Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 120-116 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
One — Promising: It’s a bitter loss to be sure, but at least it’s an improvement. The Raptors are clearly a team in transition searching for their identity, and they’re going to have to keep tinkering. Nick Nurse has already expanded his rotation and shuffled his lineups to find winning combinations, and that feeling out process will result in bumpy losses. The Raptors played great in the second and fourth quarters around another nightmarish collapse in the third, but at least the fight and spirit was there. It’s hard to lose it at the end, just as it was against Philadelphia, and they just need to take the long view. It’s a long season and they can still be competitive if they stay together and composed.
Two — Comeback: The Raptors launched a 14-2 comeback run to take the lead in the fourth quarter. The Pelicans were on pace for another blowout win, but the Raptors refused to go away. OG Anunoby had a cutting and-one and a corner three, Kyle Lowry bullied his way in for a layup, Fred VanVleet had a catch-and-shoot three and Norman Powell pulled up from deep to finally take the lead. The fury, tenacity, and desperation that the Raptors played with was admirable, even if they couldn’t finish the deal. They had no business being in that game, except they made it their business to compete. That needs to be the tone and their identity for the season.
JEEEZ! Took it left like he's ambidex' pic.twitter.com/ob4pBBOPLt
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) January 3, 2021
Three — Thwarted: It’s a miracle that the comeback was even possible considering that the Pelicans took twenty-eight free throws in the fourth quarter. That includes a technical foul and a flagrant, plus an intentional foul at the end, but that is a comically staggering number of attempts. Powell made an unnecessary reach-in against Brandon Ingram that cost the Raptors a chance to respond, but there were a handful of questionable decisions that doomed them. Steven Adams got two free throws against light ball pressure from Chris Boucher. Adams also bodychecked VanVleet to the ground which set up a go-ahead three for the Pelicans that went uncalled. And ironically, when the Raptors tried to extend the game with an intentional foul on the other end, the officials were slow to blow the whistle which burned valuable clock. The Raptors have been outshot by 47 free throws by their opponents in five games.
Four — Unacceptable: Pascal Siakam didn’t respond whatsoever to his disciplinary benching. Siakam fouled out just as he did against Philadelphia, and was a minus on both ends. Foul trouble made Siakam soft on defense, and it allowed Zion Williamson to feast. Offensively, it was even more of a struggle as Siakam missed all four of his threes, and had three turnovers to his one assist to go along with 10 points. You can point out instances of poor spacing, or some unlucky calls, but at the end of the day it’s unacceptable to provide minimum production on a maximum contract. Siakam took his benching in stride and faced the media after the game, but he needs to figure it out. The Raptors are going nowhere if Siakam isn’t performing like an All-Star.
Five — Flabbergasted: Nurse got peppered with questions on Siakam after the game, and it’s telling from his responses of just how low Siakam has fallen. Nurse said Siakam is a “hustle player” and that he needs to play more in the open floor, which is essentially a message for Siakam to return to his fundamentals. Siakam has spent so much time and effort trying to reinvent his game to fit into a role that seems too big for him at the moment, that he’s quickly losing what earned him that opportunity in the first place. Forget hitting pull-up jumpers or creating one-on-one; the Raptors would be thrilled if Siakam just ran the floor hard and attacked the paint with some purpose.
Six — Encouraging: The breakout performer of the season is Chris Boucher, who has been a plus contributor in the four games where he played consistent minutes. Boucher is the only Raptors’ center who can consistently impact the rim, as evidenced by his nine free throw attempts to lead the team. Nurse’s remedy to Boucher’s frailness is to play him in zone coverages, or to pair him with another center on the floor to maintain size on the interior. When Boucher is in the two center lineups, the Raptors have been able to keep him as the pick-and-roll target in the middle of the floor as Alex Len and Aron Baynes have been stationed in the corners as spacing threats.
Seven — Leader: VanVleet is stepping up as the second-best player on the team along with Lowry. He carried the Raptors in the second quarter, working the pick-and-roll with Boucher to great effect while also chipping in with threes, a midrange look, and a circus reverse layup at the basket. Beyond that, VanVleet’s leadership is becoming indispensable especially with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka moving on. His performances on the floor, along with his honest and levity with the media, is one of the few guiding lights for the Raptors during this miserable start to the year.
Eight — Searching: Stanley Johnson cracked the rotation for the third consecutive game, but didn’t see time in the second half after an energetic yet empty shift. Terence Davis also got a look, but he too was invisible and got himself benched after fouling J.J. Redick for three. Odds are that Nurse will try Matt Thomas and DeAndre’ Bembry again some time soon as he tries to find a winning combination. Hopefully that chance is also afforded to rookie Malachi Flynn, who showed plenty of promise in preseason.
Nine — Clunky: The Raptors had great success last year by playing an aggressive style of defense that often called for their centers to pressure the perimeter. So far it’s not working nearly as smoothly with Baynes and Len as it did with Gasol and Ibaka. Nurse sent double teams at Ingram to force the ball out of his hands, and the Pelicans simply carved them apart with Adams rolling down the floor while the 34-year-old Baynes was glued to the logo. Toronto’s best hope this year is to prioritize the paint and to live with the results from the outside. The more inventive schemes might be beyond the defensive talent of this group.
Ten — Unlucky: Eric Bledsoe has absolutely torched the Raptors in the two Pelicans wins. After making four in the season opener, Bledsoe followed up with a contested three to close the third quarter, followed by a dagger three in the final two minutes to put the Pelicans up three. Bledsoe is 8-of-14 from three against the Raptors, compared to 4-of-18 in their other four games. It’s a make or miss league.
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