Is The Toronto Raptors Season Already Over?
The Toronto Raptors were going to be playoffs contenders this season. No guarantees, but the additions of Kyle Lowry from Houston and restricted free agent Landry Fields from New York together with a healthy Andrea Bargnani, an improving DeMar DeRozan and the highly touted rookie center Jonas Valanciunas seemed like more than enough to have Toronto fighting for a playoff spot in April.
A minor bump in the road during saw Lowry and Valanciunas both miss some time in training camp and preseason, but the Raptors went 6-1 in seven preseason games and looked like they had developed a measure of team chemistry heading into the season. That unfortunately proved to be something on an illusion.
With a record of 4-14 and in the midst of a five game western road trip that has four games remaining, whispers about the Raptors season being over before it even truly gets going are becoming louder.
“Our record is pretty bad,” Andrea Bargnani said. “Everybody is frustrated. We have to try and get some wins. That is all we care about. We are right there, but being right there doesn’t mean anything. We just have to try and win because nobody is going to help us from the outside. We just have to do it ourselves. We just have to win, that’s it. There is not much to say.”
The Raptors were facing a tough start to the season. In their first 18 games, 12 teams were in the playoffs last season and Toronto has already played 11 games on the road. That will be 15 away games out of their first 22 contests by the time they return from the current road trip. And, it’s not like the Raptors haven’t competed. They were within three points at the end of regulation in six of their losses including two losses at home in overtime to go with two single-point losses on the road. The fiasco of a refereeing error in Charlotte that cost them a game really stung.
“It is hard to explain,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “As easily as we could have won those games, we wouldn’t be sitting here trying to scratch our way out. As Kyle [Lowry] said, we are in a four-and-a-half-foot hole trying to stop digging and going any deeper. Those games could have gone either way and they were all about fundamentals. There are not huge things, they are little things. Getting a stop at the right time, getting a rebound at the right time, knocking a free throw down, knocking a wide open jump shot at the right time. All those things are little, but they come by experience and confidence and keeping confidence throughout tough times and not letting frustration set in.”
Even splitting those six close losses would put the Raptors at a more reasonable and expected 7-11 mark, so there is some merit for the general consensus from the players that the team is better than their record. Plus, the Raptors have given themselves a chance in every game except three this season.
“It’s very frustrating because our record doesn’t show what kind of team we are,” Lowry said.
Toronto’s recent history might suggest that if this team didn’t have bad luck, they would have no luck at all. All of those close losses didn’t just happen. The injury bug has struck early and often again this season making the biggest hole at the small forward position, a spot that president and general manager Bryan Colangelo had tried to plug during the offseason. However, Fields developed a pinched nerve in his elbow that caused him to shoot wildly and mishandle the ball. Fields is now out indefinitely after elbow surgery. Fields’ replacement, Alan Anderson, tore the plantar fascia in his left foot in his first start. Plus, Linas Kleiza missed the start of the season due to family problems and has been wildly inconsistent since his return. The planned depth at small forward all but disappeared.
At least as big an impact came when Lowry bruised a bone in his foot during his fourth game and missed two weeks. He came back much earlier than expected, but didn’t start regaining his early season form until just two games ago.
“I am alright,” Lowry said before the road trip. “The bone is still bruised, but whatever. I am playing through it and trying to get myself into good shape. I am just pushing through. It’s sore, but no excuses. I am on the floor and I am here to play and that’s all that matters.”
As much as the injuries, inconsistent play on the part of every Raptors’ player has also factored in. The shooters Colangelo acquired in the off season haven’t shot well. The defense Casey installed last season didn’t show up for the first two weeks and has been inconsistent since. Plus, the team’s best offensive player, Andrea Bargnani, has been wildly inconsistent and is averaging his lowest points per game since 2009-2010.
“We are going to go the way Andrea goes offensively,” Casey said. “[With Bargnani,] we are a different team. We spread the floor. The floor is spaced. DeMar has more space to operate. [Bargnani] is the hub, the core. He is the guy everything kind of revolves around. If he is active engaged and productive, not only at the offensive end, but on the defensive end, we are a different team.”
Bargnani has put together some very good offensive and defensive games this season, but rarely at the same time and not often enough to help pull out a few more much needed wins. Unfortunately for Bargnani’s detractors, Casey is right. On most nights, this team just doesn’t have enough offensive talent to close the deal without a good game from Bargnani.
There are signs Bargnani is finding his shooting stroke again and he has played well offensively in five of the past seven games. Also, Lowry may still be experiencing some pain, but in his last two games, it didn’t affect his production. Plus, Colangelo recently signed veteran free agent Mickael Pietrus to help stop the bleeding at the small forward position. The remaining four games on this road trip will provide a test of whether the Raptors are starting to get back on track.
“Anytime you lose a lot of games, you seem to be a little bit down, but it is a long season,” Pietrus said. “Teams are going to lose games and teams are going to win some and hopefully we are going to win more than we lose. We are very young. We have to bring a lot of energy and make things happen. We are too young to be thinking about basketball loses.”
When the Raptors return to the Air Canada Center on Dec. 12, they will have 60 games remaining in their season and they can’t afford to be 4-18. A 0-5 road trip would make that four-and-a-half foot deep hole Lowry describes pretty close to six feet deep. The season may not be over for Toronto yet and maybe Colangelo could pull off the miracle trade that would overcome a continuing slide, but more likely Bargnani’s analysis is correct. No one is coming to help them. To keep their season hopes alive, they just have to win.