Josh Lowenberg: “Something Looks Off”: Birds of Prey season hits a new low point

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TORONTO — In a free-fall season full of low points, the Raptors may have hit rock bottom.

After another setback — an embarrassing loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday — the NBA schedule makers have been kind enough to cut some slack.

Thursday’s opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, played on the road at altitude the night before, and fell to the Denver Nuggets in a game that fell to the wire. Missing their big stars, the injured Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert, and with less than 22 hours between contests, the Wolves didn’t get home until 4 a.m. on game day, while a healthy and laid-back Toronto club awaited their arrival. . Even for a team that brushes away chances like flies, this one was just too good to pass up.

And they seemed poised to take advantage, leading for 36 straight minutes and as much as an 18-point lead. The Raptors led by 12 points with eight minutes remaining. From there, they missed 13 of their 15 shots and turned the ball over three times, as a team that was supposed to be tired and messed up outscored the score 18-4 and stole the win.

Even worse, when all was said and done, no one was particularly surprised or upset by the outcome. Defeated, sure, maybe a little depressed. But there was a level of indifference to them after that.

They talked about open looks that didn’t fall or calls that didn’t get their way, as if this was a game that just slipped out of their hands. They still had their chances of pulling it off in the end – a couple of OG Anunoby players came out in the final minute, a questionable fumble on Fred VanVleet sent D’Angelo Russell to the goal line to win the game with free throws. But what is lost in that narrative is that they should not have been in this situation in the first place. Unfortunately, nights like these have become so common that they are almost insensitive to them.

“There was a lot of good stuff defensively,” Nurse said after his team gave up 128 points and allowed Minnesota to shoot 51 percent from the field and hit 17 of 40 three-point attempts. “We had a lot of distractions again, not a lot of recovery, but getting our hands on a lot of things… [There were a] A couple of misconnections on some of the slide screens down the hallway. but then again, [we fixed] that with the final two minutes showing and then scoring the winning buckets on a 30-foot fault rip, [which] It’s way too difficult for that match to be decided.”

“They definitely picked up fitness late and we didn’t take advantage of the whistle,” VanVleet said. “But you have to be able to count on your defense to keep you in. And if we’re going to get 17 [fourth-quarter points] Maybe we need to get them to 16. It didn’t go that way tonight. So, this is definitely difficult.”

It’s a difficult situation to navigate. How do you deal with the fact that your team isn’t what you hoped it would be? You can scream and scream, as the nurse has tried on a few occasions this season. You can only have gamer meetings, and they’ve tried that, too. But you can only go to this well so many times. These things run their course. What is left for you is acceptance. After 46 games, you are who you are, and the Raptors are looking and acting like a 20-26 team.

“Something about them just feels weird,” one opposing player, who recently faced Toronto, told TSN.

Two other players on two different teams expressed similar sentiments. But what is it? One of those players brought up the word “connection” and suggested that this Raptors team doesn’t inspire the same level of fear in the opponent as previous iterations.

For years, that was their reputation. They were affectionately considered one of the most troublesome clubs in the league to play against. You’ll see the Toronto teams on the schedule and know their work has been cut. Now, it’s hard to imagine that being the case.

Over the past six games, they’ve allowed 121.6 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 27th in the NBA. During this period, they faced the Hornets and their 29th-ranked offense twice, the struggling Falcons (21st-ranked offensively), Bucks (24th-ranked) without Giannis Antetokounmpo or Khris Middleton, and the Wolves (15th-ranked) minus Towns and Joubert.

On the season, the Raptors ranked 19th in defensive efficiency. They were 27th over a one-month stretch from late November to late December, when they went from 4th to 11th, and then seemed to be turning a corner to start the new year (finishing fifth in January’s first five games). But lately, they haven’t stopped anyone anywhere. It’s been the story of their season so far: one step forward, two steps back.

Some of their defensive flaws lie in the front office and flawed roster build. That the team didn’t offer much resistance around the bucket isn’t surprising given that it doesn’t use a reliable rim guard. The difficulty of their transitional defense is, in part, a reflection of the offensive issues and lack of shooting on the ground.

However, none of that explains why a team loaded with tall and varied individual defenders would have trouble keeping players ahead of them on the perimeter. This doesn’t explain why a team that finished second in defense the last two months of last season couldn’t defend at a high level or on a consistent basis, despite having roughly the same roster. This is the responsibility of the players and their coaches.

At some point it was possible to mention the injuries. The Raptors used over 18 different starting lineups in the league over their first 35 games, with each of the rotation’s players losing time. But with the exception of off-season signing Otto Porter Jr., who would have helped him but he only played in eight games before he had season-ending surgery earlier this month, he’s been healthy for weeks.

“We have a bunch of accountability factors that we look at and take into account, but even some of those factors that you can score very high on, I think, and you don’t have the greatest energy in the world,” the nurse said last weekend. “I think the energy energy has definitely stopped, there’s no doubt about that.”

“From my point of view, they’ve continued to get here, work really hard both individually and as a team, and they’re focused and all that sort of thing. But there have been very few nights where there didn’t seem to be a collective energy when we hit the ground running.”

Maybe it has to do with connection or chemistry, intangible qualities that raptors don’t seem to have very often these days. Some have speculated that it may have been the result of some locker room disagreement. In other words, maybe Player A doesn’t like Player B and that affects how the team plays? Improbable. First, there is no indication that this is the case. But most importantly, it doesn’t even matter if that’s the case.

Off-pitch camaraderie doesn’t always translate to on-pitch chemistry. They are often completely unrelated, which may seem strange. Historically, there have been a lot of great teams that haven’t gotten along. There were even key players on the 2019 Raptors Championship Team who hated each other. That worked just fine. It usually happens when talent and tenacity come together.

Communication is critical, especially in a nurse’s defensive system. It is difficult to quantify, which may be why many qualified individuals have a hard time determining what is wrong with this team, and how to fix it. It’s one of the many things that make this season so frustrating for everyone involved. It could also explain the collective apathy after another bad loss.

This version of the Raptors may be more than a fix. If they are not, they are running out of time to prove it.

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