As the Toronto Raptors try to turn their season into a place of calm and consistency, where the unconscious mind can take over — basketball as a Zen Garden, basically — they keep getting rudely interrupted by the record scratch of reality.
The NBA doesn’t work that way — calmly, that is. While Toronto has been spared the roster and schedule tumult that some teams have had to deal with due to the pandemic, the Raptors have had to adjust to a last-minute relocation to Tampa, an early-season skid down the Eastern Conference standings and more lately a steady drumbeat of minor physical tweaks and nicks and knocks that has disturbed their line up just enough.
It adds up, with the result being missed rotations, missed assignments, missed opportunities and missed shots.
There was plenty of all of those in Toronto’s 126-124 loss to the visiting Sacramento Kings at Amalie Arena in Tampa, their third straight defeat, dropping them to 7-12 on the season, most of them in the first three quarters, when the Raptors didn’t compete as much as they participated, and the Kings had their way offensively.
“I just think we weren’t real connected on defence again, there were a lot of those gaping mistakes,” summarized Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, who has watched his club give up an average of 122.3 points in three straight losses.
“I think they were taking it right to the front of the rim on us, we weren’t doing a good job of controlling the ball… there wasn’t the early help, late help was little late as well. And then we would happen to get them to miss one, they’d crash the glass on us and get another crack at it there for a while.
“I just think… we just weren’t very good defensively is the main thing.”
But the fourth quarter — finally — was different. For the last 12 minutes of the game, the Raptors played the way we’ve become accustomed to over recent years. They swarmed on defence, hustled for every loose ball on offence and clawed their way out of a 13-point hole with 7:09 to play, holding the Kings to 22 points for the period.
And it was who was doing all the little things that was worth noting, as the Raptors — missing a starter and their leading scorer off the bench — got crucial contributions from the likes of Yuta Watanabe, Stanley Johnson and DeAndre’ Bembry, none of whom figured to play important roles in Nurse’s rotation when training camp ended just six weeks ago.
The Raptors still lost though. When you give up 104 points through three quarters as the Raptors did to the Kings, chances are your comeback might fall short.
“They shot 55 per cent from the field throughout the game,” said Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, who finished with 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting to go with four turnovers and was ejected after picking up his second technical foul with four seconds left. “They kind of got a lot of easy things. I think they got to their spots a lot easier than we would have liked them to. But, you know, there was a lot of things that we didn’t do good defensively tonight.”
Lowry’s ejection was a strange one as official Natalie Sago ran him while he appeared to be in a conversation with Fred VanVleet, with Kings guard De’Aaron Fox shooting free throws and Sacramento leading by three.
The call likely didn’t impact the game — Fox still had another free throw left, which he made, albeit after Buddy Heild put the Kings up four when he made the free throw awarded for the technical. Fred VanVleet did hit a three at the buzzer, but the Kings were up five.
Still, it was strange to see a six-time all-star ejected in those circumstances.
“She said that he [Lowry] said something that she couldn’t let go by,” said Nurse. “She wouldn’t tell me what that was.”
Lowry — while acknowledging he does “do a lot of complaining” about refereeing — claimed innocence in this instance: “I definitely didn’t think it was warranted,” he said. “I didn’t do anything. And I wasn’t looking towards the official or anything. Literally. Was she the only person that heard it? I mean, I didn’t do anything personally, you know, but it is what it is now and yeah… but you know I think I’m getting short end of the stick on that one.”
The bright spot on the evening was the Raptors bench didn’t let them down — quite the opposite. In particular, Watanabe — the third-year pro from Japan who is on a two-way contract — was dervish, flying his skinny six-foot-nine frame everywhere and coming up with loose balls, offensive rebounds and deflections. A swooping left-handed lay-up over the Kings’ Hassan Whiteside gave him a career-high 12 points and pulled Toronto to within a point with 68 seconds to play.
“He played great,” said Nurse. “He played about as good as he could, I think he was really battling on D, he was really battling on the glass, made a couple of kick out shots, made a tough shot-clock-winding-down drive to the basket which was good to see. He was really, really good.”
Not quite good enough as the Kings were able to hang on thanks to a triple by rookie Tyrese Haliburton and their ability to make free throws down the stretch as the Raptors kept fouling to extend the game.
The Raptors will be hoping to build on a strong outing by Pascal Siakam, who led all scorers with 32, added 10 rebounds and got to the free-throw line 14 times as he made a priority of getting to the paint, attempting just one three-pointer on the night. Siakam had 29 through three quarters but the Raptors defence was too porous for it to matter as they were still trailing 104-91 to start the fourth.
And yes, the Raptors were short-handed once again. With OG Anunoby out for the second-straight game with a calf strain and Norm Powell a late scratch with a bruised thigh he picked up against Milwaukee on Wednesday night, Nurse had to field a different starting lineup for the sixth straight game, with Terence Davis (12 points in 18 minutes) taking Anunoby’s spot among the starters and bench minutes being spread out accordingly.
Davis was fine, but Nurse had to be pleased that Watanabe, Bembry and Johnson combined to go 8-of-13 for 22 points in addition to some hard defence and smart playmaking, which is why he gave them all extensive minutes in the fourth quarter.
“We were searching for a lot of things — man, zone, box — and then we finally kinda got five guys out there that could do a little better job of switching and guarding and keep the ball in front and started jarring the ball away and kinda stop after stop after stop,” said Nurse.
He needed some kind of solution to make up for his club trailing 36-24 after the first quarter and 68-58 at half only to give up another 36 points in the third quarter to the Kings, who improved to 8-10. The Kings finished with six players in double figures and three starters with at least 22 points. Whiteside came off the bench to expose the Raptors’ lack of size as he bullied his way to 16 points and nine rebounds in just 19:33 of floor time.
In the end, the hole proved too deep and the reasons frustratingly familiar. If Nurse was looking for a game where the Raptors minimized the number of ‘head-scratching’ defensive breakdowns, this wasn’t it.