleans Pelicans defeated the Toronto Raptors 120-90.

The Toronto Raptors may not play a traditional centre, but they like to think they’re not a small team. Instead, their belief is they can offset their lack of traditional size -- as in, someone over six-foot-nine -- by playing a seemingly endless supply of guys at or around six-foot-nine.

The only Raptors regulars who don’t fit that description are Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr.

Everyone else can wear each other’s parkas.

But it’s not like having tall players with long arms in the NBA is cutting edge or the kind of intellectual property that can be patented.

Other teams like tall players too, and some of them even have players over seven-feet tall.

Take the New Orleans Pelicans, for example.

They have a lineup loaded with long, lanky, players the Raptors would love to have, augmented by former Raptor Jonas Valanciunas, one of the league’s true bigs and an element Toronto simply can’t match up with.

The Pels have another seven-footer in Jaxson Hayes who gives New Orleans a lot of what Chris Boucher does to Toronto, but is about four inches taller, providing the Pelicans the kind of lob threat Toronto can only dream of.

Brandon Ingram and rookie Herb Jones give the Pelicans something comparable on the perimeter to Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and rookie Scottie Barnes, but in each case appear just a little taller and longer.

And this all without Zion Williamson, their franchise player. The six-foot-six, 280-pounder was playing like a superstar as the world’s biggest, most explosive point guard last season before missing all of this year so far with a foot injury.

It all explains why the Pelicans -- who started the season at 3-16 but have gone 19-18 since --- swung big at the trade deadline to acquire high-scoring veteran guard CJ McCollum.

They feel like they’re closer to being a factor than their status as the 11th place team in the Western Conference would suggest.

They may be on to something. It looked that way Monday night against Toronto.

The Pelicans simply dominated the Raptors in a way few teams have this season as they came on strong early and never up to earn every inch of the 120-90 win.

More concerning, the Raptors were without all-star VanVleet for most of the second half after he left early to have knee soreness treated. VanVleet missed two games last week with groin soreness and it is fair to wonder if his NBA-leading minutes load is taking a toll.

The loss was the Raptors' second straight after an eight-game winning streak and dropped them to 31-25 as they remain in seventh place in the Eastern Conference.

VanVleet led the Raptors in scoring with 20 points while shooting 4-of-9 from three to join Kyle Lowry as the only Raptors to make more than 200 threes in a season. Elsewhere it was a rough night as Pascal Siakam (18 points) was the only other starter in double figures as Toronto shot just 29-of-95 from the floor.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse downplayed concerns about VanVleet’s knee, saying after the game that the point guard had banged it in the first half and let him know that it could be a problem in the second. VanVleet came out firing in the third quarter but when the game got out of hand he decided to get a jump on treatment rather than keep pushing through on it.

The Pelicans got 23 points from McCollum while Valanciunas and Hayes combined for 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting as New Orleans shot 58 per cent from the floor and 16-of-44 from deep. They improved to 23-34 and pulled within a half-game of 10th place in the west.

Their size was an issue.

“I think that it's something we're gonna have to evaluate just a little bit,” said Nurse. “When we do come up against a big, really big ‘big’ like that, are we gonna stay the way we are or are we going to try to match one of our centers with them a little bit more? I think we have to evaluate. This is, you know, some games we do well and we front and we scramble and we trap and we're really active and we couldn't get any of that stuff done tonight.”

Otherwise, the Raptors could offer a range of excuses. Staying locked in the week before what will be an eight-day break for players not involved with All-Star weekend could be a problem.

“I haven’t felt it maybe as much this year as I have [in the past],” said Nurse before the game. “I know what you’re saying: People talking about where they’re going and making plans and asking a zillion questions about when we’ve got to be back [after the break] and what time and where we’re meeting and all that kind of stuff. I haven’t felt that much this year. [But] I think it’s a valid point. We’re here for this one. I think maybe in the next day or so we might see some more of that, for sure.”

It may have come a bit early after all. Toronto has to travel to play Minnesota for a game on Wednesday before they break until Feb. 25 -- but human nature is what it is.

And so is size, at least in basketball terms. The Raptors felt the effect of all that New Orleans has in the first half especially.

The Pelicans jumped out to a 29-17 lead in the first quarter with Valanciunas looking all too comfortable in Toronto’s paint as he had a putback dunk and a blocked shot in the games’ opening possessions and scored six points in the paint before the game was seven minutes old.

But the effects of the Pelicans' size were perhaps most evident when the Raptors had the ball and they were doing to Toronto a lot of what the Raptors try to do to their opponents: shrinking the floor, having arms in every passing lane and hands contesting every shot.

It wasn’t the only reason the Raptors shot 3-of-13 to start the game, but it was a significant factor as Toronto shot just 8-of-26 in the first quarter and didn’t help their cause with three turnovers that New Orleans turned into seven quick points.

They kept showing it. The Raptors entered the game 17-7 since Dec. 31 in part because they’ve almost never let teams have the better of them for long. They always push back.

But the Pelicans weren’t having it. They kept the clamps on the Raptors and pushed their lead to 60-44 at the half by standing tall in the paint, where the Raptors shot just 9-of-27, while the Pelicans were 11-of-16, and making it look easy.

It wasn’t like Toronto wasn’t trying to attack the paint, it was just they either had a hard time getting there or when they did, they couldn’t see the rim.

Siakam -- who has been lethal in the paint for the past six weeks -- came out with good intentions to start the second half. He put the ball on the floor, got his feet below the free-throw line, went into one of his trademark spins only to run directly into Valanciunas’s chest. A moment later he managed to get past Ingram on the bounce but ran into a thicket of help and missed that one, too.

He wasn’t attributing it to the Pelicans' size or length though.

“I think I missed a couple easy shots I usually make,” said Siakam, who was 7-of-19 from the floor. “Just continue to attack, almost took my eye out but I’m still here. I think it was OK, I think I could’ve still got to my spots and do what I do, just didn’t make some of the shots I usually make and I live with that.”

The only thing the Raptors had going, seemingly, was VanVleet from deep. He stepped into a pair of deep threes early in the third -- sore knee and all -- that briefly cut the Pelicans' lead to 19. But then New Orleans went to Valanciunas isolated on the block against six-foot-eight OG Anunoby and the big man simply turned to his left and dropped in a right-handed hook. A little bit later -- with Boucher desperately trying to front him and deny the post-entry -- the Pelicans lobbed the ball high where only Valanciunas could reach it and the New Orleans’ centre dropped it over the rim for another easy score. VanVleet added another three to keep the lead to 20, but Toronto simply didn’t have enough, and the Raptors trailed 94-69 to start the fourth quarter.

The game did mark the Raptors debut of Thad Young, the veteran forward Toronto picked up at the trade deadline from San Antonio. He had four points and four rebounds in 12 minutes off the bench.

“This would be my fourth game played since I think January,” he said. “So yeah, it's just a matter of just me just kind of like finding my way and then just kind of like getting acclimated with new offence and what we're going to be doing out there, kind of piece matching where I'm going to fit in. And then also just trying to get myself back in gameplay and, and rhythm.”

Young was fine, all things considered. For everyone else, it can only get better in Minnesota on Wednesday.

“Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible game,” said Siakam. “They came out early and were making shots, was one of those nights I would say for sure.”

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