10 things: Raptors can't close vs. Clippers despite gutsy performances

William Lou
·NBA reporter
·7 min read

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 105-100 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

One — Competitive: There's still a tangible gap between the Raptors and the elite teams, and it comes down to crunch time execution. They have lost a dozen games this season in similar fashion, where the offense goes ice-cold while their main players struggle to generate shots. It would be frustrating to watch if there were truly any stakes in this one, and it's one area the Raptors must improve. But it also comes down to talent, because if it's Fred VanVleet on one end going against Paul George on the other, how do you think it will go? The gap is talent, and it's on the front office to solve.

Two — Scrappy: Where the Raptors excel is in making games close, even when they have no business being in the chase. The Raptors were severely shorthanded, missing four double-digit scorers in Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. and Chris Boucher, while the Clippers were at full strength aside from Serge Ibaka who roamed the sidelines in a Blade cosplay. It was almost farcical to see Stanley Johnson and Yuta Watanabe line up opposite of George and Kawhi Leonard, yet they battled to the final buzzer and made life hell for the Clippers' stars. Credit to their secondary players for making big shots all night, including two daggers from Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson to clinch it.

Three — Secondary: Nick Nurse's game plan was to deny the Clippers' star players, and you really can't argue with the results. The Clippers shot the lights out on jumpers — which is their main strength as a team — but they only scored 105 points despite 52 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent from deep. This is because the Raptors totally denied Leonard, and often sent a second player at Paul George, and they lived with the results. Morris was deadly, knocking down 8-for-11 on largely jumpers, while the Clippers also got six threes from Jackson and Patrick Beverley. In any case, it wasn't the defense that lost them this game, it was the offense. The Raptors didn't get nearly as much secondary scoring from their supporting cast, which is to be expected when half the rotation is comprised of third-string pieces.

Four — Incredible: There's really nothing you can nitpick from VanVleet's performance tonight. That's not to say it was flawless, but he showed guts in leading this team from a shorthanded position and did the best he could with 27 points with 13 assists. VanVleet set the tone early, knocking down a pair of pull-up threes despite being chased around by an All-NBA level defender in George, and carried his momentum throughout the game. VanVleet drilled a 30-foot pull-up, then got all the way to the basket for a tough left-handed layup in traffic off the top of the backboard to reel the Raptors back in as they were losing hold of the rope, and he was often their only creator on the night. In the same way that Kyle Lowry set the tone in the Lakers game, VanVleet did the same with his bravery and aggressiveness.

Five — Tenacious: Pascal Siakam made another mistake late in the game with a charge while running the break. Siakam did have a slight window for the pitch-ahead pass to Khem Birch, but Siakam had a split second of indecision and took it himself. To be fair, it wasn't as if George was fully set and in position and it was a 50-50 call, but his reputation (with Siakam making a similar error against the Knicks) is cutting against him here. But to focus entirely on that one sequence would be so cynical, because Siakam did as well as you could possibly expect in a difficult matchup. Siakam got his points within the flow of the game, worked the midrange to his advantage, competed defensively, and put the Raptors in position to win. 

Six — Difficult: Siakam was quiet in the fourth quarter, but he was also getting guarded by Kawhi Leonard, with the Clippers also ignoring three other players on the floor in order pack the paint. Ask yourself: Do you really expect Siakam to score through that? His skillset clearly isn't refined to the point where he can get a good shot at will, so where is this expectation coming from? To harangue him for his inability to close is like pointing out that VanVleet is short or that Lowry is the Raptors GOAT — it's obvious and you can't really do much about it. This is ultimately an issue for the front office, or perhaps even the coaching staff to solve. Siakam keeps getting put in positions to fail, and he can't be the only one taking the brunt of it. 

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Seven — Strength: Johnson deserves his flowers for the way he denied Leonard, who only attempted six shots in 33 minutes. This isn't the first time that Johnson has limited Leonard, as he famously did this against him as a member of the Pistons during the Raptors' title season. The main reason why Johnson succeeds in this assignment is that he can match Leonard's strength like very few wing players can. Johnson yields no position and doesn't let Leonard get to his preferred spots where he is nearly automatic around the elbows, and bullyball is a huge part of Leonard's game. Johnson's teammates were also diligent in sending help to force Leonard into surrendering the ball, but the bulk of the heavy lifting was done by Johnson. If he could provide something with consistency on offense, Johnson would be a very useful player. He's unselfish and can credibly guard 1 through 5, with his specialty being wing defense. He did a similar job against Ben Simmons and Luka Doncic earlier this season. 

Eight — Cameo: The surprise contributor off the bench was rookie guard Jalen Harris, who scored 11 points on a perfect 4-for-4 shooting. Harris got the majority of his points on three catch-and-shoot threes, including a momentum-shifting three to end the third quarter off a smart inbound pass from Malachi Flynn. Harris also showed good bounce in finishing through traffic at the rim, and Nurse trusted him enough to play Harris in the fourth quarter. His scoring ability is decent, especially playing off the ball, and it's really about if he can hold his own defensively. To his credit, Harris was much less jumpy and antsy tonight than he was in his previous cameos. 

Nine — Quiet: It's been a rough stretch from Flynn despite a strong showing in April that saw him take home Rookie of the Month honours. Flynn was 0-for-10 in the duo at Los Angeles, and was benched in favour of Yuta Watanabe despite Lowry getting rest. Granted, the substitution was mostly tactical as the Raptors needed more size to match the Clippers, but Flynn hasn't played with the same poise and confidence in these last two games that we came to expect. Finding that consistency is a huge part of what makes the best players stand out.

Ten — Lookahead: The Raptors aren't officially eliminated, but they might as well be. The Raptors find themselves 3.5 games back of the red-hot Washington Wizards, and their next meeting is a must-win for both sides. The Raptors have the tiebreaker, but what they need at this point is some healthy bodies, some luck, and better execution down the stretch. They were in every game of this brutal stretch against Brooklyn, Denver, Utah, and the two L.A. teams, yet they only have one win in five tries. 

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