With just under three minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Toronto Raptors held a healthy 15-point lead on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers. By the end of the first half, the lead had shrunk to five. Chris Boucher had entered the game for the first time with 4:37 remaining in the first quarter and had given his team a tremendous jolt of energy. He had played for over 14 straight minutes and needed a rest. Alex Len checked in and that’s all it took for things to unravel.
In a snapshot, all that needs to be said about this Raptors season thus far can be captured in that stretch. Boucher is thriving after biding his time behind Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka last season, but Toronto’s overreliance on him and the extent to which Nick Nurse and his staff can’t rely on either Len or Aron Baynes speaks to the margin for error this roster faces on a nightly basis.
Pascal Siakam’s play has returned to All-Star form but a near-triple-double performance against the Golden State Warriors followed by his first triple-double the following night both ended in heartbreaking one-point losses. Save for the fourth quarter against the Warriors where he scored 16 points, it was a rough couple games for Lowry. OG Anunoby was terrific against Portland but not so much against Golden State. The opposite can be said of Fred VanVleet. Hopes that Norman Powell’s newfound consistency last season would carry into this are steadily fading away.
A road trip that could just as easily have seen the Raptors come away with three wins from four games has seen them sink their record to an abysmal 2-8, tied for worst in the Eastern Conference. They have improved quite significantly since the first week of the season, of that there is no doubt. But Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking through that door to help close out games and neither are Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol to provide help on the backline. The other shoe of the moves the Raptors made to acquire their first championship has dropped and this is part and parcel of the bed they made. Things indeed get tougher as after a couple of games against the Charlotte Hornets, Toronto faces a six-game stretch against the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers twice, Miami Heat twice, and then the Milwaukee Bucks.
Making a trade to address the glaring weakness at centre and perhaps a reinforcement on the wing is talk for another day; the Raptors players and the coaching staff—much like they did a season ago—must believe they have enough to make do with what they’ve got in the meantime. Here are some ways they can improve in the here and now: