SALT LAKE CITY – Hey, sometimes you’re going to get outclassed.
Missing were OG Anunoby (hip) and Precious Achiuwa (shoulder). It’s the kind of situation where you’d love to see if Yuta Watanabe could lend a spark, but his strained calf has kept him out all season.
Despite a commendable effort from a number of corners, the Raptors (7-9) fell 119-103 to the Jazz (10-5), stretching their losing streak to three games as they lost for the sixth time in seven starts.
That Utah shot 55 per cent from the floor likely won’t do much to improve the Raptors' defensive metrics, which have been the worst in the NBA over that seven-game stretch.
Toronto led early in the second half after an impressive first half -- offensively at least -- but Utah put on the jets after that. They turned a 12-point lead to start the fourth quarter into a 19-point edge midway through the period and the Raptors couldn’t push back.
The Raptors' lack of lineup continuity is and was a factor.
“It seems like we’ve had a minimum of three or four guys out for every game this year,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, over-stating it not by much. “…It’s a little frustrating. What do you do? I’m just more anxious to see us be able to build on some stuff. It seems like we had to take some steps back and reconfigure and then we take some forward.”
But the opponent has to be recognized, too. The Jazz shot a comfortable 19-of-46 from three, with seven different players making at least one, led by former Raptor Rudy Gay, who came off the bench and knocked down 5-of-6. They had 34 assists on 46 made field goals, with six different players with at least two helpers, led by Joe Ingles, who came off the bench and sliced Toronto up for eight in 24 minutes. And when it was time for a kill shot, the Jazz simply looked to the rim where Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside were a combined 11-of-12 from the floor, almost all on dunks.
The Raptors got some inspired performances. Gary Trent Jr. was never contained as he put up a season-high 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting and Fred VanVleet grinded his way to 24 points. Khem Birch had a season-high 14 points -- all in the first half -- while Malachi Flynn was decent in his season-high 22 minutes.
Absent was Pascal Siakam, who never seemed right as he struggled to find his way in the paint with Gobert looming and couldn't got on track on the perimeter either. He finished 2-of-14 from the floor, didn’t grab a rebound until his 29th minute and had his five assists off-set by four turnovers.
It was his worst outing in five games since he returned from off-season shoulder surgery. The Raptors will need more from him if they are going to make up for Anunoby’s team-leading 21 points a game.
Anunoby’s three-point ranged was sorely missed. As a team, the Raptors shot just 10-of-28 from three. VanVleet shot 3-of-8 and Trent Jr. shot 5-of-11, but the rest of the Raptors went just 1-of-10.
The did manage to a 14-10 edge in offensive rebounding and a 24-14 advantage in turnovers, but couldn’t do enough with all the extra possessions they generated.
“They got a lot of buckets at the rim tonight,” said Nurse. “Obviously that was tough to handle. And they also just shot it really well from three. That’s a good shooting team, a really tough team to defend. But we just didn’t cover up enough at the rim or at least wrap them up and make them shoot free throws or things like that … we [didn’t execute some] coverages and they made us pay for them.”
It’s no exaggeration to suggest the Raptors were in a tough situation before the ball even went up. The Jazz are on the short list of NBA title contenders as they came into the game with the NBA’s top-ranked offence, 10th-ranked defence and second-best net rating.
In Gobert, they have one of the league’s best rim threats -- at both ends -- and they surround him with multiple three-point threats and wings that can attack the paint. They might not have the best individual talent, but they could well be the most balanced roster in in the league.
“Listen, they do just about everything you can do. They score in transition, they throw it ahead really well, they’ll hurt you both off the bounce and from the three in transition,” said Nurse.
“Once they get into half court they move and pass, share the ball. They put pressure on rim with Gobert’s lobs and Whiteside’s lobs and they’ve got a ton of playmakers and shooters.
“And if I haven’t mentioned it, they’ve been together for a long time on top of all that.”
All that said, the Raptors played a spirited first half. They got off to a quick start, leading 9-2 after a steal by Trent Jr. led to a Scottie Barnes (10 points, six rebounds, five assists) dunk in transition and VanVleet converted a three-point play after he was fouled on a jumper. A pair of Birch floaters and a triple by Trent Jr. gave Toronto a 23-17 lead, but Utah’s class began to show. They finished the quarter on a 15-4 run that featured baskets from six different players, five them assisted as they took a 32-27 lead into the second quarter.
The run continued with Gay heating up from three, helping push the Jazz up by 11 with 9:18 to play in the half.
But the Raptors weren’t having it. Birch is not a likely candidate to lead a comeback, but the Raptors kept finding him on the short roll, isolated against either or Utah’s giants, Gobert or Whiteside. Normally Birch will look to pass out to the corners in that situation, but with Utah staying home on shooters, Birch lofted up his gentle floater from the paint and helped the Raptors get unstuck. He ended up with 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Yes, that earned him first half MVTree honours.
VanVleet took over from there, banging in three triples in less than a minute to give the Raptors a 53-51 lead.
Then Trent Jr. jumped in, putting together his own 8-0 run as the Raptors grabbed a 63-61 lead to start the third quarter.
The Raptors are mid-ranging the Jazz to death ... and it's working as they take a 63-61 lead into the half.
— Michael Grange (@michaelgrange) November 19, 2021
That was a high point and they were few and far between after that, which has been the pattern of late.
The Raptors won’t have to wait long to have a chance to change that as they flew after the game to Sacramento, where they play the Kings on Friday night.