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Lewenberg: Raptors lose Valanciunas in second straight defeat

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Josh Lewenberg
3/19/2014 9:54:11 AM
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ATLANTA - With an ice pack wrapped around his injured lower back, a frustrated Jonas Valanciunas spoke to the media having just watched his team's second straight loss from the visitor's locker room, unable to influence the final result.

After missing 20 games as a rookie a year ago, Valanciunas - like the Raptors as a whole - has been fortunate to be in good health this season.

As he spoke about it, the Raptors' sophomore centre scanned the room for wood to knock on.

"It is disappointing because we lost today so that's the worst part of the day," said Valanciunas, who left Tuesday's game with a lower-back sprain in the third quarter, missing the rest of Toronto's 118-113 overtime defeat at the hands of the Hawks. "Everyone wants to win and do something to help us win but I couldn't do anything sitting back here."

With Valanciunas unavailable and Patrick Patterson missing his sixth straight game with an elbow injury, the Raptors found themselves as far outside their comfort zone as they've been in months.

Dwane Casey was forced to mix and match several different combinations of Amir Johnson, Chuck Hayes, Steve Novak and Tyler Hansbrough in the frontcourt while cycling through various unorthodox lineups to spark an underperforming second unit.

All the while, Atlanta - winners of five straight after losing 14 of 15 - did them no favours. Following Sunday's loss to the Suns, Casey was confident his team would not have to face the level of speed and quickness they saw that afternoon. Two days later, Jeff Teague had something to say about that.

"He lived in the paint tonight," Kyle Lowry said of Teague, who matched his career-high with 34 points, hitting 11 of his 18 shots, all but six of them taken in the paint. "He got layups and free throws. You have a quick guy like that it's hard for the bigs to try and help me and it's hard for me to try to figure out where he's going. We tried to change our coverage a little and it worked but he lived in the paint too much tonight."

"It's my fault," Lowry said, taking responsibility for his counterpart. But it wasn't, not entirely.

"It's a speed league," he acknowledged. It's not the Raptors' strength but there's too many up-tempo teams, too many quick players to allow it to be such a glaring weakness.

Like Phoenix on the weekend, the Hawks burnt Toronto with speed, playing at a pace that the Raptors could not catch up with, especially with two key defensive players out of the lineup. Toronto tried blitzing Teague, they tried trapping him and switching and pick and rolls.

More often than not the Hawks' point guard blew by the coverage. He ran an effective two-man game with all-star Paul Millsap - who recorded his first career triple-double - and found open shooters. The Hawks hit 11 three-pointers, their seventh straight game with 10 or more.

"We were trying to take away their threes," said DeMar DeRozan, who had 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds and six assists. "We did a good job to start out the game but we got out of place, missed some rotations and they started knocking down threes. They got confident with it and they kept knocking them down."

"They make you change your coverages a little bit with the way they space the floor," added Lowry after a 20-point, nine-assist night. "But we had a decent chance to win that game."

Late-game execution failed the Raptors - now 1-5 in overtime this season - once again. They turned the ball over eight times in the fourth quarter and overtime, also committing 16 fouls and giving up seven offensive rebounds.
 
"I just thought we were casual with the basketball," said Casey, his team dropping back-to-back games for the first time since the West Coast trip in early February. "[We] had a lot of opportunities to attack and were casual and soft with our passes and they took advantage of it."

The Raptors got off to a strong start, holding Atlanta to 17 points on 25 per cent shooting, including 2-for-9 from long distance in the first quarter.

The momentum turned immediately as the second quarter began and the Raptors depleted bench came into the game. Without Patterson, Toronto's second unit - outscored 59-11 on Sunday and 20-11 in the first half Tuesday - lacks spacing and movement on the offensive end and foot speed defensively.

Then, late in the third quarter, the Raptors lost Valanciunas. The seven-footer felt his back tighten up as he turned to set a screen.

"I stopped and hyperextended my back," he said. "I can't tell much about it. I just felt pain and that was it."

Valanciunas, who hasn't dealt with back issues in the past, wanted to continue playing but the team's medical staff pulled him prior to the fourth quarter.

For the third straight game the sophomore centre got off to a hot start, scoring 11 points and grabbing four boards in the opening frame.

"I thought he had something good going, a match inside," Casey said. "He was attacking the rim, attacking the basket, he was giving us some rim protection and rebounding."

Valanciunas will be re-evaluated in New Orleans ahead of Wednesday's game against the Pelicans.

Antic defends Valanciunas (Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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