LOS ANGELES — Another night, another strong effort against a quality opponent and another loss. It’s been a frustrating season and a frustrating 1-3 road trip for the Toronto Raptors and safe to say, emotions are running high.
On Wednesday night Fred VanVleet wanted the world to know he’d had enough — with the way he thinks the Raptors have been officiated at least.
After Toronto’s 108-100 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors point guard paused for moment, and said “I don’t mind, I’ll take a fine, I don’t really care.”
The fine will be substantial as the calm, measured and forthright veteran proceeded to eviscerate referee Ben Taylor in particular and the state of NBA officiating in general in a manner unlike you’ll ever hear again.
“I thought Ben Taylor was f—–g terrible tonight,” he began. “I think that most nights, you know out of the three [referees] there’s one or two that just f–k the game up. It’s been like that a couple of games in a row. Denver was tough, obviously.”
The context matters. Toronto is two nights removed from a last-minute loss to the Denver Nuggets that was decided by a number of coin-flip type calls that went against the Raptors and culminated with a sudden ejection of Scottie Barnes by crew chief Scott Foster after the veteran official claimed that the second-year forward questioned the crew’s integrity, though Barnes is adamant he was speaking to himself.
The frustration with Barnes’ ejection reverberated around the Raptors organization. The pump was primed. The loss to the Clippers tipped things over.
Against the Clippers the Raptors had more field goal attempts (96-71), more offensive rebounds (15-9), fewer turnovers (17-12) and made more threes (13-6) but lost in part because Los Angeles got to the free throw line 31 times to 14 for Toronto.
And for Toronto, every game matters. The loss dropped the ninth-place Raptors a game-and-a-half behind Atlanta for eighth place and leaves them just a half-game up on Washington for 10th.
Why the Clippers had the edge in free throws could be for a number of reasons. The actual discrepancy in fouls called wasn’t all that significant: 23 for Toronto to 18 for Los Angeles. But the Raptors put the Clippers into the bonus with four minutes to go in the second quarter, and again with 5:51 left in the game. As well former Raptor Kawhi Leonard — playing some of the best basketball of his career after recovering from missing all of last season with a knee injury — was his aggressive best and got to the line nine times.
And as Chris Boucher pointed out, a lot of fouls often come as a result of being a hair late defensively.
“Sometimes it’s just a tick-tack foul [and] we could be in better position. At the end of the day, it starts costing us a lot when they’re at the free throw line,” Boucher said.
The Clippers shot 54.9 per cent from the floor.
So there are plausible explanations for the discrepancy, but that’s not where the Raptors — and VanVleet — wanted to go after the game. He was especially vexed by a technical foul Taylor called on him at the 7:02 mark of the third quarter after Barnes was called for a foul on Ivica Zubac.
“You come out tonight, competing pretty hard and I get a bulls–t tech that changes the whole dynamic of the game, changed the whole flow of the game,” said VanVleet.
The Raptors (32-35) started the game well and led 25-17 after the first quarter and were tied 49-49 at half with the Clippers (35-33) who are in as tough a fight for the playoffs as the Raptors find themselves. Toronto was trailing by seven when VanVleet picked up his technical foul which he says was because he said to his teammates: “‘come on, guys, let’s keep playing through the bulls–t.”
Did the game turn at that moment? Toronto actually went on an 8-2 run and cut the Clippers’ lead to two immediately after the call, but the Clippers responded with a 13-2 run over the next three minutes — a stretch in which only the Raptors got to the line, ironically — as Los Angeles took an 83-74 lead into the fourth quarter.
That’s when the free-throw disparity became more pronounced as the Clippers shot 13 freebies to four for Toronto.
But it was also during the fourth that Leonard — who came into the game averaging 28.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 52.6 per cent from the floor, 49.6 per cent from three (on more than five attempts per game) and 91.5 per cent from the line of his last 22 starts — showed he can lift teams over the finish line as the Clippers have been waiting for him to do since he signed with them in the summer of 2019.
“The only probably complaint I had late [about the Raptors defence] is Kawhi got straight on a line downhill a little bit on us late,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Take those four or five straight line drives out of there, and then I think it looks really good.”
Leonard’s knack for making game-determining plays almost at will remains intact.
As examples: midway through the fourth quarter the Raptors were hopeful of making a run and they had their starters back in, down 10. But after a missed VanVleet three Leonard was able to snatch an offensive rebound from the grip of Jakob Poeltl and fire it up the floor to Paul George (23 points, four assists), who lobbed a perfect alley-oop to Terance Mann (14 points, four assists off the bench) for an eventual three-point play.
Next possession Leonard blew past O.G. Anunoby, rose up and smashed a dunk over Poeltl, proof that all-NBA calibre defence and quality rim protection are no match for him. On the Clippers’ next possession, Leonard won a race to a loose ball with VanVleet, batted it to Mann before falling into the front row of seats and went to the line again. The mini-surge put the Clippers up by 14 and the game was mostly in their control.
And VanVleet acknowledged that for all his frustration, the officials didn’t decide the game.
“That’s not why we lost tonight, we got outplayed, but it definitely makes it tougher to overcome,” he said.
Toronto got 13 points and nine assists from VanVleet; 20 points, five rebounds and four assists from Barnes (although he was 6-of-21 from the floor); and 20 points and five assists from Pascal Siakam, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Leonard, the Clippers, or the referees, to hear VanVleet tell it.
But his comments were compelling not only because it was him making them — speaking in anger or without weighing his words is simply not his habit — but because he touched on a broader context than being on the wrong end of a bad call.
He spoke about the nature of the role officials play in the game itself and their relationship with players — or at least with him. He cast his net widely.
“Most of the refs are trying hard, I like a lot of the refs, they’re trying hard, they’re pretty fair, and communicate well,” he said. “And then you got the other ones who just want to be d–s and just kind of f–k up the game. And no one’s coming to see that s–t. They come to see the players. And I think we’re losing a little bit of the fabric of what the NBA is and was and it’s been disappointing this season. You can look it up: Most of my techs this year have been with Ben Taylor officiating. So at a certain point as a player you feel it’s personal and it’s never a good place to be.”
VanVleet’s technical against the Clippers was his eighth of the season — his previous career-high was five in 2020-21. For what it’s worth Taylor was refereeing the Raptors’ Nov. 30 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, the only time VanVleet has ever been ejected. Taylor — a 10-year veteran — gave him his first tech that night, but not his second.
“There’s been certain times this year where I feel our team is getting consumed with the way the whistle is going, especially after the night we just had in Denver the way that finished so there was a couple calls earlier that we all disagreed with,” said VanVleet.
“And if I say to my team, ‘come on, guys, let’s keep playing through the bulls–t’ and that warrants a tech I think that’s a little bit crazy. Like what are we doing, know what I mean? And there’s a fine line obviously, I understand that. But I think the jurisdiction and the power trip that we’ve been on this year with some of our officials in this league is getting out of hand and I’ll take my fine for speaking on it but it’s just this is f–king ridiculous.”
VanVleet said his piece, and he’ll pay for it by way of a fine. It will be interesting how it affects the way he and the Raptors are officiated the rest of this season and beyond.