By Reuben Dongalen Jr.
The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of a mini road trip, sitting fourth in the eastern conference, 2.5 games back of their golden-standard second place.
The freefall for the Raptors in the recent months has not been a fun stretch: letting games slip through their finger tips, leading to frustration on the part of the players — who let it loose with the media prior to the all-star break.
“Something gotta change,” said Kyle Lowry, the all-star point guard, addressing the media after the Raptors lost to the Pistons back in February.
Something did change.
Masai Ujiri, president for the Toronto Raptors, answered Lowry and DeMar DeRozan’s demands to bring in help for the all-star backcourt.
Prior to the all-star break, Serge Ibaka was acquired by the Orlando Magic for Terrence Ross and the latter of their two first-round picks, who was then joined by defensive swingman, PJ Tucker, from the Phoenix Suns for Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks.
However, as the Raptors prepped to play the Boston Celtics in one of the most important games of the season — tie-breaker situation, fight for second place — Lowry was dubbed with a wrist injury, eventually having surgery and gluing him onto the bench before the playoffs.
That two-week period of the acquisitions and Lowry’s injury announcement was one that left Raptor fans perplexed.
With all of that in play, 15 games remain, and the Raptors are trying to claw their way back into the second spot to try and avoid a second-round matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So, the question is, what do the Raptors need to do to carry some momentum into early April?
Defensive Intensity From The Start
The Raptors in the last nine games — since Ibaka and Tucker’s first appearances — are 7th in the league in defensive efficiency, 15th overall for the season.
However, the consistency has not been there.
An issue that’s plagued the Raptors’ defensive play has been their inability to turn the pressure on early in the game. They’re 23rd in the league in opponent three-point percentage in the first quarter, 15th in the second quarter.
The Raptors have been lucky enough to put together miraculous runs to get back into games — a common thing dating back to the playoffs — but, in many losses, the Raptors have fought back countless times, only to come up short in the final minutes of play.
They have all the tools to be a top-10 defence, but combining constant injuries to defensive factors like Lowry, DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson, and adding in two new, key pieces, the rhythm and the communication has yet to find a meeting point.
“Defensively, I think we can really wreak havoc,” Tucker said after his first game with the Raptors. “Defence is half talking.”
But, it shouldn’t have taken a trade to address an integral part of defensive schemes.
For a franchise that prides itself for its tough, defensive culture — since Dwane Casey took the helm as the head coach — it took far too long to look like it.
Easier said than done, the Raptors’ intensity has to be there as early as the jump-ball.
They aren’t good enough to rely on turning the switch when it comes to the fourth quarter, especially when other contending teams are able to ratchet up their intensity and pressure.
It’s been one of the franchise’s biggest issues in the last three and a half seasons. The game needs to be played from minute one to 48.
Ball Movement and Bench Production
On the other side of the court, the Raptors have fooled many.
They are 4th in the league in offensive efficiency, just behind the Cavs, Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. But, the reason they’re so good – on paper – is the heavy usage of DeRozan and Lowry, who are having career years offensively. But, what’s so mind-boggling, is this top five offence is last in the league in assists.
How can such a good offensive team not be a good… Team?
Well, the Raptors are 12th in the league in three-point percentage, 10th in offensive rebounding, 5th in free-throw attempts and 4th in least turnovers per game.
The Raptors offence is a matter of fact, efficient, but one that relies heavily on ball-dominance.
In this recent stretch, however, Lowry’s presence has been sorely missed, one who impacts all four of the above statistics (the team’s best three-point shooter, one of the best rebounding guards in the league, 2nd in free-throw attempts and the club’s main ball-handler).
The offence has laboured throughout the season, especially during the fourth quarter when the game slows down. When only one all-star is on the court, teams load up defensively on the all-star that is on the floor, denying them of the ball and forcing others who aren’t as poised offensive players as Lowry or DeRozan to make decisions.
Friday’s loss against the Atlanta Hawks was an illustration of the Raptor offence when matched-up against a terrific defensive team.
Ujiri may have addressed the need for a third option in Ibaka, however, head coach Dwane Casey needs output from his bench.
It has not happened since the trade.
Patterson moving back to the pine was supposed to help that, and freeing Powell should’ve meant more production.
But, those two along with the rest of the bench has lacked consistency.
Lowry’s absence has meant that he and the four-bench-guys-lineup – one of the better lineups in the league – has to make due with Delon Wright instead, who has also struggled with consistency.
The ball needs to move, especially when the Raptors’ best three-point threat and ball-handler is not out there to initiate the offence. Instead, it has happened even less, and DeRozan’s usage has increased, with the efficiency in a massive slump (shooting an abysmal 22/58 in the last three games prior to Dallas).
Stay The Course
Consistency is the word, and while all these lineup changes and injuries have bothered any form of that, there is no excuse, considering number one, the talent, secondly, the team’s depth.
Consistency in defensive intensity and consistency in the ball movement — these are the very concerns that need to be addressed in these final 15 games before the playoffs.
The San Antonio Spurs, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have all proven that they can do these things when it matters the most.
If the Raptors want to return to the eastern conference finals, and once again be mentioned among the top contenders in the league, things have to change, and those adjustments need to stay.