Raptors Notebook: Frequent slow starts hard to overcome

Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes brings the ball down court between Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges (0) and forward Gordon Hayward (20) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 8, 2023, in Charlotte, N.C. (Chris Carlson/AP)

There is a real danger in getting comfortable doing things the hard way.

A lot of nits could be picked about the fourth quarter of the Toronto Raptors‘ 119-116 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Friday. And they are real, and we will mention them. Whatever the late-game execution, though, the Raptors could have made life much easier on themselves by not once again falling behind by 20 to a bad opponent. It has become a habit, and the Raptors are simply not a good enough team to consistently dig out of those holes, even against a 6-13 team without their best player in LaMelo Ball.

So yes, it was frustrating to watch the Raptors come out of a timeout with seven seconds remaining, down three points, and run a play that amounted to “Scottie Barnes, please do something.” No action to free him before the inbound, no screen to help him create space, just an inbound and observers as Barnes tried a contested pull-up three near the buzzer that missed.

And yes, it was frustrating that shortly before that, with 22.2 seconds left, the Raptors opted not to use a timeout or go for a quick two to shorten the game. I’m not normally an advocate of the quick-two strategy when the clock reaches single digits, but 22 seconds with a pair of timeouts still in hand is a comfortable spot. Instead, against a set Charlotte defence, the Raptors chewed up 14 seconds of clock before Barnes drew a foul on a three-point attempt.

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And absolutely, it was frustrating watching Terry Rozier orchestrate well down the stretch, and then give the points right back, only for the Raptors to veer away from attacking him. Or surrendering three offensive rebounds to Gordon Hayward. Or shooting 3-of-29 on threes as a team, excluding Barnes’ 3-of-6 night. All of those are very real frustrations.

And the Raptors probably still steal the game if they only go down 15 instead of 20. That’s how low the bar was against Charlotte, in Toronto’s first game after speaking openly about the eroding energy around the team due to a lack of success. The Raptors are now 9-13 and just allowed a Hornets team without by far their best offensive player to have their best shooting night of the season, and they’ve already squandered the first two games of what will be their most winnable six-game stretch of the year.

This team is not nearly good enough to come out as slowly as they have, as often as they have. The starts need to improve immediately.

Here are some other notes and takeaways from Friday’s game.

Barnes does his best to bring them back late

If there was a bright spot, it was that Barnes and Pascal Siakam had good offensive nights at the same time. Siakam kept the Raptors from losing their grip on the game entirely in the second quarter, taking over the scoring load and carrying some transitional lineups. It was Barnes’ turn late, scoring 15 points with three assists in the fourth quarter.

Barnes finished the night with 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, tying him for third all-time in Raptors history with his third career triple-double.

He was also the only Raptors starter to have a positive mark in the plus-minus ledger, thanks to having the reins of a bench-heavy comeback run. Fortunately, those lineups around Barnes were optimized a bit better and locked in on defence. It was also a rare night where multiple bench pieces played well, with Precious Achiuwa, Chris Boucher and Malachi Flynn all having at least one good stretch. Achiuwa was the only player other than Barnes to hit a three.

It’s pretty telling that Siakam and Barnes both had good nights overall, and both took over entire quarters, and the Raptors still lost, and the starters lost their minutes by three points. There was a pretty good case to be made, like in the Miami game, that the starting five shouldn’t have been the closing unit.

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Otto Porter Jr. injured

The Raptors utilized Otto Porter Jr. in the rotation in the first half, delivering on Wednesday’s suggestion and a strong first 125 minutes from the veteran this season. He played in five first-half minutes but was unavailable for the second half due to a left foot contusion.

The Raptors have a few days off before they next play, Monday in New York. Here’s hoping the contusion is a minor issue, as that’s the same foot Porter had season-ending surgery on the big toe of last year, and he’s missed significant time in most of the last five seasons.

X-rays were negative.

Ron Harper Jr. waived, Jontay Porter signed

The Raptors released Ron Harper Jr. on Friday, signing Jontay Porter into his two-way roster spot.

Harper recently suffered a subluxation of his left shoulder, an injury that will require season-ending surgery. Now in his second season with the organization as a two-way player, Harper had become such a big part of the 905 culture that he stayed with the team through Thursday’s game even though the transaction was coming, getting a little extra time in with his now-former teammates.

The rehab process could have Harper back in the mix for NBA teams by Summer League. He’ll have an excellent training partner during rehab, as his younger brother, Dylan, is a top prospect for Rutgers’ class of 2024. The Raptors will pay Harper’s entire two-way contract out.

Mo Gueye would have been the player internally who made the most sense for promotion to a two-way spot, but he’s currently dealing with a neck injury.

Instead, Porter gets the nod.

Initially an intriguing prospect, Porter missed his sophomore college season with a torn ACL and MCL, then subsequently tore his ACL again. He remained in the 2019 draft, anyway, and was ranked at the top of my board when the Raptors made their selection at No. 59 that year. The Raptors instead selected Dewan Hernandez, and also ended up employing Oshae Brissett, Terence Davis, and Shamorie Ponds at different points. In Porter, they’ve now tried five players they considered with that pick.

In the time since, Porter has played 11 games with the Memphis Grizzlies, appeared in Summer League with Denver and Chicago, been to training camp with Detroit, and played for three G League programs. With Detroit’s affiliate this year, Porter was averaging 16.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.8 blocks while shooting 45.6 per cent from the floor and 27.7 per cent on threes.

