After a hot start that included a come-from-behind road win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Toronto Raptors have now lost two straight, closing out their four-game road trip with consecutive losses in South Florida.
Friday night, the Dinos dropped a winnable game against the Orlando Magic, who took the court without their top forward, Nikolai Vucevic. Down 45-36 at halftime, Toronto rallied back to carry five-point into the fourth, but cold shooting and too many turnovers have the young Magic an opening and they made the most of it to hand the Raptors their first loss of the season.
Yesterday in Miami was a second-half collapse, as a three-point lead at the break turned into a 20-point shellacking at the hands of the Heat where turnovers and too many jumpers coming up short became the club’s undoing. It also didn’t help that starting small forward DeMarre Carroll was sidelined for Sunday’s contest, felled by plantar fasciitis and replaced in the starting five by James Johnson.
Now a couple weeks into the season and having seen the good, the bad and everything in between from this club, there are a handful of things that jump out about when this team is clicking and when they’re not and spots that are quickly becoming areas of concern.
Terrence Ross started strong, signed a three-year, $33M extension and has been bad since. His confidence is shot right now and it’s impacting every aspect of his game. Sunday saw him come up way short on a handful of jumpers, score zero points and commit three fouls in 20 minutes of playing time. With Carroll down, “T-Ross” needed to step up, but instead he struggled… mightily.
If he doesn’t snap out of it and get back to contributing the way he did through the opening five games of the season, that $11M per year extension is going to look like a giant albatross and Ross will need to be replaced in the rotation. The expectations on him aren’t that high right now – in fact, they’re lower than they’ve been in previous years – but he’s taken a step backwards. Hopefully that changes… soon.
More interesting than Ross’ struggles in South Florida is how integral Jonas Valanciunas is to this club’s success in the offensive end and the frustrating choices they made with the ball in the second half of the game against Miami.
“JV” has started the year playing the best ball of his career at both ends, averaging a double-double through the team’s first six games. He collected 16 points in the first half on Sunday and the Raptors took a slim lead into the locker room. He got one more point the rest of the way and the team went in the tank. Coincidence? Not really.
Toronto is a better team when they’re playing a slash-and-kick style, getting into the lane for easy layups and open looks around the arc. They did that in the first half, netting big points for their big man and better shots for everyone else, but they got away from it in the second and the game got away from them. Some of that is shots just not falling and Miami finding a rhythm, but it also speaks to Toronto straying from what worked well in the opening half for no apparent reason.
For the Raptors to continually have success, working an “inside-outside” game that keeps Valanciunas and others rolling to the rim involved is crucial; it opens up better looks for the guys spotting up, forces the opponents to defend (or foul) and keeps the big man engaged, which usually buys teams better effort on the defensive end.
The other takeaway from Sunday’s game – and coach Dwane Casey’s tenure as a whole – is the number of minutes he has Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan log throughout the season.
There is no logical explanation for those two playing 37 and 36 minutes respectively this early in the season; Toronto was down 11 heading into the fourth and it only got worse from there, so why not get your starting guards some rest and let youngsters like Delon Wright and Norman Powell get some run?
Winning in November is nowhere near as important as winning in April and Lowry has a history of wearing down as the season progresses. This was a great chance to say, “We’re beaten” and sit those two down the stretch of this one. Instead, they logged 35-plus for no apparent reason.
These are the elements that are going to dictate how Toronto’s season goes and it’s better to address them and adjust now, rather than before it’s too late.