| February 25, 2022, 9:45 PM
February 25, 2022, 9:45 PM
Whenever the Toronto Raptors simply don’t show up, the temptation is to cut them some slack.
They don’t get blown out very often and even less often without a compelling reason – some combination of schedule, injuries and opponent having come into play. Competing night in and night out has been a trademark of the club since early in the Dwane Casey era and if anything has been turned up a notch in Nick Nurse’s four seasons as head coach.
When things get tough, the Raptors get rolling, as often as not. You can look no further than how they performed before the All-Star break when they reeled off a 9-2 stretch as the games and minutes and competition piled up like squished up slinky.
Those habits will be tested as Toronto tries to zero in on a playoff spot in the tightly packed Eastern Conference in the last seven weeks of the regular season.
Toronto starts with six games in eight days laid out in three sets of back-to-back games before the Raptors head out on a six-game, 10-day road trip that cycles in and out of three time zones.
Their first test came in Charlotte on Friday night and the Raptors failed – there is no way to polish it up. It was an effort that can only be flushed.
There are no acceptable excuses for getting blown out from the opening tip in what ended up as a 125-93 loss that dropped Toronto’s record to 32-26. Both teams were coming off long layoffs, trying to shake the All-Star break cobwebs out. The Raptors were relatively healthy – other than late news that OG Anunoby would be out with a fractured finger (more on that below) and Toronto even had a couple of days in Charlotte to practise and get the kinks out after the NBA’s mid-season siesta.
But the Raptors – uncharacteristically – simply didn’t bring it.
Perhaps given their history, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wasn’t about to try to light a fire under his team with a high-octane postgame assessment. His team wasn’t ready, he knew it, and the facts spoke for themselves.
“We didn’t get back early (defensively), we didn’t pick up (defensively),” said Nurse. “We were kind of back and didn’t communicate very well. I just thought, geez, the list is long. … We turned the ball over a ton right at the start and it’s hard to play defense when you’re doing that. We just didn’t have a lot of pop or zip or focus tonight.”
They gave up multiple offensive rebounds on the Hornets’ first possession, surrendered a wide-open layup to Mason Plumlee on a pick-and-roll a moment later and then went on to miss layups, brick open threes and screw up a 2-on-1 break before the game was three minutes old as Charlotte jumped out to a 14-2 lead. Toronto trailed 28-19 after the first quarter, which was pretty modest given the Raptors had coughed up eight turnovers in the opening 12 minutes. The Hornets were up 70-43 at halftime and then things got really bad as Toronto shot just 6-of-20 in the third period and added five more turnovers as the Raptors started the fourth trailing by 39.
There was a token effort at a frantic press to bring the game into reach, but that didn’t last.
It was the rare game that Raptors’ effort wasn’t up to standard and – even more rare this season – one of Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet couldn’t bail them out. The Raptors’ co-stars were a combined 6-of-25 for 16 points on a night when Toronto needed much more.
The lone bright spot for Toronto was the play of Scottie Barnes who looked refreshed after the break as he put up 28 points on 13-of-18 shooting, but that wasn’t nearly enough as the Hornets waltzed their way to 55.3 per cent shooting while the Raptors managed just 44 per cent and was 6-of-23 from three.
It wasn’t a great time for the Raptors to extend their vacation given that the Hornets are now just four games behind seventh-place Toronto in 10th place as the jockeying for the seeding in the play-in tournament intensifies. The Raptors also are trying to keep track of the red-hot Celtics for sixth place and the final guaranteed playoff spot.
“I’ll see how we come out of this break,” said Nick Nurse before the game. “I think these are all good teams and we’re all fighting like heck for a playoff spot or a play-in spot or whatever over these next bunch of games, but I love it. We need good competition and good competitive games and I think it’s good for us.”
Well, good in the sense that they got a stinker out of their system, it turned out. They get another chance to figure it out Saturday night in Atlanta.
Tough break for Anunoby
Anunoby has somehow turned five professional seasons into four, it feels like. The talented 24-year-old forward has shown tremendous promise and delivered on plenty of it but still leaves the impression that the best is yet to come.
A lot of that has to do with how much basketball he’s missed in his career. As a rookie he was coming off an ACL tear that cost him most of his sophomore season at Indiana and was a big reason why he was even available when the Raptors selected him with the 23rd pick of the 2017 draft.
