Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 116-112 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
One — Tough: The Raptors got some healthy bodies back, but they are still woefully out of sync. There are just too many mistakes around the margins, too many open shots missed, too many possessions not finished, too many rotations that are just a hair late, that will always make it difficult to win. Teams need to get into a rhythm to win, and maintaining that rhythm is the key to success in the regular season. The Raptors have been blessed to hold steady in seven-straight seasons dating back to 2014, and this is the exception. There wasn't that much separating the Raptors and Pistons tonight — which might be an issue onto itself given that the Pistons have the worst record in the league — but it comes down to the details. The Pistons were better on the little things, and that's why the Raptors have dropped their sixth game in a row.
Two — Bullied: If there's one thing the Pistons excel at, it's their physicality. They are big, mean, and long across the board with both their lineups, and they took it to the Raptors the entire way. The Pistons held a 41-20 rebounding advantage at one point, and consistently tossed the Raptors aside for second-chance opportunities. Part of this speaks to the Raptors' lack of size, with two small point guards and a rail-thin center in Chris Boucher as three pieces of their starting lineup, so this was also a good coaching move by Dwane Casey to press his advantage. The only time the Raptors matched the Pistons in terms of muscle was when Aron Baynes subbed in, and even still there were mismatches. The most decisive shot of the night came when 6-foot-9 forward Jerami Grant sized up Kyle Lowry before shooting over him for a four-point lead. Lowry does everything he can, but he's just too small there.
Three — Uphill: There were promising moments for both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet in their return to the lineup after bouts of COVID-19, but it was mostly buried under heavy layers of rust. Nick Nurse smartly kept both players to roughly 30 minutes, but a minutes restriction couldn't overcome a lack of conditioning. Siakam and VanVleet shot a combined 5-of-24 from the field and most of their shots were short save for a fourth-quarter three from VanVleet. The good part is that they were locked in defensively, with VanVleet showing off his quick hands and Siakam's activity was strong, but it's clear that they will need time. Even without any residual effects from being sick, there was still a full three weeks where neither of them were able to practice and that's going to leave a mark. The same impact will likely befall OG Anunoby once he's back.
Four — Unconscious: In spite of VanVleet and Siakam's struggles, the Raptors were still competitive thanks to a ridiculous shooting night from Norman Powell, who finished with a career-high 43 points on 14-of-18 shooting. Powell was locked in from the start and although there can be a habit of Powell's play levelling off as the game goes on, he was strong right until the end with two threes that gave the Raptors a glimmer of hope at the end. The most impressive part of his game is how little Powell actually needs to handle the ball to create his shots. Aside from a driving dunk and a blow-by against Mason Plumlee, the bulk of Powell's scoring came from the ball finding Powell in the natural rhythm of the offense. Even with two main scorers back, the shots will still be there for Powell to remain an efficient 20-point scorer.
Five — Matchup: There is both good and bad that comes with starting Chris Boucher. The good is that he is the only center that spaces the floor for the Raptors, which opened up an easy cut for Powell early in the game. The downside is that the Raptors become vulnerable on the inside, especially against physical centers like Plumlee. Ideally, Boucher would play power forward on defense while playing the role of a center on offense, but that requires some muscle being next to him. Baynes is the only option, and he brings his own trade-offs. Anunoby's return should be a huge boost for Boucher, as his physicality and defensive instincts can cover for many of Boucher's mistakes. A frontcourt of Boucher, Siakam, and Anunoby figures to be the Raptors' best bet against teams with size.
Six — Curious: The return of VanVleet and Siakam meant a shift in lineup for Nurse, who mostly used nine players in his rotation. Baynes got extended run to counter the Pistons' size, while Paul Watson was likely extended for similar reasons since he was primarily assigned to Grant. Nurse also got good minutes from Matt Thomas, although his minutes mostly came in the first quarter, and the only real dud came from Stanley Johnson. The Raptors really needed Johnson's physicality tonight, and while it was a difficult ask to have him cover centers, that's where Johnson is at this point in his career.
Seven — Shuffle: Nurse says he will continue tinkering his rotations in search of a steady rotation. It was odd to see DeAndre' Bembry being outright benched after he made a few starts and played heavy minutes over the last month, while Terence Davis was also stapled to the bench. Nurse also mentioned Patrick McCaw as another name to consider, even though he hasn't played all season between COVID-19 and recovery from knee surgery, so expect the bench to look different on most nights until Nurse finds a combination that works.
Eight — Frustration: These losses must be gnawing away at Lowry in particular. He did his best to carry the squad along with Powell over the past few weeks, but he can't single-handedly affect outcomes the way he used to. Lowry battled foul trouble and missed all seven of his threes, but still ran a good game with 15 assists, which included seven dimes for Powell and six to Boucher. His chemistry with Boucher in particular has been impressive, as Lowry floats passes through windows that are seemingly shut to get Boucher layups on the inside. Lowry also led the Raptors in rebounds with six, although that speaks more to a lack of execution by the team as a whole.
Nine — Stretch: It's not getting any easier for the Raptors, who are slated to face the Utah Jazz on Friday. The Raptors swept the Jazz last season (including a win in Scotiabank Arena where the Raptors led by 40 at halftime) but as we have been reminded so often, this is not last season for the Raptors. If anything, the Jazz figure to be a nightmare matchup given their ability to catch fire from deep. The Raptors have been abysmal in protecting the three-point line, and they have nobody to match Rudy Gobert's size in the middle, so the losing streak could reach seven games, which would be their longest since 2012.
Ten — Run: Conversely, a win over Utah could restore some semblance of faith in the team. The Raptors would need to go 19-13 just to finish at .500 on the season, and to avoid the play-in tournament, they may need to be the best team in the league over the second half of the season. Is that realistic? Probably not. And that's why the front office might be forced into some very difficult decisions. Powell and Lowry have shown their quality all season, and they will be in high demand.
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