As Raptors navigate slumps, upcoming winnable matchups could be cure

Raptors guard Fred VanVleet discusses the challenge of facing a re-hot Lakers team, says they've battled through their early season adversity, and have figured out their identity, and are a really tough team to play right now.

TORONTO — The simplest way for the Toronto Raptors to solve their problems — and they have a few — is to win some games, maybe three in a row or something.

Their chance might be at hand: sure the Los Angeles Lakers visit Wednesday as one of the hottest teams in the league having won eight of their last 11 riding the MVP-level play of Anthony Davis and the return to health of LeBron James.

But the Lakers will be arriving from Cleveland playing on the second night of a back-to-back in the middle of a six-game road trip. Davis won’t play because of an illness while James is dealing with left ankle soreness. They are still a sub-.500 team. There is a win there if the Raptors can take it.

And after that Toronto heads to Orlando for a pair of games against a Magic team that is young, short-handed, and focused on the draft lottery, as the Raptors saw for themselves with an easy win over Orlando on Saturday. As long as the Raptors pay attention to the job at hand, sweeping Florida is a reasonable expectation.

The point being: things can change quickly in the NBA. Just when things are looking bleak, they can turn around, the Lakers being a perfect example. After a 2-10 start that looked disastrous they strung some wins together — helped along by a friendly schedule — and things don’t seem so bad for the moment.

The Raptors can’t say the same thing, having been blown out twice on the road last week by good teams and — after a comfortable win over Orlando — punting an otherwise winnable game against the Boston Celtics, who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and missing two starters and their sixth man.

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The Raptors think highly of themselves: “I think we’re a really good team. I think we’ve got a lot of talent, we got good players,” said Fred VanVleet. “But there’s a level that you have to get to with consistency and execution and attention to detail. And those are things that we’re struggling to know right now.”

No one wants to put a finger on exactly what the problem is, but you don’t have to read too deeply between the lines to ascertain that yes, there are issues: tactics, personnel, vibe — something seems off.

“We’re losing, it’s not fun. We don’t like losing,” said Pascal Siakam Monday. “This organization’s not about losing and not winning games is not part of who we are. So obviously you know the mood’s gonna be a little different … we don’t want to just let the losses kind of take us down and take the mood and fun out everything. Just gotta keep it fun. And keep working because (we) believe that’s what’s going to get us out of it.”

In the meantime, the spotlight keeps searching for a scapegoat. Recently it was Gary Trent Jr. and his shooting woes that got examined, with the shooting guard eventually being moved to the bench where he’s been productive.

Then rookie Scottie Barnes was under the glare after a long stretch of poor play. The upbeat, bouncy, 20-year-old rookie energy that made him such a darling last season seems to have gone into hiding along with his ability to finish.

Barnes also made a brief visit to the bench and subsequently had a private meeting with Raptors brass in New York on Friday. Barnes’ defence still needs to pick up, but he’s at least converting offensively on a more simplified shot menu with a greater emphasis on getting to the rim. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 10 rebounds on 61.7 per cent shooting in his last three games.

Right now it’s VanVleet’s turn to be poked and prodded. A year ago VanVleet was in the midst of the best stretch of his career. Over a torrid 34-game period beginning in late October until he cooled off in early January, VanVleet averaged 23 points a game while shooting 42.5 per cent from three on over 10 attempts a game. He became an all-star.

But unless something changes dramatically, VanVleet will have all-star weekend off come February. He’s heading into Wednesday’s game shooting just 5-of-28 from three over his last four games and shooting just 34 per cent from three for the season, a career low. Making things worse, the 28-year-old is struggling to finish in the lane, which has never been a strong point for the six-footer. This season he’s shooting just 48.6 per cent at the rim — his worst since becoming a regular — compared with 64.9 per cent last season, which was a career-best. He’s averaging 16.3 points a game compared to 20.3 last season.

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VanVleet is normally as plain-spoken as they come, but he didn’t want to elaborate too much on his struggles — which go back to last season given he shot just 29 per cent from three after the all-star break.

“I mean there’s a lot going on. I mean, like, a lot going on all across the board,” he said when asked if teams were covering him differently recently. “I’m not really going to run down the list with you guys, I’ll just play better and then you’ll have better things to talk about. But there’s definitely a lot of reasons for the situation that I’m in. I’m going to continue to keep working, being professional and giving everything I’ve got when I step out there. So hopefully I’ll turn it around soon.”

He also said he felt his shooting slump was mostly in his head at this point: “Once you’re in it it’s all just mental. There’s nothing really more to it.”

Later on head coach Nick Nurse said the data gathered by the analytics system the Raptors have at their practice facility shows that VanVleet’s ball flight is a little wonky. “Normally his numbers on his right/left, his straightness, are off the charts,” said Nurse. “…that’s the one that is got a little bit of a wrinkle for him right now that he’s got to get ironed out.”

It probably doesn’t help that with VanVleet finishing in the lane so poorly teams can be more aggressive crowding him at the three-point line — another element Nurse touched on — making life more difficult for VanVleet there, too.

But whatever the Raptors’ issues — be they as simple as their best three-point shooter being in a deep slump or something possibly deeper and more systemic — the easiest way to put them to rest in the short term is to string together some wins.

The Raptors were 11-13 at the same stage last season and in 12th place and were still at .500 in late January before finishing the season with a 25-11 push and moving all the way up to fifth place.

“I know it doesn’t feel like [it] … because maybe expectations are so much higher or whatever, but I would say we are really on the right track,” said Nurse. “We are making some progress … we have had a rough year injury-wise. So I think on one hand you can look at it and say we are doing ok. We are hanging in here with a lot of tough breaks and if we just hang in there and keep improving a little bit, we will get things squared away and be really tough to beat.”

That’s the optimistic view and quite possibly the proper view. But it will be a lot easier to sell with some wins — something a return to form by VanVleet would help with — and the sooner the better.

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