The Toronto Raptors were faced with a nightmare situation. The promise of a 28-13 start while enduring one of the toughest early season schedules had been quashed by losing 11 of their last 16 contests. A team that prided itself on continuity and chemistry looked like they might be growing sick of each other.
Dwane Casey reportedly butted heads with Kyle Lowry during their fourth-quarter meltdown against Detroit, and DeRozan expressed his openness to seeing a new face.
“If help is an option, why not?”, he asked.
Between Valentine’s Day and the NBA trade deadline, President Masai Ujiri and GM Jeff Weltman heeded the calls of their All-Stars for some assistance with the acquisitions of Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. The former, a power forward that can play centre, protect the rim, and score both inside and out. The latter, a hard nosed, tough as nails defender that can defend both guard and forward spots.
Without a doubt, the front office has now put the onus back on the players to produce wins.
But what led the team down this road?
This was a level of adversity that the core group hadn’t faced since just before Rudy Gay was traded to Sacramento. After winning 47, 49, and 56 games over the three previous seasons, they capped off those stellar regular seasons by taking the Cleveland Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The expectations were to see if they could push them even further. Perhaps even over the edge.
Instead, they’ve not only found themselves tumbling down the standings out of home court advantage, they’ve also watched the Boston Celtics run away with an Atlantic division crown that’s been theirs for three straight seasons.
One thing that has stood out is stretches in the second half where the Raptors appear to be in control, but tend to take a laissez-faire approach towards the team’s agenda. Late in games, Dwane Casey’s execution has come under heavy scrutiny, and the consecutive possessions of leaving DeMar DeRozan on an island have taken their toll.
Delving a little deeper into this stretch of 11 losses in 16 games, it’s the second half of games that have really put the brakes on the Raptors flow:
The defence isn’t great in either half, but it’s the offence arriving at a complete halt that has resulted in some inexcusable losses. Kyle Lowry has noticed the collapses that have seen them choke up a lead in the final two minutes in six of the 10 losses, and he knows they can’t continue in the same vein. “Keep putting [ourselves] in the same situations over and over and not being successful, something’s gotta give, something’s gotta change.”
Early on, Lowry and DeRozan are quite happy to use themselves as decoys and create for their teammates. In this play, the seldom used Jonas Valanciunas gets a clean look after a flipped screen:
Even when DeRozan is blitzed towards the end of the third quarter, he trusts his teammates, and an open look for Carroll is the result:
This is the type of play they need over the course of the entire game, but towards the end of games, they have taken the hero ball route. In their most recent loss to Detroit, where they carried a 16-point lead into the fourth quarter, the Raptors attempted 19 shots in the final stanza. Lowry and DeRozan combined to shoot 3-for-12. Their teammates were 4-for-7.
The isolation plays have not been designed to abuse a mismatch, but rather to just give the ball to DeRozan regardless of the matchup and hope for the best. The play calling has resulted in a turnover rate atypical of the team’s general standard, and those turnovers have led to easier opportunities for their opponents on the other end.
The numbers below are courtesy of NBA.com/stats, and are a measure of the Raptors’ clutch rating. The clutch sample refers to the final five minutes of games that are within five points or less.
It’s clear that something must change in the way the Raptors execute with the game on the line. History suggests, though, that Casey will continue to rely on isolation plays late and hope that Lowry and DeRozan can turn things around in the clutch.
Looking at the big picture, it’s apparent once again that it’s the offence that has triggered this slide. The defence hasn’t been much worse than the mediocre level it was at when they won 28 of their first 41 games; they’re only one point per 100 possessions worse.
Some of the struggles can, and should, be attributed to the injuries to Patrick Patterson and DeMar DeRozan. They are the two most important players to the Raptors after Kyle Lowry, and both have missed at least seven games each over the course of this slump. Rhythm is easily lost over the course of an 82-game season, and for a team whose two most apparent characteristics are continuity and chemistry, injuries have presented a challenge that they have struggled to cope with.
The Raptors went 3-4 over the games DeRozan missed, and Norman Powell filled in admirably for the Compton All-Star. The UCLA grad averaged 16.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game in seven starts while shooting 49.0% from the field. Factor in that three of the DeRozan-less losses came to San Antonio, Boston, and Memphis by a combined total of nine points, and it shows that the Raptors have an able replacement to cope with the absence of DeRozan.
Patrick Patterson played in all three of those big game losses, but since Jan. 18, the Raptors have gone 2-5 without him even when DeRozan has played. Those losses have come at the hands of Philadelphia, Charlotte, Phoenix, Minnesota, and Detroit most recently. If it weren’t for their spectacular 17-point comeback courtesy of two rookies in the final game before the all-star break, they’d be 1-6.
Unlike when Powell fills in for DeRozan, there was no replacement at power forward that came anywhere near providing the stability that Patterson did.
Head coach Dwane Casey displayed his struggles in finding a solution; trying all of Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira, Norman Powell and Jared Sullinger. Nothing positive materialized.
If a player like Patterson, averaging 7.2 points and 5.5 rebounds, can make that much of a difference to this team at the four, it’s not hard to see why there’s so much anticipation over the acquisition of Serge Ibaka.
A two-time member of the All-Defensive First Team, and a former league leader in blocked shots, Ibaka represents the third banana at a position Toronto have failed to solidify since the departure of Chris Bosh. While this move certainly doesn’t push the needle past Cleveland, it takes them a step closer.
P.J. Tucker presents another inching of the needle closer to Cleveland, and also the strongest obstacle on the Raptors roster to LeBron James. Tucker won’t offer much offensively, but he was acquired strictly for defensive purposes. Outside of a legitimate volume three-point shooter, the Raptors now have a roster designed to meet any challenge.
There are 25 games left in their season, and this move gives them the stability to possibly find the momentum they had in the early season. The test to see if they can find it begins on Friday versus Boston, but so do does the test to prove that last year was no fairy tale.
- All stats obtained from NBA.com/stats