The Toronto Raptors concluded a season-high six-game homestand that saw them go a middling 3-3 after a poor performance Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.
The homestand was initially pegged by many as a pivotal point of the Raptors’ season, but in the end it didn’t really do much to improve or dwindle the team’s fortunes much. Toronto now finds itself in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a record five games under .500 but still with remaining promise that things could get better.
A familiar script for a Raptors side that’s been searching for any semblance of positive consistency seemingly all season long.
Here are a few takeaways that stood out during Toronto’s latest stretch of mediocrity.
No hints given about trade deadline strategy
For many, Feb. 9 is looking like it’ll be the most important date of this Raptors season.
Unlike in recent seasons past, the trade deadline this go around could prove truly significant for the future of the franchise and, as such, understanding what direction the club might look to be heading as the deadline approaches is a hot talking point.
This six-game homestand was supposed to give some hints as to what the Raptors might be looking to do at the deadline with potentially valuable assets in the likes of Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. all swirling around the rumour mill, but going 3-3 doesn’t really tell you much.
The three victories came against, at the time, a slumping Portland Trail Blazers team and against a Charlotte Hornets squad (twice) that’s trying to tank. Meanwhile, the losses were against the Milwaukee Bucks, a solid New York Knicks squad and then the Hawks at the end of the homestand.
The outcomes that occurred during these past six games played out in an expected way. And even if the Atlanta loss looked bad, pulling out the win against the Blazers was a strong result, not to mention playing the Milwaukee Bucks tight and forcing them to overtime despite being down as much as 21 points with less than four minutes to play in regulation.
There was good and bad to glean from what the Raptors did over their last six games and, frustratingly, that still leaves plenty of room for interpretation in regards to what they should look to do at the deadline.
If you’re in the camp they should be sellers, then seeing them perform poorly against Atlanta and run out of steam against the Knicks gives credence to that argument as those are teams that, if the Raptors were really contenders, they should be able to handle.
If you want to see Toronto be buyers, however, the competitiveness with which it played the Bucks and the victory against Portland – with Damian Lillard – is also pretty good evidence for that side of the coin.
Like their season as a whole, this homestand made it nearly impossible to get a read on just who the Raptors really are.
The losses have been about a lack of energy but not effort, according to Nurse
If Raptors coach Nick Nurse is to be believed, then the struggles the Raptors have experienced have been because of a lack of energy, but certainly not effort.
“Come on, man. No more effort questions,” Nurse told a reporter at practice Sunday before abruptly leaving his availability.
Despite the poor optics of that exchange it’s fair for Nurse to believe that his team is putting in effort.
“[Our environment] is still very hardworking and professional and focused and all of that stuff,” Nurse said. “From my standpoint, they continue to get here, work really hard, both individually and as a team.”
Where he sees the Raptors faltering, however, is in their energy levels, though.
“We’ve got a long way to go with consistency,” Nurse said after the Atlanta game when asked what he’s learned about his team over their last six games. “I would have liked to have said we’re making some progress with just being ready to go energy-wise and connectivity-wise and all that stuff and then tonight it didn’t look like we had very good energy to start the game.”
To Nurse’s point, the Raptors began Saturday’s game down 20-3 before finally picking things up midway through the first quarter. And even against Milwaukee, while that comeback was a sight to behold, the fact they put themselves in that position in the first place was because of a mostly listless third quarter.
Now, whether this is because of a lack of energy or a lack of effort feels semantic. It can be true that the Raptors are working hard during practice and in their spare time and it can also be true that during the games that effort hasn’t always been apparent – even if you want to call it energy or anything else.
One very noticeable trend over their past six games was that when Toronto is scoring the basketball, it’s probably going to win.
In their three victories, the Raptors put up 117, 132 and 124 points, respectively, while combining to knock down 42 3-pointers in those games. In the losses, they only hit 26 triples and scored no more than 108 points.
Defensively in those defeats the Raptors played well enough to win, but simply didn’t score enough to get the job done.
In general, this is indicative of a problem that has plagued the team all season long. The Raptors aren’t a great shooting team and don’t have enough of it to really survive in the modern NBA.
This, of course, leads back to the debate about what they should do at the deadline. They could look to add shooting to try to shore up this hole in their roster or just sell off their stars and try to rebuild from scratch with shooting being a core tenet of the team.
Fred VanVleet is still banged up
In what has been a rough season for Fred VanVleet, he had another down stretch over Toronto’s last six games culminating with a dreadful three-points, 1-for-9 showing Saturday.
As it turns out, VanVleet is still dealing with a nagging back injury that at this point we all should just expect to persist all season long unless he’s shut down.
Back problems don’t just go away overnight and given the heavy workload VanVleet must take on as the team’s primary ball handler and one of its defensive leaders, it's reasonable to assume he’ll be playing hurt for the rest of the campaign.
This is bad news for the Raptors, especially if they want to try to make a leap ahead in the standings.
Scottie Barnes is back
A positive to take from the homestand was the play of Scottie Barnes.
Over the six games, Barnes averaged 17.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and five assists — showing the kind of aggression going to the basket that helped him win rookie of the year last season.
Barnes’s sophomore season has been a bit of a disappointment as his desire to play point guard and act as a playmaker this season has appeared to rob him of some of that aggressiveness that made him so successful before.
In particular in the last two games, some of that killer instinct trying to get inside and using his strength and athleticism to score has returned, and it should only help not only him, but the Raptors in general.
The Raptors are in New York to take on the Knicks Monday opening a stretch that will see them play 10 of their next 12 games on the road.
As a team that sports only a 5-13 road record this could very well help determine what path they end up taking at the deadline.
Much of the same was said of this recent homestand, however, and they still appear to be stuck in neutral.
For the sake of all involved, one would hope the Raptors will make a decision on their future soon.
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