There were high hopes in his second season, but the sudden death of his father during training camp clouded the start of his season, then came a wrist injury and a concussion and finally a bout of appendicitis kept him out of the Raptors’ entire championship run.
After an incident-free 2019-20, Anunoby missed 31 games last season due to calf strains, COVID and the Raptors tanking the end of the season. This season he’s missed 14 games due to a hip flexor, two more because of COVID and then was scratched Friday night after an X-Ray revealed a small fracture in the ring finger of his shooting hand. No one seems to know when it happened but Anunoby had been bothered by it before the All-Star break – for reference he shot just 28 per cent in the Raptors’ three games prior the break after shooting 50 per cent in his 10 games before those – but the hope was it would heal up with a week off. No such luck.
Anunoby went through a full practice Thursday but was sent for X-Rays anyway. The hope is that this setback won’t be too significant, but Anunoby was waiting for feedback from a specialist to decide next steps. “I think it’s been proven that he can probably play through it,” said Nurse. “But I think we need somebody to assure him or us of that to make sure that is the case or maybe someone can heal it fast so we can get back and go from there.”
The timing isn’t great – the game against Charlotte kicked off a rush of six in eight nights for Toronto – and for Anunoby the hope is he avoids another interruption in a development curve that is still trending up.
“I’m disappointed,” said Nurse. “I’m disappointed for him mostly because he is an important piece for us of course, but he’s in a growing phase of where he is in his development as a player and to me the sky is the limit. There are not a whole lot of guys walking around that can do the things he can do on both sides of the ball. His skills are coming on offence. He’s a great shooter. We are starting to put people in the rim. We are posting. We are finding more offence for him.”
The Raptors will need it as they get ready for their 25-game sprint to the finish. Here’s hoping that Anunoby’s latest injury is just a minor stumble out of the blocks.
• “Bigger than basketball” can be an overused catch phrase at times, but it is never more applicable than during moments like these when a global superpower is flexing its muscles and the fallout can me be measured in lives lost and untold traumas far and wide. For the Raptors, the Russian invasion of Ukraine hit home because reserve forward Svi Mykhailiuk is one of two Ukrainian players in the league. He put out a statement with Sacramento Kings centre Alex Len – the other Ukrainian in the league – condemning the war on Thursday: “… Ukraine is a peaceful, sovereign state inhabited by people who want to decide their own destiny. We pray for our families, friends, relatives and all the people who are in the territory of Ukraine.” Nurse said he had spoken with Mykailiuk about the situation, but given the gravity and sensitivity of the issue didn’t want to comment on it in any depth. “It’s a very, very, very difficult situation,” said Nurse. “It doesn’t get much more difficult.” Mykhailiuk was born and raised in the city of Cherkasy, located about 190 kilometres south of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
• With Anunoby out, there should be more minutes in an otherwise crowded front court for newcomer Thad Young. Acquired by the Raptors at the trade deadline, he got into a couple of games before the break and looked sharp in a 20-minute stint off the bench in Toronto’s win over Minnesota as he put up 10 points and five rebounds and kept things moving. The hope is that there will be more of that now that Young has had a couple of practices to help acclimatize. “He’s picked things up pretty good,” Nurse said. “You can tell he’s been around a little bit. You can tell he’s going to be vitally important. I would think he’s going to step right in there into that role. We were finding some places to play him and playing in some funky lineups and things like that just to get him going and ease him into it. No more time to ease anymore. He’s gonna have to play some big minutes, and I’m excited to see it. It looks like he’s excited to play and he’s versatile. I’m excited to see what he looks like with our team.” Young had five points and five rebounds in 21 minutes against Charlotte.
• Scottie Barnes has entered the All-Star break having played 1,736 minutes and 49 games. In his lone college season, he played 595 minutes and 24 games. It’s a big jump and Barnes’ young legs showed the fatigue and at points in the first part of the season. But he says the light work over the break – he played in the Rising Stars games and participated in the skills competition – was the lift he needed. “I’d say the break just helps my legs feel rejuvenated,” Barnes said after the game. “I feel good again, now it’s really just time to lock in, get back to work and keep trying to win games.”