Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 117-99 loss to the Houston Rockets.
One — Rock bottom: The Raptors just lost to the Rockets, who were on a 20-game losing streak, and not only did they lose, but it was a blowout. There is no excuse for it, there's no running from facts, the reality is in the result. At the moment, the Raptors are decidedly playing like the worst team in the league, and while the unofficial slogan of the season is that the Raptors aren't really that bad, they just are what they are. A variety of unfortunate circumstances has left this team broken and without their spirit. Even the bare basics elude them, and that's why they can get blown out by the worst team in the league.
Two — Summary: As is the case with most losing teams, the Raptors mostly beat themselves, and that applies to everyone outside of Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry. The game started off with Stanley Johnson being a bull in a china shop and fouling everyone on both sides of the floor. Then Aron Baynes checked in for his nightly impersonation of a 50-year-old gym teacher. Add in Chris Boucher jumping on every hint of a fake, DeAndre' Bembry getting himself ejected for seemingly no reason, Norman Powell playing defense as if he were playing minesweeper with a blindfold on, and the end result is always going to be a loss. Again, the very basics of the game elude the Raptors, whether it's defensive rebounding, containing dribble penetration, getting back in transition, or even simple plays like finishing point-blank dunks. It's not hard to see why they lose.
Three — Talent: But it's not all on the players or the coaches, because the front office deserves some blame for this too. With all due respect, the Raptors have so little talent on the back end of the roster that it might as well be a G-League team. If the 905 are in Mississauga, and the Raptors are in Toronto, then the bench is at Sherway Gardens and getting on the QEW for Square One. There isn't a single player among the reserves outside of Boucher who can reliably score 10 points, and Boucher's 10 comes in the form of 20 on one night and four on games like today. That isn't to say scoring is everything, but for a bunch of defensive specialists, they sure don't collect many stops. The end result is that Nurse is playing with at most six viable rotation players on any given night, and that is always going to sink them. Six guys alone can't sustain 48 minutes of quality play to earn a win, especially when three of them are coming off COVID-19, while two others are on the trading block.
Four — Reality: This issue isn't going to magically solve itself unless the front office bites the bullet and does the humbling work of reshaping the roster. In 2018, the Raptors used to have a bench unit of VanVleet, Powell, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl. All six players are starters now, and compare that to what is now left on the second unit. Boucher is the best of the bunch, but would you take him over any of those six players? Half of those pieces were sacrificed in pursuit of the championship roster, which is a deal you make 100 times out of 100, but how will the next title team be built unless the same talent is accumulated? That's why the Raptors need to find the best offers for Powell and Lowry, because the developmental pipeline is bone dry. The Raptors have seven players who were undrafted, and only one of them is VanVleet.
Five — Life: Speaking of VanVleet, none of the blame falls at his feet and that needs to be made clear. VanVleet is still battling back from illness, yet he consistently shows the most heart out of anybody on the roster. He just played 82 out of a possible 96 minutes in a back-to-back, and but the Raptors have lost by 29 in those 14 minutes that he sat. VanVleet was never expected to carry the franchise, and it's unfair that he's even in this position. He is the only player that consistently attacks the basket, the main creator of of shots, and he battles on defense harder than anyone despite being the smallest player on the floor. He doubled his salary last summer and he's still underpaid for what he does.
Six — Disappointing: Scouts were inevitably in attendance as both the Rockets and Raptors figure to be sellers on Thursday, which made it an unfortunate showcase for Powell who was back to making his old mistakes. Right from the jump, Powell lost his man for a layup on a back cut, failed to box out leading to a putback, and that's how his night went. It was as if his mind was elsewhere because he was a beat late reacting to most situations. He turned in two impressive driving dunks late, but it was disappointing to see him relapse on the old mistakes that used to define his game. One showing isn't going to dissuade traders, but they can't say they weren't warned.
Seven — Lost: It's strange to talk about Siakam as a developmental player since he's on a maximum contract, but he is still a growing player who needs to find his consistency. Siakam has been up and down this season and it's never entirely clear what the Raptors will get from him on most nights. All players go through rough spells and whatnot, but leaders like VanVleet and Lowry rally their teams by fixating on the next play and not losing their confidence, whereas you can see Siakam get down on himself and drop his intensity in doing so. He was solid tonight against a Rockets team that lacks rim protection, scoring in the post and making the right passes in transition. The goal for Siakam is to extend his runs where he is productive, and to find a way to still remain focused when a few shots spill out.
Eight — Development: In the theme of development, the Raptors will expand Malachi Flynn's role and let the rookie sink or swim. Flynn seems to struggle with getting his shot off, which isn't surprising as an undersized guard, but it's also hard to assess him without seeing him take control as a point guard normally would. It will be difficult and Nurse will have the temptation to cut his losses, but losses are the point the rest of the way, and any positive experience that Flynn takes away from this moment will be the icing.
Nine — Wash: As for the other prospects, it's unclear who those are. Yuta Watanabe had some nice moments but has been stapled to the bench ever since the unforgettable dunk by Anthony Edwards. Watanabe seems to have good instincts and always plays with energy, and he's worth a try to see if he can add some scoring to his game. The same goes for Paul Watson, who nailed two corner threes tonight. Matt Thomas and Terence Davis had plenty of chances and will probably get some more the rest of the way, but unless they miraculously learn how to play defense, Nurse will always sour on them.
Ten — Perspective: For those that are in favour of tanking, these are the games that you will need to become comfortable with. New lows cannot feel like rock bottom, because there's always a lower level. The 0-3 start with the Raptors blowing three double-digit leads felt low, but then it stretched to a 2-8 start. Siakam missing two jumpers at the buzzer was bad, but then he missed a layup to lose to the Timberwolves. Two losses to the Pistons was rough, until Collin Sexton punks the whole team followed by snapping a 20-game losing streak. This is what tanking is like, and the spectrum stretches from heartbreak on one axis, to irrelevance on the other. And maybe it's all worth it if the lottery balls bounce the right way for a generational talent and you look back on this season and wear it like a badge of honour, or luck doesn't go their way and this is just the reality from now on.
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