In other years, losses to the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA's two preeminent franchises, would hardly be surprising or disconcerting results. However, with the two clubs currently a combined 23 games below .500, the defeats represent a sign of chinks in the armor of the otherwise red hot Toronto Raptors (20-19).
On this Sunday afternoon, the Lakers' annual visit, an appearance that typically carries far more buzz than this year's iteration, brought out an uncharacteristically ineffective Raps' defensive effort. In a 112-106 loss, Toronto not only allowed 112 points on 46.2% shooting (37-80), but opened the door for L.A. to shoot 54.5% (12-22) from three-point territory and make 15 more free throws (26-28) than the Raptors even attempted (9-11). Yes, some of that may have stemmed from some suspect officiating, but a more disciplined 'D' still wouldn't have allowed those eye-popping numbers.
While the defensive lapse was an anomaly in relation to recent efforts, the home side's continued troubling trend of coughing up big leads was anything but. The Raps had built up a 19-point lead part-way through the second quarter, only to see it nearly evaporate by the half. If that wasn't enough of a collapse, they would later take as much as a 17-point advantage before frittering it away late.
Rebounding stats in a losing effort can often be misleading. After all, you are typically missing shots when you are losing, leaving more balls available for offensive rebounds. In this case, the Raptors actually shot slightly better than the Lakers (48.9% to 46.2%), relying instead on superior paint play in order to establish a commanding 47-31 advantage on the boards. That edge, which included 13 offensive rebounds to six for L.A., came courtesy of seven Raptors (Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes and even Julyan Stone) who finished with anywhere from five to seven rebounds.
I've already laid out the Lakers' offensive execution above, made all the worse when you factor in L.A.'s less-than-potent line-up. What struck me in watching Sunday's game (purely subjective, unsubstantiated opinion alert!) was how the Raps didn't seem ready to deal with Nick "Swaggy P" Young, Pau Gasol and company. Specifically, they seemed ill-prepared to account for the contributions of Ryan Kelly, who provided 17 points on just seven shots, and Kendall Marshall, who facillitated much of the offence and finished with a double-double (10 points, 11 assists). The difference between the Kobe-reliant Lakers' offence from their previous game against Toronto and Sunday's no-Kobe, contributions-by-committee effort is certainly notable.
The Free Throw Disparity
The free throw difference can't be discussed without acknowledging some iffy calls that seemed to consistently go against the Raps, most notably on a pair of suspect foul calls on three-point attempts by Young and Kelly. Toronto was not guilt-free in serving up some sloppy, undisciplined, panick-y defence, but they hardly initiated such one-sided physicality as to warrant a 17-free throw difference between the teams.
Dwane Casey should be concerned about the club's recent tendency to ease off the gas once they work up to a big lead, but it's one thing to be concerned and another to know how to fix it. Even in Friday's wire-to-wire triumph over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Raps played with fire and let what was a 14-point lead dip as low as two. For a tough-minded roster featuring numerous competitive personalities (Hayes, Johnson, Kyle Lowry and Tyler Hansbrough, to name four), it's difficult to understand the team's habit of wilting amidst what should be an anticipated rally attempt by the opposition.
As expected, Salmons was out on Sunday with back trouble. Unexpected, though, was Casey's decision to green-light some minutes for Stone. Although the little-used guard did provide six rebounds in 13 minutes of game time, I don't really see the dimension that he offers the team that guys like Landry Fields and Steve Novak, both DNP-CD's, cannot.
All the trade talk around L.A. has centered in on Gasol, and rightfully so. But wouldn't it behoove Mitch Kupchak and the Lakers' front office to explore any available deals for Young, whose 29-point afternoon highlights what has been a solid, value-adding campaign thus far? Swaggy P may have some empty-headed moments and take the odd flow-killing shot, but he could contribute to just about any contender as a volume scorer off the bench.
The Raps don't have much time to focus on the loss (perhaps that's a good thing), not with a Martin Luther King Jr. Day-inspired Monday afternoon tip-off in Charlotte on tap for tomorrow (2:00pm, SN).
Prediction: Bobcats 90, Raps 84 (22-9 this season)