It’s gotten really cold in Toronto, and we haven’t had one day of pure sunshine since the new year. We’ve had rain and snow, and the temperature has been dropping lower and lower — just like the Raptors (32-23) ranking has been dropping lower and lower in the eastern conference.
We came into 2017 comfortably seeded second right behind the Cleveland Cavaliers (37-16). Now, we are standing fourth. The Boston Celtics (35-19) have climbed the eastern conference with the help of possible MVP Isaiah Thomas, snatching the second seed from the Raptors, who had grown comfortable there since last season. Then, John Wall and the Washington Wizards (32-21) silently knocked us to fourth by claiming the third seed. Toronto is two wins away from climbing back up, but we have to be very cautious of the Atlanta Hawks (31-23) who are hot on their tail: one win away from kicking the 6ix to the 6th seed.
What is going on north of the border? The Raptors went 4-10 over the last 14 games. They are 1-5 now on Sundays. Last night, Sunday, February 12th was when the team sensed it’s in trouble.
“If help is an option, why not?” – DeMar DeRozan
We know the Raptors can defend. But after spending two practices this week working on defensive drills and discussing the need and importance to play defence for a full 48 minutes, it was like a broken record for Toronto late in the game: the story of the fourth quarter collapse.
Toronto shot 59% up until the third while holding Detroit to 39% as the Raptors outscored the Pistons by 10 in the 3rd. For the past two years, Toronto was 22-0 when it came to holding their opponents under 40%FG, Detroit is shooting just 35.6% this season.
Despite finally getting starting all-star DeMar DeRozan back consistently for the past few games, his 10-21 shooting from the floor and 85% from the FT line with 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and a blocked shot wasn’t enough. Detroit outscored Toronto 36-19 in the 4th, taking its first lead of the final quarter when Caldwell-Pope hit a three-pointer with 13.6 seconds left to put the Pistons ahead by one, closing on a 6-0 run. Toronto was unable o score on their final possession, falling short 101-102.
The NBA released a “Last Two Minute Report” today, which says there was an uncalled foul on DeMar DeRozan that could have potentially changed the outcome of the game. However, this report means nothing – perhaps some Canadian basketball fan’s theory that the NBA has it out for the Raptors – as it doesn’t change the game. However, since the Raptors were up 16 in the 4th, the final outcome still should not have came down to that one play.
It’s disappointing to the fans, to the coaching staff and to the players. At this point, it seems as if the reigning Atlantic division champs are on a downwards spiral, but Coach Casey said after the tough loss it’s not one person’s fault, everyone plays a role.
“It’s not one player, it’s all of us. it’s the coaching staff, it’s all of us, we’re in this together. Some of our bench guys are now starting, our second group is in the first group so the chemistry is off a little bit. There is no excuse. We’ve got to dig ourselves out. We put ourselves in this situation, we’ve got to dig ourselves out of this situation.“
DeRozan admitted concern to Sportsnet’s Eric Smith regarding the Raps 27 games left.
When Michael Grange from Sportsnet Radio asked Toronto’s other all-star Kyle Lowry if he was worried, he flat out said it: “I’m worried.”
Lowry was very vocal this morning following last night’s upset: “Changes do need to be made, we gotta find ways to win some damn games.” He meant it too, you could see it on his face, the way his eyebrows pressed together. He’s frustrated, but he knows his place — which is being a better player. “It’s not my job to speak to Masai about anything, my job is to come to work, get my shots up, watch film and get out there. That’s my job. I don’t get into the management and the coaching side. I’ve said it before and said it a million times. At the end of the day, I love my teammates, that’s who I play for.”
Dwane Casey was also vocal, by reminding reporters, or more so himself that “last year we were one of the top fourth-quarter teams in the league and this year that has slipped dramatically.”
The Raptors are aware that they are disappointing themselves and those rooting for them. The panic button is right beneath their fingertips, but is it time to press it just yet?
Perhaps the multitude of injuries the Raps have faced this season is the issue. Currently, guard Delon Wright has been sidelined for over a month due to a shoulder injury, and impactful forward Patrick Patterson is out with a knee injury. Both of their returns could be any day, depending on how they feel and if they are ready. All-Star DeRozan, who is averaging 27.8 points per game missed over 5 games due to an ankle sprain which occurred when he landed on Valanciunas’ foot against Phoenix on January 22nd. And of course, big man Jared Sullinger, who came over from the Celtics this season succumbed to a preseason injury against the Golden State Warriors when he had his foot stepped on. He had to have a screw inserted into the fifth metatarsal of his left foot towards the end of October to alleviate stress reactions. The Raptors were 20-8, which was the franchise’s best start in history through 28 games before Sullinger made his appearance in a Raptors jersey. The chemistry just hasn’t been all there, and his performance been extremely underwhelming as he is averaging 2.4PPG and 2.5BPG in 10.7MPG.
So, does a trade need to be made to upgrade the Raptors?
Orlando Magic’s forward Serge Ibaka is no stranger to trade talk linked to Toronto. His low post defence, rim protection and ability to stretch the floor is exactly what the Raptors are looking for right now. He is our best option, but that would mean sending Orlando our 2017 first round draft pick, 3pt threat Terrence Ross, and Jared Sullinger. This trade would sting, but only momentarily as the Raptors are looking for that new spice — which would be Ibaka. The closest presence the Raptors have had to Ibaka was his current teammate Bismack Biyombo, who dominated the post and was a defensive monster. And remember how good the Raptors did with Biyombo?
According to Sporting News’ Sean Deveney, the Raptors are reluctant to give up substantial packages but are “playing hardball” in trade talks for players like Ibaka, and Denver Nugget’s Danilo Gallinari. ESPN’s Marc Stein reported, “The Raptors and Clippers are among the teams said to be monitoring Gallinari’s availability.” Gallinari is likely to really only help Toronto on the offensive end and to do so, it would likely cost GM Masai Ujiri Terence Ross and one of either Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet, who are all growing potential under the Raptors organization in their own light. The need for a second player in this deal is because the salaries must be within $5 million of each other and Gallinari’s contract exceeds Ross’ by $5,050,000. Although it’s a minuscule difference, it does impact any potential one-for-one deal between the Nuggets and Raptors.
However, Toronto made it clear they want to keep Bruno Caboclo, who is a “project the team wants to complete itself.”
There’s also Philadelphia 76ers Nerlens Noel. Noel can run, rebound and block shots. He could be a great addition, although not as skilled on offense, he can pick up on TO’s weaknesses while JV’s athleticism makes up for it. There is a great chance that the Sixers will have Noel and Jahlil Okafor on another team by 3:01 pm come February 23rd.
Lowry did say “something’s gotta give, something’s gotta change” following the 101-102 loss to the Pistons last night. Hopefully, after the All-Star break, the Raptors are able to re-energize and recoup and come together with a new mentality and a new found hunger to re-spark the chemistry and fight the Raptors are known to put up — not this fourth quarter collapse that is becoming all too familiar.
Forward DeMarre Carrol told reporters although the team is still in good spirits, “we gotta clean this thing up by the end of the game.” And hopefully, they start tomorrow against the Chicago Bulls, who have also been having a difficult past few games.
It’s too early to say goodbye to this season’s Atlantic title, but if the Raptors are unable to play efficiently through each and every minute of their next two games before the all-star break, they will need to press that panic button.