The Toronto Raptors don’t have enough good players and their good players aren’t playing well enough.
There are plenty of deep dives that can be done down any number of rabbit holes to expound on that general theme, but they all mostly add up to the same collection of facts.
The latest example was the Raptors’ 112-108 loss to the visiting New York Knicks on Friday. Once more, the Raptors had to play their starters massive minutes – all of them save Scottie Barnes topped the 40-minute mark – and the advantage it was supposed to create couldn’t offset the damage done by a woefully inadequate second unit, which was a collective -31 for the game.
The Raptors are plucky, you have to give them that. Two nights after coming back from down 20 with 3:50 left to force overtime against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors nearly came back from down 15 with 3:10 left. A triple by Fred VanVleet helped start the run and a three by Gary Trent Jr. cut the Knicks’ lead to two with 42 seconds on the clock, all part of an 18-1 run that had the fans at Scotiabank Arena believing.
But Knicks guard Jalen Brunson came back for a tough three-point play to give the Knicks a five-point lead and the breathing room they needed.
It was New York’s fourth straight win and a measure of revenge as the Raptors snapped the Knicks’ eight-game winning streak in New York before Christmas. The Raptors lost their third straight, fifth in their last six starts and 10th in their last 13. They have started a crucial six-game homestand 0-2 to fall to 16-23 on the year and are in 12th place in the East, two games out of the final play-in spot and five games behind the sixth-place Knicks, who hold the last playoff spot.
There is a lot of season to play, but the hill to salvage things keeps getting steeper.
“I think we’re in a situation where there’s some urgency every night right now,” said coach Nick Nurse before the game. “The guys are trying really hard, maybe too hard, so just need to go out there and continue to play defence with some urgency and effort and connectivity and play with a little bit more pace on offence, get the ball up the floor, relax and knock ‘em down.”
Didn’t quite happen, turns out. The Raptors shot just 10-of-29 from three, which is about par for the 30th-ranked shooting team, by three-point percentage. The Knicks shot 16-of-37, which was as big a statistical difference maker in the game as any other.
The Raptors were led by Fred VanVleet, who had 28 points on 9-of-21 shooting and Trent Jr., who had 27 points on 16 shots in 42 minutes. Pascal Siakam was held to 18 points on a 4-of-14 night, not able to replicate the magic of his 52-point game against New York last time the teams met, while Barnes struggled for much of the game and finished with seven points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Julius Randle led the Knicks with 32 while Brunson, the Knicks point guard. had 26 points and eight assists in an entertaining battle with VanVleet.
The Raptors didn’t have to worry about a replay of their first quarter against the Bucks where they shot just 2-of-23 and missed their first 15 to start the game.
O.G. Anunoby hit a jumper and VanVleet hit a step-back three to get them on the board quickly Friday. But having seen Siakam go off at Madison Square Garden, Randle seemed determined to return the favour. The big-bodied wing hit five threes before the games was six minutes old and was 6-of-8 from the floor in the first quarter.
The Knicks were up eight at one point before a pair of steals in the final 40 seconds – one by Trent Jr. that he converted to a fastbreak dunk and another by Barnes on Randle that stifled New York’s final possession and allowed Toronto to go into the second quarter trailing 30-26.
Toronto’s problems began in the second quarter and the issue was the same as ever: the bench is where Raptors games go to die. The Knicks started the second quarter on an 11-2 run to push their lead to 13, forcing the Raptors to call a quick timeout. Toronto was able to hold serve from there and trailed 10 at half. The same thing happened to start the fourth quarter, with mix of starters and bench players surrendering an 8-0 run in the space of a few minutes, expanding what had been a three-point Knicks lead to start the fourth quarter to 11.
“The start of the second and the fourth were very tough, early timeouts, two minutes both times and I don’t know exactly what the runs were – one was 8-0 and I don’t know what the second one was, probably worse than that – like 11-2 or something,” said Nurse. “Those parts of the game weren’t good, those six minutes, seven minutes right there.”
For the second straight season, Nurse is leaning heavily on his starters with Siakam, VanVleet and Anunoby ranking first, second and third in the NBA in minutes, respectively. That Trent Jr. and Barnes aren’t higher close behind is only because Trent Jr.’s playing time dipped when he went to the bench briefly and Barnes’ performance hasn’t always warranted him going over the 40-minute mark all that often.
Nurse using – maybe overusing – his starters was one reason the Raptors were able to shake off a slow start a year ago and work their way up the standings in the second half of the season. The Raptors are in the same situation this season except worse, at six games under .500 before hosting the Knicks. They were two games over .500 after 38 games at this point last year.
Coming into the season the stated objective was to manage the starters’ minutes better, but the weakness of the Raptors bench has made it difficult.
It’s an awkward situation for all concerned – the players themselves, the coaching staff, all the way up to management, whichassembled a team that seems a day late and a dollar short.
“Yeah, I just keep trying to encourage them and boost them with confidence,” said VanVleet of the bench unit. “It’s a tough spot. They’ve got a tough job to do with a little leash and coach is tough. He’s tough as he should be. The odds are against ‘em in that regard and if you don’t play well, as soon as you check in then you know it’s gonna be cut short. So they’re definitely up against a tough challenge, but I believe in all of those guys, I think that they can definitely find ways to be more successful in what we do. But first and foremost, I think [it’s] just a sense of urgency and being locked into what we are doing defensively.”
In the last three games before the Knicks arrived the Raptors’ starters were +42 while any lineup that featured one or more player from the bench is -44. The bench was outscored 54-7 by the Indiana Pacers on Monday and 34-7 by the Bucks and couldn’t hold the fort again against the Knicks.
One bright spot was VanVleet, who has struggled most of the season by his standards and has often been the point man for the Raptors woes due to his career-low shooting marks, showed signs of finding his game. He played all 12 minutes in the third and led both teams in scoring with 12, giving him 23 by that point in the game.
But it was his effort that was even more compelling: switching on the Randle at times and giving the Knicks star fits; going head-to-head with Brunson, the like-sized New York guard who may well take the All-Star spot that VanVleet earned last year, and coming out ahead in the match-up. In the final seconds of the third, VanVleet banked in a three at the end of the shot-clock when no one else wanted to shoot, came back under his own basket and blocked Knicks centre Mitchell Robinson, grabbed the rebound and got knocked to the floor on the ensuing break, drawing a foul.
VanVleet was all in.
But playing him or the rest of the starters in perpetuity isn’t an option. Sure enough, when Nurse went to his bench in start the fourth quarter, the “floodgates opened” — to borrow Nurse’s description of what happened when he went to his bench against the Pacers on Monday.
Now, the starters were far from perfect. Barnes didn’t score his first field goal of the game until nearly three minutes were gone in the fourth quarter — the second straight game he failed to make a field goal (on a total of six attempts, or one per quarter) in the first three quarters of the game, a new low of passivity. Siakam couldn’t find his game against a more varied range of Knicks defensive approaches and Anunoby (13 points) didn’t step up into the gap.
It’s a tough formula to win with: starters struggling to break even while being taxed with huge minute loads and a bench that can’t bail them out and generally leaves them further under water. But that’s where the Raptors find themselves.