We could be harsh. It is December, after all, and that means it is time for the monthly State of the Squad. And, frankly, after Tuesday night’s debacle, we wanted nothing more than to write up the State, in a delightful fervor, and make a bunch of proclamations that would call for a near-first place team to disband and move to North Dakota.
But no, we are not going to do that. Besides, given what we have been saying about the Toronto Raptors the last couple of weeks, the words would not have been new, just more aggressive. This is still a team one-half game out of first place in the Atlantic Division and, no matter how laughably curious that is, it appears it is going to stay that way. We said before and will continue to say that a Jason Kidd-run Nets team is not going to be a threat to anyone. But whether this is going to be a first place team or not, they are not going to garner any legitimacy as long as they have games like Tuesday night’s against a solid Golden State Warriors team.
Up as many as 27 points in the second half on the road against a playoff team in the West—considering the state of the East, that is saying a lot—the Toronto Raptors blew the lead, being outscored 42-15 in the fourth quarter. They shot 52 percent for the game and did almost everything that we have asked for: early involvement for Jonas Valanciunas with six points early, even though they went away from him late; more shots for Amir Johnson, who had 16 and 10 in a recently new role of coming off the bench, which we do not expect to last long; and more selective shot taking for DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay, who combined to go 16-for-30 in a far more efficient show than we have seen recently. With what we have seen from this Raptors team, those numbers looks like a recipe for success. But they lost again; this time in the sort of fashion that will linger, especially with a far more vocal DeRozan who has been voicing displeasure recently about losing at home. This could make him blow his top. So how could the Raptors have lost a game where the numbers were ideal and they finally did what we have been asking for since the start of the season? Let’s take a couple quick hits.
Going away from effective Jonas: There is nothing we have been clamoring for more this season than not only active involvement from Valanciunas, but aggressive offense where they establish him early and often and force double teams. They did that in this game. He was 3-for-4 for six points in the first five minutes; he had three more shots the rest of the game. We wonder how this can happen, especially a team with a comfortable lead, which the Raptors had from the outset. We could understand how playing from behind would lend itself to a more up-tempo attack which would favor more volume offense from Gay and DeRozan. Granted this was against Golden State’s fast attack, but they had the opportunity to control tempo. We are left to think how frustrating this has to be for Valanciunas. Is he losing confidence?
Assist numbers still low: No matter how well the Toronto Raptors shoot on a given night, their assist numbers are still low. They are the worst in the league in assists per game and 25th in opponents assists per game. They shot well against the Warriors, but they were out-assisted 27-17. They are not going to have many games shooting 52 percent; they need to get their guys better shots.
Closers not closing: There is no question that we have been hard on Rudy Gay in these columns and the Raptors have not had many games where they are up comfortably in the fourth quarter, but it seems like a situation where a shooter and scorer like Gay could put his foot on the gas and put teams away in that situation. It almost seems blasphemous for us to urge Gay to shoot more given our criticism so far this season, but we would have liked to see more than one shot for Gay in the fourth quarter when Golden State is running up and down the floor shooting 3s. Of course, no one really did anything in the fourth quarter.
Games like this, on the road against a good team, can be statements for teams that are struggling. The Toronto Raptors had this game. And then they lost it. We can only surmise that GM Masai Ujiri’s “evaluation” process has taken a negative turn and the next noteworthy news we hear is about big names being put on the block. Unless, of course, being so close to first place is causing everyone in the organization to hold onto an increasingly obvious false hope.