BROOKLYN — Patience has always been a trademark for the Toronto Raptors under the management of Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster. Apart from their championship season, they’ve always taken the long view, believing that time is their friend.
But you’d have to think their patience is being tested by this current group, which has been assembled with high hopes for a bright future — but is now testing even the most ardent believers in the present.
For the second game in a row, the Raptors — healthy and rested — got their butts kicked by a quality opponent and were largely out of the game against the Brooklyn Nets by halftime, if not earlier.
The 114-105 final score flattered them. The Raptors were better after they fell behind by (checks notes) 36 points midway through the second quarter, but they were better after they fell behind by 31 in the third quarter in their blowout loss to New Orleans on Wednesday, too.
It’s commendable that the Raptors don’t give up on themselves, but the first quarters of games do actually count. The Raptors came into the game with the 23rd worst net rating in the first quarter this season and it will be worse after Friday night.
“… You spot a team like that 41 [in the first quarter], good luck. Your offence better be clicking if you are going to give up what we gave up,” said Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet. “Our offence is not at that level right now to be in a shootout with them. We fought and there’s no quit in this team. We can build on that. We got a game tomorrow to shake it off and start another trend of moving upwards. But we suck right now.”
If anything, the Raptors’ quasi comeback — they got the Nets’ lead down to seven with 37 seconds remaining after trailing by 21 start the fourth and 14 with four minutes to play -– could cause an issue for Toronto as they fly home to host the Orlando Magic on the second night of a back-to-back, though Orlando played (and lost) Friday night too.
Still, VanVleet played 41 minutes in putting up 10 points, and five assists on 4-of-14 shooting. O.G. Anunoby played 38 minutes and finished with 21 points. Scottie Barnes played 37 minutes and had 17 points and nine rebounds. The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam who had 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists. The Nets got 27 from Kyrie Irving and all five starters were in double figures.
The Raptors dropped to 11-11 on the season and 0-3 against Brooklyn as the Nets won their fourth straight and improved to 13-11 and 11-6 since they fired coach Steve Nash a month ago. The Nets shot 53.7 per cent from the floor and 11-of-32 from deep to 43.7 and 7-of-24 for Toronto.
But the frantic finish shouldn’t overshadow the spineless start. You thought things looked bad when the Raptors gave up 40 points in the first quarter against the Pelicans and trailed by 27 at halftime? The Raptors responded by giving up 41 in the first quarter (and scoring just 17 of their own) and trailing by 23 at the half, 72-49?
On Wednesday, it was the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson who almost single-handedly over-powered the Raptors. On Friday night at Barclays Center, it was death by committee.
Once again, the Raptors did a reasonable job on Kevin Durant, who came into the game averaging 30.4 points a game on 55 per cent shooting. Durant finished with 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. But they forgot about everyone else. Irving — who torched Toronto for 26 points in the second half in the Nets’ win at Scotiabank Arena on Nov. 23 — toyed with the Raptors defence in the first half in Brooklyn, dancing his way to 17 first-half points with Toronto’s defence helpless to contain him. But selling out on Durant and being mesmerized by Irving allowed the rest of the Nets to float around unchallenged.
Joe Harris, finding his form after struggling following ankle surgery, hit four triples, each more wide open than the last. Nic Claxton was open for dunks, his shot of choice. TJ Warren, playing his first game in two years, knocked down some practice jumpers.
Meanwhile, the Raptors were completely out of sorts. On a pair of possessions in the second quarter, Gary Trent Jr. an O.G. Anunoby collided competing for the safe defensive rebound with the ball rolling out of bounds and back to the Nets. A few possessions later, rookie Christian Kolok, who got the start in place of Thad Young, and Juancho Hernangomez got tripped up trying to gather a lob at the rim, causing another turnover.
What to fix? How? Where to start?
“There is a list of things, “said VanVleet, who acknowledged his own shooting has been a problem. He was 1-of-7 from three against Brooklyn, was 0-of-7 against New Orleans and is shooting 22 per cent from deep over his last six games.
“I think we got to learn how to be a team. We have to learn to play together a little bit more. Be professional, be a little bit more ready to go. You can find excuses in this league every night. There are a million of them, or you can show up and play the game the way it is supposed to be played.”
The hope was that Barnes would bounce back after a rough outing against the Pelicans in what was his worst game as a pro. Instead, he continued to look lost in the early going.
Barnes got stripped at half court and took a flagrant foul in frustration at the other end. On one Nets fastbreak, he was so slow getting back that Chris Boucher had to wave at him to get back over half after the lanky Montrealer saved the day with a blocked shot. Then Barnes could only watch as Durant hit a three over him when the Raptors wing was too slow to get out and contest.
It’s the kind of little things that the Raptors have been concerned about. When Barnes wasriding a wave of success as a rookie, everything was easy, new and fun. The second time around, it’s not the case.
“That’s what I said to you guys in the pre-season,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said before the game. “That was his challenge. It is for all of us to be honest when you’re going through the grind of it. Your first time around everything is new and different in every game and every opponent and all that stuff, but now it becomes more job-like. You got to learn how to grow with that professionally. “
The second quarter was better for the Raptors and for Barnes but how could it not be? After falling behind 67-31 midway through the period, the Raptors finally began to string some stops together and closed the half on 18-5 run.
The momentum carried over in the early part of the third quarter. The Raptors’ most encouraging sequence was when they came out with a 13-5 run, cutting the Nets’ lead to 15 — a 21-point turnaround from midway through the second quarter.
But by then, the debts they piled up early came due. Both Siakam and VanVleet picked up their fifth fouls. The energy required to sustain such a massive comeback began to ebb and the Nets were able to steady the ship. After a couple of Durant jumpers, an open triple by Royce O’Neal, and a blow-by lay-up by Edmond Sumner, the Nets took a 21-point lead into the fourth.
The Raptors made it interesting down the stretch — and give them credit for that. But being down 36 midway through the second quarter of an NBA is an invitation to lose.
The bigger question remains: How patient can the Raptors afford to be with this group?
Teams have bad stretches and even good ones, at their worst, look untenable at times. Ujiri and Webster typically think in horizons beyond the current season — it is why they’ve been so successful, and a couple of discouraging road losses against good teams is not the reason to bail on a plan.
But if the losses pile up and a group that has been the source of so much optimism can’t find its feet, it might be time to think about some Plan Bs.