TORONTO – Few do Valentine’s Day heartbreak quite like the Toronto Raptors.
Long-time fans of the team will remember a Feb. 14 date with the Jeremy Lin-led New York Knicks back in the winter of 2012.
At 9-19, Toronto was off to a rough start, but even in the midst of a lost campaign, there was a buzz in the building formerly known as Air Canada Centre that day. A sell-out crowd showed up – before sell-outs became routine at the ACC – and most of it was there to see the Knicks’ electric new point guard.
Coming to town at the height of the Linsanity spectacle, and seven years before he would end up winning a championship ring as a member of the Raptors, Lin did not disappoint. Although the home team led for most of the night, and by as many as seven points inside of the final five minutes, Lin capped off New York’s improbable comeback with a game winning buzzer-beating dagger over Jose Calderon.
As far as memorably deflating defeats go, that one remains an all-timer. However, with Toronto’s most recent setback – an upset 116-112 loss at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the worst team in the NBA, on Sunday – we have a new contender.
Despite their 6-20 record and 28th-ranked offence, the Wolves took an early lead and built on it with a 37-point third quarter. As poorly as the Raptors played, particularly on defence, an inspired fourth-quarter run – sparked by Kyle Lowry – kept them in it and gave them a chance at the end.
After Lowry cut the deficit to two points, and the defence of Fred VanVleet and DeAndre’ Bembry forced a Minnesota turnover, Pascal Siakam missed what would have been the game-tying layup with eight seconds remaining, as the ball rolled all the way around the rim and out.
It was a well-designed play from Nick Nurse coming out of the timeout, and a good look for Siakam – exactly what they wanted in that situation. Maybe it was a little bit of bad luck. Maybe the all-star forward should have finished stronger and gone in for the dunk. Both of those things can be true, but regardless, most would agree that it shouldn’t have come down to that.
“It sucks,” said Lowry, who led the Raptors with 24 points but couldn’t hide his frustration after his team fell to 12-15 on the season. “Like, it really sucks. We had an opportunity and we had to make a push at the end. We understand that we can’t give those games away. We’re three games under .500 and we could be six games over .500. It’s that small of a difference. You’ve just got to continue to work and continue to just push and push and hopefully roll off some more wins in a row.”
“I think there’s a lot of different areas that we lost the game tonight,” said Fred VanVleet. “That’s part of the problem, but we’ve gotta fix it.”
“It’s pretty frustrating knowing that we can do it but here we are. Here we are again.”
You can understand the source of that frustration for two of the team’s leaders, and arguably its most consistent players during what’s been a disappointing start to the season.
The Raptors have dropped far too many winnable games – back-to-back one-point losses to Golden State and Portland last month come to mind, as do a series of defeats to undermanned or underwhelming clubs. Each time they take a step forward and appear to be turning the corner, they’re knocked back a step or two in the opposite direction. In short spurts they continue to show that they’re capable of reaching another level, but – for whatever reason – they haven’t been able to sustain it for any significant length of time.
Sunday’s game had it all.
Late in the fourth, when they flipped the switch and went on their run, they began to resemble that resilient hard-nosed team that would find ways to win games like this a year ago, but with that came the obvious question – why couldn’t they have played that way the rest of the evening?
The Raptors’ defence, which was ranked second in the league a year ago but has fallen to 19th this season, was on its heels all night. They were often a step slow rotating and closing out on shooters – Malik Beasley and Ricky Rubio, the beneficiaries of many clean looks, knocked down 10 of their 18 three-point attempts. They had little success keeping Minnesota out of the paint or away from the rim – all-star big man Karl-Anthony Towns had 20 points and shot 8-for-11 in his second game back after recovering from COVID-19. Their compete level and attention to detail was nowhere near what’s expected of them, especially after a couple off days and a rare practice session on Saturday.
It was yet another setback, coming off an encouraging road trip in which they won four of six games and felt like they were finally starting to find themselves. But above all else, it was a missed opportunity – a chance to beat up on a struggling team in their home gym and bank a much-needed win ahead of another difficult stretch in the schedule.
Four of their next five games will come against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, with a rematch against these Wolves sandwiched in between. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them rise to the occasion when they visit the reigning two-time MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the 16-11 Bucks in consecutive contests beginning on Tuesday, or show up for a couple of games against the rival and Eastern Conference-leading 76ers next week. That’s part of the problem, though. They can’t just play like they’re playing elite competition when they play elite competition.
“I don’t think you’re gonna play all the games the sharpest,” Nurse said. “It’s what happens, I don’t know, back off a road trip, sometimes these are tough. I don’t make any excuses for any of that stuff but you gotta play your way out of it. Somewhere during the game you’ve got to play your way out of it and get to some consistency, and we didn’t do it until it was really late.”