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Sense of urgency kicking in ahead of make-or-break stretch for Raptors

Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam - The Canadian Press
TORONTO – With 2022 in the rear-view mirror and the halfway point of the NBA campaign a week away, the Raptors are starting to feel a sense of urgency.
Their season is not lost yet, and neither is the hope that they can turn it around, but the clock is ticking and it’s time to put up or shut up.
“It feels like we’re at that time where we want to turn the page,” said Pascal Siakam, whose team fell to 16-21 following Monday’s loss in Indiana and has now dropped 12 of its last 17 games. “This is an important stretch.”
The Raptors were in a similar position a year ago. They would win a couple games here and lose three or four there. They would show flashes but consistency was hard to come by. They lacked depth, their young players were experiencing some early growing pains, and they didn’t have an established identity to fall back on.
That began to change in early January. With a six-game winning streak to open the New Year, Toronto was starting to figure things out. Guys like Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa emerged, the bench got a little deeper, and they became one of the league’s hardest playing and best defensive teams. After a 14-17 start, they went 34-17 and finished the 2021-22 season fifth in the East.
They’ve done it before and, if nothing else, that should be a source of optimism that they can do it again. However, if they’re going to go on a season-saving run, it needs to happen soon. This could be a make-or-break stretch for this iteration of the Raptors.
As the club wrapped up its Tuesday afternoon practice session, team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster looked on from the middle of the gym. With the Feb. 9 trade deadline five weeks away, they’re watching closely. Getting a read on this team and what it’s capable of hasn’t been easy, given all the injuries and inconsistency, but they’ve got 19 more games to evaluate before making a decision – or series of decisions – that could alter the trajectory of the franchise for years to come.
The injury excuse isn’t likely to carry much weight going forward, if it ever really did. It’s true, they’ve been one of the league’s most banged-up teams this season. They’ve used 18 different starting lineups, the second-most in the NBA, and Monday was just the sixth time in 37 games that they had all of their top-six players available. Off-season addition Otto Porter Jr. remains out indefinitely with a dislocated toe he sustained a couple months ago, but with Fred VanVleet and Precious Achiuwa returning to the lineup in Indiana, this is as healthy as the team has been since October.
It’s also true that the schedule has done them no favours; it’s been the third-most difficult in the NBA to this point, according to They’ve played 25 games against teams with a .500 or better record – only Utah has played more – and are 9-16 in those contests.
However, their next six games will come at home, where they’re 11-8. There are some tough opponents in that slate – including Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who come to town on the second leg of a back-to-back Wednesday – but this stretch seems manageable. The question is whether or not they can take advantage.
It’s hard to gauge which direction they’re heading in. There are some encouraging signs, to be sure. Siakam continues to put together one of the very best single-season performances in franchise history. After a slow start to his sophomore campaign, Scottie Barnes has come on recently; Monday’s game was one of his best all-around outings. Gary Trent Jr. is red hot, having scored 20 or more points in each of the last four contests while hitting 50 per cent of his three-point attempts over that stretch. And while it’ll take some time for Achiuwa to get his rhythm and conditioning back after missing nearly two months with an ankle injury, getting one of their most versatile defenders back should help.
On the more concerning side of the coin, VanVleet has been dealing with a lingering back ailment and struggled to shoot the ball in his return against the Pacers. Meanwhile, Indiana’s bench outscored Toronto’s 54-7, as Nick Nurse continues to lean heavily on his starters. The Raptors have fallen to 29th in three-point shooting and, of greatest concern, are the league’s fifth-worst defensive team over the past 10 games.
“I think it’s very frustrating to know you’re capable of doing something but you’re underachieving in that particular area,” Achiuwa said. “We know as a unit what we can do defensively and it’s us not being able to live up to that potential that’s frustrating.”
“It’s easier said than done to be positive when you’re losing, especially if you care about the game the way that I do,” said Siakam. “I come in, I take it really seriously and I work very hard and I put everything into this; this is what I do every single day. And I want to win, I want a reward from it and when you don’t get it it’s hard to be positive. But that’s what we have to do. We have to stay together.”
This is the deepest the Raptors have gone into a season without a three-game winning streak since the 2011-12 campaign. Their three most recent wins – at New York, at Cleveland and versus Phoenix – have all been impressive, but there were a couple of bad losses sandwiched in between.
That second one, last Thursday’s loss to Memphis, felt like a pivotal moment. It still does. Whether that night will be a turning point in their season or a breaking point remains to be seen. 
Since then, Nurse’s approach has been anything but subtle. His public, post-game criticism of his team – calling their effort “unacceptable” – was as pointed as he’s been during this recent skid, and maybe over the course of his five-year tenure as head coach. Over the weekend, Nurse held individual meetings with many of his players and coaches, conversations that were described as “intense” and weren’t universally well received.
Nurse still has their attention, which was clear in Friday’s bounce-back win over the Suns when they responded by forcing a season-high 27 turnovers. Even Monday’s loss to the Pacers wasn’t for a lack of effort, but more so a lack of depth, shot-making and end-of-quarter execution.
To a man, Toronto’s players all insist that they haven’t lost hope. But even the most convincing claims among them seem tenuous. This is a team that’s teetering on the edge. Their season is slipping away. Now is the time to save it.
“Every stretch right now for us is important,” said Achiuwa. “I feel like we’ve got our backs against the wall.”
“I don’t care if it’s home or away, we’ve just gotta come in and get some games together where we play well, we play to our identity and we do the things we know we can do well at a high level and have great energy,” Siakam said. “Sometimes basketball is a little bit of luck, too, but that luck comes with being together and being a unit and having great energy. I do believe in that, for sure.”