Typically a return to the floor suggests a return to normalcy for a basketball team going through a crisis of sorts.
When things get weird or scary or uncomfortable, the game provides refuge.
That would have been a logical storyline to gravitate to given the circumstances under which the Toronto Raptors took the court against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night, their first game after days in self-quarantine and having their future dictated by the outcome of multiple tests for COVID-19.
Their game against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday was postponed, and the Pistons game was supposed to be played Tuesday but was pushed back a day — in each case because the Raptors couldn’t field the required eight players due to health-and-safety protocols.
Basketball wasn’t always top of mind.
“In that situation, just … whatever happens, if you have it, you have to quarantine, be safe, be smart,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry. “Of course you’re anxious just because they’re your brothers, they’re your friends, first and foremost and you want to make sure they’re healthy, whatever it is.
“If they’re in contact tracing, you just want to make sure you talk to them and say, 'Hey, how you feeling?' Just check on them on an everyday basis, just make sure their mind is strong.”
On Wednesday the ball finally went up, but it wasn’t really the Raptors in uniform. Missing were starters Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, with depth pieces Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw also held out. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse missed his second game, as did five members of his staff. One other team staffer was also held out for the first time.
The Raptors that were available — outside the starters that did dress — barely showed up, as Toronto lost 129-105 to the rebuilding, Dwane Casey-coached Pistons who remain in last place in the East while improving to 10-25 on the season.
The Raptors fell to 17-18 and dropped to eighth place in the East as they head to Boston on Thursday night for their last game before the mid-season break.
The Raptors started Lowry, Norman Powell and Aron Baynes, supported by Terence Davis — making his third start of the season — and Yuta Watanabe, who was making the first start of his career.
Toronto was undone by its defence, particularly on the perimeter, where the Pistons shot 20-of-41. Wayne Ellington led Detroit with 25 points, including an 8-of-11 clip from three.
The more experienced starters trotted out by Raptors assistant Sergio Scariolo — filling in for the second time for Nurse — more than held their own.
Powell finished with a season-high 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting, while Lowry had 21 points and six assists. Baynes was passable with 13 points, while Chris Boucher provided a fairly standard contribution from the bench — 18 points and eight rebounds.
But after that?
With a full runway of minutes available and a date with one of the league’s weakest teams, no one else really came to play, as the rest of the roster combined to shoot 6-of-29 from the floor. Certainly Davis and Watanabe did little to make a case for themselves deserving more minutes — based on this outing at least — as they finished 2-of-14 combined.
“I think guys were just overly anxious to do a lot more and pick up the slack of others,” said Lowry. “That is what happens sometimes. We didn’t play the right way. We started the game off very well, but then they hit like five straight threes and miscommunications and groups of guys who aren’t usually on the floor together and just ... it was a tough night, a tough night.
"They made a lot of shots and give them credit. They shot 53 per cent from the field and 48 from three. You ain’t going to win a game like that.”
The Pistons took control of the game midway through the third quarter when an Ellington triple capped a 15-2 run that put Detroit up by 18 after the Raptors had pulled within five. A quick 9-2 run by Toronto cut that to 11, but the Pistons responded with a 10-0 run featuring another Ellington three.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Raptors tried to cut into what had been a 21-point Pistons lead, but by the middle of the quarter it was going in the wrong direction and Toronto was down 23 when Scariolo waved the white flag.
Given the circumstances, Scariolo wasn’t going to try and reinvent the wheel — he just wanted to make sure there was going to be air in the tires. Unfortunately, a good chunk of his rotation wasn't ready to ditch their training wheels, though having one practice since Friday night might have contributed to the collective rust.
“And probably it’s true that our shooting percentages in the other players were not that high, but I think that it is not an individual issue,” said Scariolo. “It’s more of a collective issue. We had to move the ball a little bit better, we overreacted a little bit, we were get anxious very soon, so we dribbled where there was no room to dribble.”
Not simple enough, apparently. Rolling out a starting lineup that had never played any minutes together — or at least any meaningful ones — didn’t seem to impact the Raptors offensively. But defensively, it was another story.
The Pistons came into the game ranked 26th in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage (34.7), while the Raptors have hovered around the league’s top 10 in defensive rating since their 2-8 start.
Turns out that missing three of your core players and three top defenders in VanVleet, Anunoby and Siakam can hurt a team.
Toronto got off to a 13-3 start but after that they made the reeling Pistons look like the 73-win Golden State Warriors. Detroit moved the ball sharply and the Raptors looked like defensive rotations were something for someone else to worry about. It was a bad combination. The Pistons converted 9-of-11 threes in the opening quarter and counted 15 assists on 16 field goals while jumping out to a 43-37 lead as five different Pistons connected from deep.
Meanwhile, the Raptors were getting little of anything useful from anyone outside Powell or Lowry, although Baynes made a brief appearance. With five players out, including three starters, it was an opportunity for some players who have been struggling to find a regular role in a Raptors rotation that lacks much definition after its top six or seven players.
Unfortunately, no one seemed ready to seize the opportunity. Things only got worse in the second quarter. The Pistons' three-point shooting finally cooled — they ended up making just 2-of-12 although the looks looked just as open as they did in the first quarter – but the Raptors struggled to respond.
By halftime, Davis was 0-of-5 from the floor with two turnovers in his 14 minutes while Watanabe didn’t take a shot in his eight minutes of floor time. By the time the horn sounded, only five Raptors had scored and Boucher was the only Toronto player to score off the bench — not the kind of production that gets a short-handed team over the hump. Only Powell’s 23 first-half points (on 8-of-10 shooting) and Lowry’s 17 points on 4-of-7 shooting kept the Raptors in reach of the last-place Pistons, who took a 69-60 lead into the half.
“Tonight was not the right night,” said Scariolo. “I mean, you can't blame only just a few players who were less experienced or used to a different role. It’s always a team issue, right — this is always everybody’s responsibility from the coach to the leader to the veteran player to try to put them in the game in an easy way with some easy plays and trying to have them involved early in the game and so they would probably follow off there.
"But, as I said, there will be other opportunities for them starting from tomorrow. I mean tomorrow we won’t have any other player back with us so we better figure out how to make a step forward in a few hours.
These aren’t normal times but this was one occasion the court and the game failed to provide refuge. The Raptors' best bet for that is the upcoming mid-season break, but not before their makeshift crew heads to Boston.