Someway, somehow, the goal is to get there. Qualifying for the playoffs has been the guiding light for the Toronto Raptors as they navigate the final stages of the regular season.
No surprise: the Raptors did their tank job last season in Tampa, the prize being the opportunity to draft Scottie Barnes. They weren’t going to do it again.
But it wasn’t playoffs or bust this season. It couldn’t be with a team coming off a 27-45 season, having lost Kyle Lowry, their iconic point guard, to Miami in free agency, and not when so many minutes were going to be dedicated to the growth and development of Barnes, a 20-year-old, and Precious Achiuwa, 22, not to mention Gary Trent Jr., an NBA starter for the first time himself and just 22 to start the season.
But as the season progressed and the Raptors managed their youth, their injuries, COVID issues and a quirky lineup that lacked a traditional big and was light on three-point shooting, the team found its identity, carved out a style of play and improved.
As a result the seventh-place Raptors rolled into Chicago for a key contest against the fifth-place Bulls with one goal in mind.
“I’m really hopeful we can get in the playoffs one way or another,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “I think we really need to experience that with our young group.”
The job got a little harder after the Raptors’ 113-99 loss to the Bulls. They squandered a chance to tie the sixth-place Cleveland Cavaliers, who were beaten by the Los Angeles Lakers, and get within a half-game of Chicago.
Since both Cleveland and Chicago own the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Raptors, Toronto will have to finish strong and hope that one of the Cavaliers or the Bulls falter down the stretch.
Otherwise? Toronto will have to take their chances in the play-in tournament reserved for teams that finish 7-through-10 in the regular season. The seventh- and eighth-place finishers have two chances to win one game and advance to a playoff series, the ninth- and 10th-place teams must win twice.
“That’s all I’m trying to do, get in as many playoff games as we can,” said Nurse. “Just so our guys can experience the level of prep and intensity and all the stuff that goes with it.”
The game turned in the third quarter when the Bulls broke things open with a 18-2 run where the Bulls took a page from the Raptors’ book and extended the defence, got their hands in lanes and took advantage of a Toronto team that looked a step slow on the second night of a back-to-back and playing its third game in four nights. The Bulls scored on an offensive rebound, then got hoops following three consecutive Raptors turnovers. The Bulls loaded up on Pascal Siakam and Toronto couldn’t make them pay as the Raptors shot just 1-of-7 from deep in the period.
The Bulls started the fourth quarter trailing 84-73 and their offence simply got stuck in the mud at that point as Chicago coasted home, snapping the Raptors’ six-game road winning streak in the process.
“Well, my first … analysis of it is to decide is it really that bad that we’re not getting good enough shots or whatever?” said Nurse. “You know, we did go into a stretch where we turned it over, maybe two or three straight times. That’s concerning,
“But when you’ve got a bunch of shots at the rim that are you’re not making and a string of wide-open threes that don’t go in, not much more we can ask for than that, right? So there is, the only thing I’m probably ever concerned about is the turnovers.”
That the Raptors were without two of their rather slim collection of proven three-point shooters in Trent Jr., who sprained his big toe late in the game against Philadelphia on Sunday, and OG Anunoby, who hasn’t played since before the all-star break, didn’t help.
The Raptors’ plan game-in and game-out is to win the ‘possession battle’ and take more shots by dominating the offensive glass and forcing more turnovers than they give up, something they’ve been very successful at:
But they’ve needed to be: The Raptors are 27th in effective field goal percentage on the season. If they don’t shoot more shots, they’re unlikely to win.
The plan didn’t work on Monday night. The teams were even in offensive rebounds at 14 each, while Chicago won the turnover category 12-5. Add in that Toronto shot 6-of-32 from three to the Bulls’ 11-of-28 and the seeds of a blowout were sown.
Siakam led Toronto with 22 points on 14 shots, while Fred VanVleet shot 7-of-22 and 3-of-12 from deep for his 19 points. Former Raptor DeMar DeRozan had 26 points on 14 shots for Chicago.
VanVleet is shooting just 35.5 per cent from the floor and 28.4 per cent from three since the all-star break while having missed seven of the Raptors 15 starts nursing what has been described only as a bruised knee. The rest is affecting his rhythm, but doesn’t seem to be paying off by healing up his knee.
“Yeah, it’s not doing much. It’s not doing much,” said VanVleet. “I understand the concept … I probably would have been even less effective than I was tonight if I would have played [Sunday against Philadelphia]. … It’s just one of those things where it’s got to kind of take it day by day and figure it out as you go. Certainly hard to gain a rhythm … It’s a difficult situation. [But] it’s what I get paid to do, so I got to figure it out. I certainly take ownership and responsibility for my poor performance and I’m looking forward to getting back on track.”
It’s concerning, but outside of health there is plenty of room for optimism for Toronto. The Raptors are a young team getting better. The same club that had the NBA’s 30th-ranked defence in November was eighth in March as it arrived in Chicago for a key contest with the Bulls.
“You always hear me saying that if we’re gonna be able to execute the game plan and the schemes that we’re trying to execute, and we do it at a super hard and intense level, then we’re gonna be OK defensively,” said Nurse. “… It took us some time this year. The start of this year, we weren’t able to go out and execute much of anything. We were playing hard, and we were deflecting the ball, and we were creating turnovers and stuff, but it just wasn’t very cohesive and not in line with the schemes we were trying to run. But the coaching staff and the players have stayed with it and kept drilling and working and polishing and all those kinds of things, and it’s kind of a time and chemistry thing, a cohesive thing”.
The Raptors got an early lift offensively with the return to the lineup by VanVleet, who sat out the first night of Toronto’s back-to-back as he tries to make sure his troublesome knee can get him to the finish line.
He looked sharp and quick early. He scored the Raptors’ first two buckets, assisted on their third, but his teammates looked heavy in the legs after playing big minutes against Philadelphia on an 8:30 pm start and arriving in Chicago in the wee hours of Monday morning. They started 3-of-14 from the floor as the Bulls jumped out to a quick 15-7 lead.
But in a pattern that repeated itself multiple times in the first half, the Raptors responded with their own surge — in this case 9-1 run to tie the score 16-16 midway through the opening quarter, which the Bulls won 30-24.
But the Raptors got organized in the second quarter and began to systematically attack the Bulls’ defensive soft spots, specifically Nikola Vucevic, the talented offense centre who struggles to defend agile players in space. Toronto fed Vucevic a steady diet of Siakam on switches and the shifty Raptors forward kept attacking the mismatch. An 11-3 run by Toronto featured six straight points by Siakam as the Raptors took 55-54 lead into the half. Siakam led all scorers with 16 points.
Toronto could have used some of it in the second half, but Siakam didn’t have it and neither did any of his teammates. They have 10 games left and plenty of work to do to realize their goal of playing as many post-season games as they possibly can.