The 905 will look to see if they can help Porter nail down the “stretch” part of his stretch-big potential. Still just 24, the Raptors may see some delayed developmental runway with a player who lost so much time to injury early in his career.

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In-season tournament relegation

The NBA will never move to a relegation model like many international soccer leagues use. While it does a great job of fostering competition throughout the standings and the schedule, and dramatically changes the incentives of tanking, the economic realities of the NBA would never allow for it. Those years the Lakers finished poorly? Half the existence of the Knicks? The NBA isn’t relegating the high-revenue teams with inelastic fan demand.

Where there is a limitation, though, there is an opportunity. The NBA would like to eventually explore allowing non-NBA teams into the in-season tournament. One of the (minor) issues with the tournament this year was the implicit devaluation of games that no longer mattered to the standings, especially those this Wednesday and Friday that were essentially scheduled make-up games.

What if teams could get relegated from the in-season tournament?

It could be complicated to make sure each NBA team still got their 82-game schedule, but there’s probably some needle the league could thread that reinforces competition top-to-bottom without risking too much on the revenue side. The Raptors and Hornets, for example, went 1-3 in the tournament and both lost their Wednesday make-up game. Wouldn’t it at least feel like something if the loser of tonight’s game wouldn’t be able to participate in next year’s tournament? That probably matters more to fans, given the turnover in rosters, but nobody is going to want to get relegated and replaced next year with the G League Showcase winner or a travelling European team.

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Rudy Gay trade tree

Saturday marks the 10-year anniversary of the Raptors trading Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy, and Aaron Gray to the Sacramento Kings for Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, and Chuck Hayes.

Today, there are still three trickle-downs from the Rudy Gay Trade Tree that remain.

Pat Connaughton: This is part of the acquisition root of the Gay tree. The Raptors initially acquired Gay in a three-team deal that brought back Hamed Haddadi and sent out Jose Calderon, Ed Davis, and a future second-round pick. They then attached another second-rounder to Haddadi to flip him for Sebastian Telfair, effectively making this a larger, three-team trade.

That future second-round pick for Telfair was then a part of the 2013 three-team trade involving Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, and JJ Redick and the Suns, Clippers, and Bucks. The Bucks subsequently flipped the pick to the Hawks, who selected Lamar Patterson, receiving a 2015 second-rounder back. That pick became Pat Connaughton, who remains with Milwaukee.

The other second in the initial Gay trade, by the way, became Jamaal Franklin. Six years later, Franklin joined the Raptors for Summer League but was injured and never got into a game.

OG Anunoby: The Gay trade returned four useful players who stuck around for the Raptors. Hayes left as a free agent in 2015. Patterson re-signed and then left in 2017. Salmons and the lightly-guaranteed final year on his deal was flipped for a season of Lou Williams and four years of Lucas Nogueira, a transaction that would no longer work under the current CBA.

And then there was Greivis Vásquez. He was a solid addition and re-signed for two years after his initial season. In the summer of 2015, the Raptors dealt him to the Bucks for a future first-round pick and a future second-round pick.

Later, armed with two 2017 first-round picks, the Raptors attached the lesser of the two picks to Terrence Ross to acquire Serge Ibaka. The better pick, which they kept, was used on Anunoby, who is 13th all-time in games played with the franchise.

Gary Trent Jr.: The second-round pick in that Vasquez deal? It was used to select Norman Powell, who contributed to a championship and was eventually dealt for Trent and Rodney Hood. Trent remains with the team.

Raptors 905, what do you even say?

The 905 were awarded three (!!) hardship exceptions for their Thursday game in Long Island. Even with all three two-way players and Gradey Dick on-hand from the Raptors, the 905 would not have had enough players to play.

Trey McGowens, Armon Fletcher and Isaac Johnson were all flown in to form the three-man bench in a loss to Long Island on Thursday, one that dropped the team to 1-10 on the year.

None of the team’s opening day starters were available, as Harper, Gueye, Javon Freeman-Liberty (ankle), Markquis Nowell (rib), and Makur Maker (hand) are all inured. Darryl Morsell (ankle), Justise Winslow (ankle), and Omari Moore (hand) also remain out. The team is hoping most of those players can return Sunday, or at least next week. Otherwise, they may have to keep an emergency player or two around.

This is the second time the 905 have had to dip into emergency pool players due to injuries and illnesses. They have finished several games with only six players available. I have never seen anything like their injury luck, in eight-plus years covering the league, even including the pandemic-adjacent years.

There is a sliver of light ahead, in addition to (theoretically) better health. The G League is split into two partial seasons: A 14-game schedule that leads to two games at the G League Showcase Dec. 19-22, and a 34-game regular season that begins Dec. 27. That the standings reset, hopefully with much better health, will be a welcome line of delineation in their season.

Gradey Dick update

Dick has continued his up-and-down play with the 905, averaging 16.4 points on 31.6 per cent shooting and 30 per cent on threes in five games. He has progressively been able to contribute more to the team beyond scoring — a few assists here, a nice transition steal there, activity on the glass at both ends — but Dick’s NBA role hinges entirely on his ability to shoot, and the Raptors will need to see more shots fall before he’s reconsidered for the NBA rotation. He remains confident.

Kawhi Watch

Remember July, 2019? Me, too. I was in a Las Vegas 7-11 when the news broke, and I had to rush back to my hotel to cover it. What I’m saying is, if we want the Shohei Ohtani news to happen, Sportsnet should send me to Vegas. That makes sense, right?

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