Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 116-105 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
One — Punked: This was a lost season for the Toronto Raptors from the moment they were forced to relocate. Everything that could have gone wrong, has gone wrong for them. They started off 2-8, and just when they rally together for a 15-9 stretch that brings them level, an outbreak ruins the team. Pascal Siakam has four game-deciding shots rim out. Now the Raptors are eight games under, having lost 10 of their last 11 games, and they're getting punked by a young Cavaliers squad that doesn't look any worse than the Raptors. Sure, there is fight in this team, but it's all too little, too late. This is not their year and the front office should have one goal heading into the trade deadline on Thursday, and that is to sell.
Two — Swing: The turning point came on a rather innocent play to end the first half. Collin Sexton bumped Norman Powell while guarding a full-court inbound, and then got into the face of Fred VanVleet. A shouting match ensued and the two teams converged, but while the Raptors eased off, Sexton was out for blood. Sexton proceeded to score 12 points in the third quarter as part of his game-high 36 points, and single-handedly won the game for Cleveland in the third quarter. Nobody on the Raptors could get a handle on Sexton until late in the fourth quarter when it was pretty much decided. And while Sexton is a fiery player who took down the Brooklyn Nets early this year, it was dispiriting to see the Raptors get punked by a 22-year-old who hasn't even won 20 games in a season.
Three — Fight: The Raptors only started to show fight in the fourth quarter. Nick Nurse reached deep into his bench for Stanley Johnson and Pat McCaw, and the two players brought a sudden jolt of energy that started producing stops while also getting the Raptors into transition. Those two, along with OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, and VanVleet nearly brought it all the way back for the Raptors, but some missed opportunities by the Raptors limited the damage in the end for Cleveland. Some good work was done, to be sure, as Johnson and McCaw pressured the ball with an intensity that was missing for most of the second and third quarters, but the bigger picture is that the Raptors needed a miracle just to come back on the Cavaliers. That's a red flag.
Four — Out: The curious omission in the Raptors' comeback was Pascal Siakam. Nick Nurse said after the game that conditioning played into it, and that he did consider putting Siakam back in, but this also isn't the first time Nurse has went away from him. Siakam struggled against the Cavaliers' length and left several layups short, which might just be conditioning as Nurse suggested, but it could also just be part of a larger trend of Siakam being off with his touch at the basket this season. Had Siakam been fully available, he would have been a useful body to throw at Jarrett Allen down the stretch, as that was how Cleveland found enough points to stave off its collapse. Allen is seven feet tall and was a port in the storm for Cleveland's tiny guards, which is yet another reminder of how poor the Raptors' centers have been this season. Someone like Allen could have saved the season for the Raptors.
Five — Rusty: You have to admire VanVleet's heart because he never gave in. Less than a week after returning from COVID-19, there was VanVleet pressuring full court even though he played 23 minutes in the second half. VanVleet was the only Raptors player in the first half who was willing to attack the basket, and he nailed some difficult threes to give the Raptors some late life. However, it's clear that there is still more rust to work away, as VanVleet missed some very open chances that would otherwise be routine for him. VanVleet has shot 16-of-52 from the field since returning from the virus.
Six — Aggressive: The first half was forgettable for Anunoby, who called his own number too many times and forced plays that weren't actually there to be made. The second half, and specifically the fourth quarter, was much better. Anunoby operated as the center for the Raptors' makeshift group, and he took it repeatedly against Allen while showing some craft around the basket with his pump fakes and awkward hook shots. It was the type of game that you would normally see from Siakam, but there's always an element of surprise when it comes from Anunoby. He also collected some impressive stops on Sexton, which if for nothing else, was just good to see on a spiritual level.
Seven — Alright: Nurse promised before the game that Malachi Flynn and Paul Watson would be his go-to wings off the bench along with Chris Boucher and Aron Baynes. Of course, desperate times called for desperate measures and that plan was off by the second half. Still, there were glimpses from Flynn that showed promise. He caught a grenade with four seconds left and was forced to create, and he pulled out a behind-the-back crossover to create space for a pull-up jumper from the foul line. He also took it 1-on-2 in transition for a reverse layup finish that was goaltended. Defensively, Flynn has quick feet and is diligent about containing his man, and gave Sexton and Darius Garland both issues when they tried to create off the bounce.
Eight — Scrappy: What you appreciate from Lowry is that he always gives his best effort. It's not always enough, but he is always there when you need him most. There is not a single comeback push in the last eight years that hasn't involved Lowry, and he is always there to rally the group. Lowry called a timeout early in the third quarter and gathered the team in a huddle, and was effectively the head coach. It didn't really work, but you admire that spirit, because that's the spirit of a winner. No matter what happens with Lowry next week, or next season and beyond, the Raptors can never lose that spirit. He is the greatest player in franchise history for many reasons, but most importantly because the Raptors will forever be in a good place if every member of the team played with Lowry's spirit.
Nine — Reality: As much as sentimentality is important, the front office is paid to make difficult decisions. You cannot realistically look at the Raptors being eight games under .500 with 30 games left in the season and still believe in a happy outcome beyond maybe a cheap hit of dopamine from a play-in game. And since that is the case, the front office needs to entertain these calls on Lowry and Powell. It's unpleasant that it has come to this point, but it's also clear that the Raptors need more talent. Who would have thought losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka would end up spiralling the season to this degree, but it has, and the Raptors can't risk another two veterans walking away. Powell and Lowry are two of the best players on the market and can help any playoff team, and Ujiri has a long track record of winning trades.
Ten — Perspective: Fair warning for those in favour of a rebuild: There is no guarantee you get someone as good as Lowry, you might not even get the equivalent of Powell. If the front office chooses to rebuild, it will be a long wait. One draft pick doesn't miraculously solve everything, and there's no telling what a new group can recapture the chemistry and belief that still lingers somewhere within this group. That may sound insignificant as compared to frustration of watching the season slip away with no clear direction, but the only difference between losing as is and tanking is that the losses are explained away. And when there is no expectation to win, it will take time and effort to get it back. Just know that.
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