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‘Something seems off’: Raptors season reaches a new low point

Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – In a free-falling season filled with low points, the Raptors may have hit rock bottom.

Fresh off another setback – an embarrassing loss to the undermanned Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday – the NBA schedule makers were kind enough to cut them some slack.

Thursday’s opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, played on the road in altitude the night before, falling to the Denver Nuggets in a game that went down to the wire. Missing their star big men, the injured Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, and with less than 22 hours between contests, the Wolves didn’t get back home until 4 a.m. on game day, while a healthy and rested Toronto club awaited their arrival. Even for a team that swats opportunities away 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 remaining. 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 banged up outscored them 18-4 and stole the win.

What’s worse is that, when it was all said and done, nobody seemed especially 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 to them afterwards.

They spoke of open looks that didn’t fall or calls that didn’t go their way, as if this was a game that merely slipped out of their hands. They still had their chances to pull it out in the end – a couple of O.G. Anunoby jumpers that rimmed out inside of the final minute, a dubious foul on Fred VanVleet that sent D’Angelo Russell to the line for the game winning free throws. But what’s 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’re almost desensitized to them.

“There was a lot of good stuff defensively,” Nurse said after his team gave up 128 points and allowed Minnesota to shoot 51 per cent from the field and hit 17 of its 40 three-point attempts. “We had a ton of deflections again, not a ton of recoveries, but getting our hands on a lot of things… [There were a] couple of miscommunications on some slip screens down the lane. But then again, [we fixed] that as the last two minutes unfolded and then they scored the winning buckets on a 30-foot rip through foul, [which] is a pretty tough way for that game to be decided.”

“They definitely picked up the physicality late and we didn’t get the benefit of the whistle,” said VanVleet. “But you should be able to rely on your defence to keep you in it. And if we’re gonna score 17 [fourth-quarter points] we probably need to hold them to 16. It just didn’t go that way tonight. So, that’s a tough one, for sure.”

It’s a difficult situation to navigate. How do you grapple with the reality that your team isn’t who you had hoped it would be? You can yell and scream, as Nurse has tried on a few occasions this season. You can hold players-only meetings, and they’ve tried that as well. But you can only go to that well so many times. Those things run their course. What you’re left with is acceptance. After 46 games, you are who you are, and the Raptors are looking and acting like a 20-26 team.

“Something just seems off about them,” an opposing player, who faced Toronto recently, told TSN.

Two other players on different teams expressed a similar sentiment. But what is it? One of those players brought up the word “connectivity” and suggested this Raptors team doesn’t inspire the same level of fear in an opponent that previous iterations would.

For years, that was their reputation. They were affectionately regarded as one of the league’s most annoying clubs 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’s 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 faced the Hornets and their 29th-ranked offence twice, the struggling Hawks (ranked 21st offensively), the Bucks (24th) without Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton, and the Wolves (15th) minus Towns and Gobert.

On the season, the Raptors rank 19th in defensive efficiency. They were 27th during a one-month period from late November to late December, when they went 4-11, and then looked like they were turning a corner to begin the New Year (they ranked fifth in the first five games of January). But, lately, they’re not stopping anybody, anywhere. It’s been the story of their season so far: one step forward and a couple steps back.

Some of their defensive shortcomings fall on the front office and its flawed roster construction. That the team hasn’t provided much resistance around the bucket isn’t surprising considering it doesn’t employ a reliable rim protector. That their transition defence has struggled is, in part, a reflection of the offensive issues and lack of shooting on the floor.

However, none of that explains why a team loaded with long and versatile individual defenders is having trouble keeping players in front of them on the perimeter. It doesn’t explain why a team that ranked second in defence over the final couple months of last season can no longer defend at a high level or on a consistent basis, despite having virtually the same roster. That falls on the players and their coaches.

At one point you could have cited injuries. The Raptors used a league-most 18 different starting lineups through the first 35 games, with each of their rotation players missing time. But with the exception of off-season signee Otto Porter Jr., who would’ve helped but played in just eight games before undergoing season-ending surgery earlier this month, they’ve been fully healthy for weeks.

“We’ve got a bunch of accountability factors that we look at and take into consideration but even some of those you can score very high on, I think, and not have the greatest energy in the world,” Nurse said last weekend. “I think the energy-vibe is certainly off, no doubt about it.”

“From my standpoint they continue to get here, work really hard both individually and as a team, and are focused and all that kind of stuff. But there’s just been a few too many nights where there doesn’t seem to be a collective energy when we hit the floor.”

Maybe it does come down to connectivity or chemistry, intangible qualities that the Raptors don’t seem to have much of these days. Some have speculated that might be the result of some locker room discord. In other words, maybe Player A doesn’t like Player B and that’s affecting the team’s play? Not likely. Firstly, there’s no indication of that being the case. But most importantly, it shouldn’t matter even if it were.

Off-court camaraderie doesn’t always translate to on-court chemistry. More often than not they’re completely unrelated, as strange as that may seem. Historically, there have been plenty of great teams that didn’t get along. There were even key guys on the Raptors’ 2019 championship team that hated each other. That worked out just fine. It usually does when talent and cohesion come together.

Connectivity is crucial, especially in Nurse’s defensive system. It’s hard to quantify, which might be why so many qualified individuals are having trouble putting their finger on what’s wrong with this team, and how to fix them. It’s one of the many things that make this season so frustrating for everybody involved. It could also explain the collective apathy after another bad loss.

This version of the Raptors might just be beyond fixing. If they’re not, they’re running out of time to prove it.