Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 115-112 loss to the Utah Jazz.
One — Unfortunate: The hits won't stop coming for the Raptors, who dropped their seventh consecutive game despite holding a five-point lead with under two minutes left. The Raptors finally got their full group together after an outbreak of COVID-19, and they took it right to the best team in the league for the full 48 minutes. A few empty and stagnant possessions hurt them in the end, while Donovan Mitchell was able to capitalize going the other way, and the end result was another bitter loss after yet another clutch basket from Pascal Siakam rimmed out. It would be funny if it wasn't so sad. It's a step in the right direction, but the Raptors have more moral victories than actual wins this season, and that's the bottom line.
Two — Lopsided: Nick Nurse was practically seething with rage in the post-game interview at the lopsided free throw disparity in favour of the Jazz at 41-14. Mitchell himself took more attempts (16) than the Raptors as a team. Nurse said his team outplayed the Jazz, that his team attacked with "double" the urgency, and yet it was practically impossible for his team to overcome the odds. And honestly, feelings aside, Nurse does have a point. The Raptors guarded the Jazz beautifully, contested most of their looks, kept Rudy Gobert under control despite playing with a smaller lineup, and that still didn't amount to a win. Nurse was smart with his words to not catch a fine, but he made sure to keep the focus on the officiating.
Three — Balanced: The Raptors were finally able to return to their smallball lineup, and similar to the Raptors' two wins against the Bucks, they were able to handle and contain one of the best teams in the league. For what it lacks in size, it makes up for in how aggressive the Raptors can get on the perimeter. Nurse had his bigs play up high, his guards digging into the ball, and it neutralized pick-and-rolls for most of the night. It came apart in the end, perhaps due to the tight whistle, or maybe fatigue caught up with them as three of the five had just recovered from a long layoff. Still, this was the Raptors' best defensive effort in three weeks, and it's clear that the Raptors were missing their main guys as much on defense as they were on offense.
Four — Unlucky: There's no other way to describe Siakam's night other than being unlucky. This was the third game-tying or game-winning attempt that has rolled out for Siakam this season, and he couldn't help but laugh at his own misfortune. It had been an excellent game for Siakam before that, as he recorded 27 points and nine assists while also hold his own against Gobert on defense. But as usual for Siakam, the hate will come his way for missing the last shot. Siakam got off to a slow start but found his rhythm in the second quarter and carried it through right until the end. If his body can withstand all the knocks, the center position seems to be a good fit for Siakam, as he can be more involved as a screener and have more of his offense created for him, rather than having to always generate it on his own. More importantly, Siakam looked good in his conditioning, as he streaked by the defense a few times for transition like he always used to.
Five — Late: The Jazz had Norman Powell under control for the first three quarters, but Powell found a way to impact the game late. The Jazz were cutting off Powell's cuts to the basket, not letting him get free in transition, while also stationing the league's best shot blocker at the basket to deter Powell from the drive. But Powell found his way in the fourth quarter, as some better execution on off-ball screens gave Powell the angle to drive downhill, and from there he would either kickout after drawing the help from Gobert, or just take it all the way inside for the dunk. This is the next challenge for Powell, to remain effective even when the defense tries to take away his preferred shots, to find a way to counter and make the defense adjust to him.
Six — Missed: It's so clear that the Raptors were missing OG Anunoby because nobody else on the roster comes close to replicating his game. His first shift back from COVID-19 was almost perfect, as Anunoby drained a three, worked a pick-and-roll for a long two, collected a steal, broke up a play at the rim, and chipped in on the glass where the Raptors are usually weak. Anunoby's rare combination of quick feet, strength in the post, defensive discipline, and the growing confidence to generate points both within the flow of the offense or by forcing the action, is the glue that ties the Raptors together. It's good to have him back.
Seven — Tone: The Raptors' starters outplayed their counterparts for the first time in nearly a month, but the second unit is still a problem. Nurse kept it to a tight eight-man rotation for the second half, but even still there was always a drop-off when the reserves came in. Part of that comes down to Chris Boucher, who needs to emerge as a tone setter for the second unit. He already carries them in scoring on a nightly basis, but he can also be much better defensively and battle harder on the defensive glass. The first shift for the second unit saw the Jazz collect two offensive rebounds on the same play, this after the starters played lockdown defense in the first six minutes. The bench just needs to be better.
Eight — Promising: Nurse made a surprise inclusion with rookie guard Malachi Flynn checking in as the lone guard off the bench. Flynn's role was strictly limited to two tasks: to bring the ball past halfcourt before getting it into the hands of a veteran, and to play energetic defense. On both fronts he did well, particularly on defense where he was assigned two slippery targets in Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson. It helped that both players are built lightly as Flynn is, but he was diligent in moving his feet, didn't reach in (the officials punished him anyway, it was one of those nights) and kept them under wraps. It's a very narrow role for Flynn to be in, but the Raptors have a development plan and they're sticking to it. Nurse is a coach who really values defense, and Flynn does have the smarts to excel on that end. And once that's handled, Flynn will have the occasional pick-and-roll where he can pick his spots to create. Once he nails all the fundamentals, the shots will come.
Nine — Emerging: Nurse is also favouring Paul Watson as his only wing off the bench. The expectations for Watson aren't dissimilar to what is expected from Yuta Watanabe and Stanley Johnson, who have also held the same role. Watson needs to be energetic, scrap for rebounds, and hit the occasional three. Watson is executing his coverages well at the moment, and he figures to be the best shooter of the three with a small dash of an ability to attack a closeout and to finish at the rim. Quite honestly, it doesn't really affect the bottom line in terms of which one gets these minutes, and Watson deserved a turn so it's his role for now.
Ten — Oddity: One last thing on the free throws. As Kyle Lowry mentioned post game, this isn't the first time a player has single handedly shot more foul shots than the Raptors as a team. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid have also done it, while there are another two instances where Embiid and Jaylen Brown attempted one less than the Raptors collectively. It must be frustrating, to be sure, but when it happens repeatedly the issue is most likely to do with the Raptors' defense. A lack of rim protection against athletic slashers is always going to be an uphill battle. They didn't have these issues when Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol were around.
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