TORONTO – In a freefall season filled with low points, the Raptors may have hit rock bottom.
Fresh off another setback, an embarrassing loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, the NBA schedulers were kind enough to give them some slack.
Thursday’s opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, played a high-altitude road game last night, falling to the Denver Nuggets in a game that went downhill. Missing their star big men, the injured Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, and with less than 22 hours between games, the Wolves didn’t return home until 4 a.m. on game day as a healthy and well-rested Toronto club awaited their arrival. . Even for a team that chases away opportunities like flies, this one was too good to pass up.
They seemed poised to take advantage of it, leading for 36 straight minutes and by as many as 18 points. The Raptors were up by 12 points with eight minutes to go. From there, they missed 13 of their 15 shots and turned the ball over three times as the team that was supposed to be tired and battered outscored them 18-4 and stole the win.
The worst thing is that, after all, no one seemed particularly surprised or distressed by the result. Defeated, sure, maybe even a little dejected. But there was a ‘ho-hum, here we go again’ level of nonchalance afterwards.
They talked about open looks that didn’t fall or calls that didn’t go their way, as if this was a game that just got out of hand. They still had their chances to make it late on: a pair of OG Anunoby jumpers that went wide inside the final minute, a dubious foul on Fred VanVleet that sent D’Angelo Russell to the line to win free throws. But what gets lost in that narrative is that they shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with. Unfortunately, nights like this have become so common that they almost become numb to them.
“There was a lot of good stuff defensively,” Nurse said after his team allowed 128 points and allowed Minnesota to shoot 51 percent from the field and hit 17 of 40 3-point attempts. “We had a lot of drifts again, not a lot of recoveries, but getting our hands on a lot of things… [There were a] a couple of communication errors on some lane slip screens. But then again, [we fixed] that as the final two minutes unfolded and then they scored the game-winning baskets on a 30-foot foul, [which] It’s a pretty hard way to decide that game.”
“They definitely got the physicality late and we didn’t get the benefit of the whistle,” VanVleet said. “But you should be able to rely on your defense to stay in it. And if we’re going to score 17 [fourth-quarter points] We probably need to keep them at 16. It just wasn’t the case tonight. So, that’s hard, for sure.”
It is a difficult situation to navigate. How do you deal with the reality that your team is not who you expected it to be? You can scream and scream, as Nurse has tried on a few occasions this season. You can hold gamer-only meetups, and they’ve tried that too. But you can only go to that well so many times. Those things run their course. What you are left with is acceptance. After 46 games, you are who you are, and the Raptors look and act like a 20-26 team.
“Something seems wrong with them,” an opposing player, who faced Toronto recently, told TSN.
Two other players from different teams expressed a similar sentiment. But what is this? One of those players mentioned the word “connectivity” and suggested that this Raptors team doesn’t inspire the same level of fear in an opponent as previous iterations.
For years, that was his reputation. They were affectionately regarded as one of the most annoying clubs in the league to play against. Teams would see Toronto on the schedule and know they had their work cut out for them. Now, it’s hard to imagine that being the case.
Over the past six games, they’re allowing 121.6 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 27th in the NBA. During that stretch, they twice faced the Hornets and their 29th-ranked offense, the struggling Hawks (21st on offense), the Bucks (24th) without Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, and Wolves (15) without Towns and Gobert.
On the season, the Raptors are ranked 19th in defensive efficiency. They were 27 over a month-long period from late November to late December, when they went 4-11, and then it looked like they were turning the corner to kick off the New Year (they ranked fifth in the first five games of January ). But lately, they’re not arresting anyone, anywhere. It’s been the story of his season so far: one step forward and a couple of steps back.
Some of their defensive shortcomings lie with the front office and their flawed roster construction. That the team hasn’t provided much drag around the hub isn’t surprising when you consider that it doesn’t employ a reliable rim protector. That their transition defense has struggled is, in part, a reflection of the offensive woes and lack of shooting on the floor.
None of that, however, explains why a team loaded with long, versatile individual defenders has trouble keeping players in front of them on the perimeter. It doesn’t explain why a team that ranked second in defense for the final two months of last season can no longer defend at a high level or consistently, despite having pretty much the same roster. That falls to the players and their coaches.
At one point you could have cited injuries. The Raptors used a league-high 18 different starting lineups in the first 35 games, with each of their rotation players losing time. But with the exception of offseason signing Otto Porter Jr., who would have helped but played in just eight games before undergoing season-ending surgery earlier this month, they’ve been completely healthy for weeks.
“We have a lot of liability factors that we look at and take into consideration, but I think even on some of them you can score very high and not have the most energy in the world,” Nurse said last weekend. “I think the energy environment is certainly off, there’s no question about it.”
“From my point of view, they continue to come here, they work very hard both individually and as a team, and they are focused and all that kind of stuff. But there have been too many nights where there doesn’t seem to be a collective energy when we hit the court.”
Maybe it’s because of connectivity or chemistry, intangible qualities the Raptors don’t seem to have much of these days. Some have speculated that it could be the result of some discord in the locker room. In other words, maybe player A doesn’t like player B and that is affecting the team’s play? Not likely. First of all, there is no indication that this is the case. But most importantly, it shouldn’t matter even if it was.
The camaraderie off the court doesn’t always translate into chemistry on the court. Most of the time they are completely unrelated, oddly enough. Historically, there have been many great teams that didn’t get along. There were even key players on the 2019 Raptors champion team who hated each other. That worked very well. It usually happens when talent and cohesion come together.
Connectivity is crucial, especially in Nurse’s defensive system. It’s hard to quantify, which could be why so many qualified people have trouble pinpointing what’s wrong with this piece of equipment and how to fix it. It’s one of the many things that makes this season so frustrating for everyone involved. It could also explain the collective apathy after another bad defeat.
This version of the Raptors might not have a solution. If they’re not, they’re running out of time to prove it.
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