Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 122-116 loss to the Utah Jazz.
1. The Raptors begin their play-in push with one of their most harrowing losses of the season. Despite being comfortably ahead with a 12-point edge, the Raptors inexplicably collapsed down the stretch.
Utah’s guards got downhill at will, including for multiple and-one finishes late in the game as the Jazz scored on an unfathomable 14 possessions in a row to close the game as part of a 39-20 fourth quarter. The Raptors countered with one of their signature fourth quarter droughts, which inexplicably came with their leading scorer Pascal Siakam failing to touch the ball in the last five minutes outside of a bailout pass with five seconds left on the clock against a set defence, and on a catch-and-shoot look from the corner.
The end result is an unacceptable loss at a time where the pressure is to take every win available to them, having inexplicably chosen to be buyers at the deadline as the 10th seed that is now five games under .500 with 25 games to left.
2. Toronto’s collapse was made more frustrating by how mindless their decisions appeared to be. Offensively, the number of possessions wasted by not featuring Siakam is simply mind-boggling. He was the one player who could consistently score, with 30 points in the first three quarters.
Utah didn’t have a natural defender to check him, and with how little help they provided aside from at the basket, Siakam was able to repeatedly get to his spots in single coverage. Instead, most of the offence flowed through the backcourt of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. who shot a combined 11-for-33. VanVleet badly airballed a three in the final minute, while Trent Jr. whiffed on two midrange looks.
There were also some confusing decisions by Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa on possessions that had no purpose. Defensively, the Raptors created many of their own problems with how they chose to cover. One, their newly acquired seven-foot shot blocker was not in the game to close, which allowed the Jazz to have no fear in attacking the paint. Two, the lane was wide open each time the Jazz set a ball screen because of Nick Nurse’s inflexible strategy of pressuring ball handlers and fighting through screens.
Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker were able to repeatedly get downhill to create havoc all night, especially down the stretch, yet not once did the Raptors go under a screen and force them to shoot despite them shooting a combined 0-for-5 from three. That being said, the Raptors still had options like switching or even shifting into a zone, but the coverage stayed the same and was beaten in the same way repeatedly at the end.
3. The officiating very much cut against the Raptors. The whistle was very inconsistent as every tiny bump or hold on the perimeter was called, yet heavy physicality in the paint was permitted.
This of course favoured the Jazz, who mostly camp out in the lane, as compared to the Raptors who pressure the perimeter more than any team in the league. It came to a head in the fourth quarter, where Toronto was assessed five fouls in the first two minutes of the quarter, beginning with VanVleet’s fifth on an entirely insignificant hold away from the ball.
Siakam and Jakob Poeltl were also limited with foul trouble, and by the end the Raptors were almost afraid to contest which helped jumpstart Utah’s run. Nick Nurse burned a timeout with 1.4 seconds left down six points with the sore purpose of giving the officials an earful, while VanVleet followed suit after the final whistle.
The end result is that the Raptors once again struggled and lost due to defence, despite the team being comprised of strong defenders. And while the officials did them absolutely no favours, there needs to be strong consideration into whether the schemes and strategies employed by the coaching staff are right for the personnel they have.
4. Poeltl was exactly as advertised in his debut. Nurse decided to bring him off the bench, with the reasoning being that he hasn’t gone through a practice just yet, although this was very much a matchup in which he should have started.
Toronto was once again bullied by rookie centre Walker Kessler, who scored 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting matched up mostly against Toronto’s smaller front-court that required upgrading at the deadline. Poeltl himself was rusty to start, with two fouls whistled against him in his first minute of play (the second of which was overturned by coach’s challenge), but settled in quickly and made a handful of plays for his teammates.
His best contribution in this game was his screening, as he consistently popped his guards open with a chance to attack. VanVleet and Trent Jr. took that as an invitation to hunt for their own shots rather than getting into the paint and kicking out, but at least Poeltl did his part to create the space.
He also paired with Siakam on two rolls to the basket, which was very much a missing part of Toronto’s offence. Unfortunately, Poeltl’s one-handed free throw shooting unsurprisingly resulted in 2-for-7 from the line, which burns in a loss that came down to one possession at the the end. Defensively, Poeltl’s size was a hurdle at the basket and forced a few misses, although his foul trouble limited him to only 17 minutes.
5. Poeltl’s fit with the team is obvious in that he can be helpful on both ends, but it does create new challenges. For one, Nurse has to make a decision on the starting group, as right now there are seven candidates for five spots when O.G. Anunoby returns from his wrist injury. Achiuwa was a bench player before the injury and he’s the backup centre so it’s easy enough to demote him, but who else joins him?
There’s a case to be made that the Raptors should just go big and knock one of the guards to the reserves, but they happen to be impending free agents. The trickier question is how Achiuwa and Barnes adapt to their new roles with a traditional centre now taking up the position that they have each played for extended stretches this season.
This means more of Barnes playing on the perimeter, where his outside shot is still very inconsistent and so his value will have to come in how often he wants to drive. In this game he didn’t get going until late in the third, although his playmaking was astute as always. For Achiuwa, he will still see spot minutes at five, but will also need to play more on the wing, and to that end, it was encouraging that he tried four threes — making two — instead of always turning them down as he had in recent weeks.