Well, well, only a few days ago we were waxing poetic about these Toronto Raptors and their unusual circumstances. They were flying high; the (kind of) talk of the league with a red-hot team, a completely changed, and effective, philosophy since trading a guy who is supposed to be a cornerstone, and a division that was so chaotic and miserable, there was a thought that they could win it even if they were trying to tank the season.
Even us, eternal pessimists, had up until about a month ago been championing the idea of a “casual” approach to the season. That is, feel good about what you had done, but get some perspective and make the smart moves, even if they weren’t popular.
Admittedly, though, once the Raptors started to play like “bizarro” Toronto after the Rudy Gay trade, we drank the Kool-Aid. And we weren’t sipping it either. In our column, “It’s Official….They’re All-In for 2014” we detailed that the Raptors had no choice anymore with both how well they were playing but also with a comfortable lead in the Atlantic Division. And they continued to play very well after that, with both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry garnering All-Star support.
Fast forward a bit and we find the Raptors losers of three of their last four. On the surface, that is hardly alarming, but when we see what teams, and what fashion, it is worthy of a double-take. Those three losses were to the Celtics, Lakers and Bobcats. Not at all a snapshot of NBA competency.
Now, whether the Raptors are an accurate representation of a first-place NBA team is arguable, but no team even on the periphery of contention can justify losing to those teams in less than a week. Couple that with Brooklyn’s recent surge and the Nets are now just two games from first place.
We have spoken ill of the Nets in former columns, mostly because of Jason Kidd and owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s haphazard attempt at building an entertaining contender. We still feel that any team coached by Kidd is going to be at a schematic and preparation disadvantage. But perhaps this is where the Net veterans scrap and claw their way to the division title under the pretense that “if we only get there” the entire slate is wiped clean and they can find some fountain of youth magic.
Color us plenty skeptical of the Nets winning the division, much less some fantasy run through the playoffs.
But even if Toronto can get it together and put those three terrible losses aside, there is a very concerning trend that they have to reverse right now. The Raptors starting frontcourt of Amir Johnson, Terrence Ross, and Jonas Valanciunas have combined for 22.5 points per game in the last four games. There appears to be a regression in ball movement and the offense may be trending back toward a DeRozan ball-dominated show, perhaps with a more confident Kyle Lowry throwing up more shots also.
And they really can’t be blamed, either. Most of the frontcourt malaise falls on Valanciunas, who is a combined 6-for-21 in those games in just less than 20 minutes per game. Less than four points per game from your designated “untouchable” player is beyond unacceptable. Having Patrick Patterson playing so well as a backup certainly allows for flexibility regarding going with the hot hand, but it does not make up for an embarrassing stretch from our guy. He’s making us look bad, too.
The last thing we wanted was to be bandwagon hoppers, but the constant state of flux either on the court or the speculation off it has made us reconsider the notion. If the Raptors lose the next few in the same fashion, we will be back beating the drum for a GM Masai Ujiri re-do. So much for continuity.