It’s been a while since the Raptors were this maddeningly frustrating.
That doesn’t make them a bad team, just a team that is wildly unpredictable and therefore very frustrating.
The just completed five-game road trip can be summed up in that one word – frustrating.
When the Raptors left Toronto 10 days ago they did so with momentum squarely in their corner following a large chunk of the season where that had been in short supply.
A 1-4 trip has erased all or certainly most of that.
It ended Friday night with yet another confidence-draining defeat this time to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was down its best player.
The loss leaves the Raptors clinging to ninth in the Eastern Conference, a mere half game clear of Washington in 10th and just a game out of 11th where Chicago sits on the outside of the play-in tournament.
That scenario — missing the play-in — didn’t feel realistic 10 days ago. It does now.
The fanbase has gone from looking optimistically at catching Brooklyn for sixth and an avoidance of the play-in tournament all together to once again talking about to how low they can sink in the standings to better their draft position.
On that front they point out they are just 41/2 games ahead of the sixth worst record in the Association which would bring with it a 9% chance of landing the franchise-altering Frenchman Victor Wembanyama.
We don’t believe things have sunk that low, but then 10 days ago we thought seventh was a real possibility for this team and that no longer seems likely either.
Friday’s 122-112 loss to the LeBron-less Lakers was particularly frustrating because with maybe one exception, the core of the team played well enough to win.
The letdown this time around was the bench that was outscored by the Lakers reserves by a ridiculous 61-12.
When they left Toronto on March 1 the bench was believed to be trending upward in production with the addition of bucket-getter Gary Trent Jr. from the starting unit, the improving play of Precious Achiuwa and the steady energy and whatever-it-takes attitude from Chris Boucher, with the wild card being the recent addition of Will Barton.
As they arrive back home for a three-game break and three more games before they head out on the road again, only Boucher has maintained that direction with the jury still out on whether Barton is part of the answer.
Achiuwa appears to have earned himself a seat in head coach Nick Nurse’s doghouse, unless there is an injury nobody is talking about. Achiuwa played a little over four minutes in both the first and second quarter and then did not return to the game.
Nurse has been very clear what he needs from Achiuwa — some defensive toughness, some rebounding and any offence on top of that being gravy. Achiuwa was defensively solid in the first half of the trip, with probably his best game in Denver, but once he hit Los Angeles his game went in the tank.
Trent’s falloff on the trip might have been even more precipitous. His scoring off the bench was huge in a win over Washington and he was solid again in Denver, but made just two shots in two games in Los Angeles going a combined 2-20 in losses to the Clippers and Lakers.
Huge nights from both O.G. Anunoby and what was a career night for Scottie Barnes got wasted because of that on Friday.
The starters though aren’t functioning on all cylinders either.
Pascal Siakam, after being the one constant and carrying this team through the first four months of the season has tailed off pretty sharply in March. Whether it’s fatigue or a calculated change in approach, he’s just not the aggressive player he has been.
In the five games on the trip, he got to the free throw line less than two times a game. In February he averaged over six freebies a game, in December almost 10.
Without that steady diet of free points, he’s down to under 16 points a game in March.
We’re not picking on Achiuwa or Trent or Siakam here. They’ve all had their moments this year when they carried this team. And while Barnes and Anunoby and Fred VanVleet are thriving right now, that trio have all had their moments this year when they were taking heat for a lack of production.
It’s all part of the frustrating cycle of this season.
One segment of the Raptors roster gets healthy and finds its rhythm while another part breaks down and goes in the tank.
It’s why the team can’t string together any kind of sustained success. The longest winning streak this year is four games, accomplished coming out of the trade deadline with the infusion of new blood in Jakob Poeltl.
Other than that, they have won three consecutive games just twice.
When they are good, like they were in the first and third quarters of Friday’s loss in L.A. this team is very good. They are tough to score on and turn those stops into high energy transition offence. And when they are bad, like they were in the second and fourth, they are really quite bad giving up straight line drives to the basket allowing those defensive failures to impact their offensive opportunities.
And now with 14 games left to play they are as close to 13th in the conference as they are to seventh.
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