Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 106-102 loss to the Utah Jazz.
One — Predictable: It would be devastating to lose an entirely winnable game in this fashion, if it hadn't already happened a dozen or so times this season. Use whatever factor you want — injuries, altitude, COVID-19 after effects, Tampa — the end result is mostly the same. It almost makes it difficult to evaluate their results, and without that, you are mostly left with the feeling of having your time wasted.
Two — Dry: The Raptors were flowing on offense in the first half, but it was a massive struggle to score in the fourth quarter. Nick Nurse changed his rotations to have more of his starters on the floor to compensate for his untrustworthy bench players, and this too proved problematic as his starters just ended up getting too tired to make open looks down the stretch. There were a handful of stagnant possessions, to be sure, but the Raptors also missed so many chances that could have put this game to bed.
Three — Impressive: The only mistakes from Khem Birch were the two floaters he missed in the fourth quarter, otherwise it was his best showing yet. Birch had the right game plan against Rudy Gobert, which was to play in the gaps and flash open when his guards drove downhill. Once Gobert committed to helping, Birch would get in position and find space to shoot. He even mixed in a corner three, although his best role is still in the paint for the time being. When the Jazz did send another defender to help in the pick-and-roll, Birch was unselfish with his passing out of the paint which led to six assists. Birch shows chemistry with every single player on the team, which is the mark of a good player.
Four — Growth: Nurse saw Birch hesitate to bring the ball up after a rebound in the Nuggets game, and asked him to show more confidence in his handle. Birch took that message to heart and pushed it on at least four occasions, one of which ended in Birch finding Yuta Watanabe filling the lane for a transition dunk. Whether it's the corner threes, the passing on the move, or now the handles, Birch is clearly more talented than what he was allowed to do for Orlando. Nurse, being a good coach, is letting him expand his game, and this is also part of the reason why Birch wanted to join the Raptors as well — having already gotten familiar with Nurse through his time with Team Canada. It's a match on all levels.
Five — Aggressive: Fred VanVleet was excellent in the first half, hitting threes on the move in the narrowest of spaces, getting to the basket, setting up his teammates, and it led to the Raptors holding a lead. VanVleet had some of the same magic in the second half, but it was clear that he grew tired like everyone else. VanVleet took it upon himself to carry the Raptors, and while he did bank in a three and nail a tough pull-up two, he was also 2-for-8 in the fourth and the offense lagged as a whole. It's fair to nitpick at VanVleet's shot selection, but quite honestly, nobody on the Raptors has shown any ability to close out a game so it just becomes another player's problem. Their best chance to win close games is to share the ball as much as possible and to have everyone feeling confident in their shot, but that's easier said than done.
Six — Missing: It's becoming impossible to judge the performances of Pascal Siakam because he's so many levels below his best that something has to be weighing him down (recovering from COVID-19 is a very understandable and likely reason). That being said, it's hard to go into games with any expectations because you just never know which Siakam will appear. He was downright awful in all regards tonight, forcing up contested shots, no legs in the jumper, didn't record a single assist, and he was also poor on defense. Put it this way: If there wasn't something hampering him, it would be the biggest concern for the entire franchise.
Seven — Quiet: OG Anunoby's scoring streak of 20-plus points was snapped at six games, as Anunoby came one basket shy of matching his mark. There wasn't that much different about how Anunoby played, except that the Jazz had more rim protection inside so he didn't post up as often, and it was just a matter of his threes not falling at their usual rate. Anunoby still had his moments, out-muscling Gobert under the basket for a layup, and a drive into a dish for Freddie Gillespie after drawing the help. Anunoby looks perfectly comfortable in his role, and while his skillset might not allow him to be featured more frequently, there is huge value in Anunoby maximizing his role.
Eight — Exposure: Jalen Harris made a rare appearance in the rotation, although it was only for four minutes. Harris was banged up for much of the year, and then he was assigned to the G-League, so he really hasn't had an opportunity to showcase himself in any meaningful way. Nurse said Harris will get some chances to play in the last few weeks of the season, if only just to get a look at what he can do. Harris showed flashes with the 905 as a scorer with some bounce, but as with the case with every player for Nurse, it will be how Harris fares on the defensive end that will determine his minutes. He's only on a two-way deal so it's almost like a training camp situation for Harris.
Nine — Shuffle: The Raptors will have Kyle Lowry back for the Lakers game, but they will also presumably rest some players as well. The constant shuffle in the rotation is another confounding factor in how difficult it is to evaluate specific performances. The Raptors used their 30th different starting lineup tonight, and it wouldn't be a shock to see their 31st iteration tomorrow. This season is a mess, and at this point, the focus should be to get everyone through healthy. There is no sense in overextending anybody.
Ten — Difficult: The Lakers game will be difficult for several reasons. One, both Anthony Davis and LeBron James have recovered for the stretch run, and while neither one is in mid-season form after missing so much time, the Lakers are still a matchup nightmare with their size. The Lakers will have a center on the floor at all times, Davis at power forward, and James as their small forward, which means the undersized Raptors will be pressed even more than usual. Siakam and Anunoby both rely on the post, but those chances won't be there. The Raptors beat the Lakers last year by capitalizing in transition, although it's hard to see them in top speed on the second night of a back-to-back.
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