It was simply not meant to be for the Toronto Raptors.
In one of the most demoralizing halves of basketball the Raptors have played this season, they came out completely discombobulated against the Portland Trail Blazers at home on Sunday night, languid on defense and stagnant on offense. They only managed 34 points through those first 24 minutes, hitting just 11 shots (23% shooting) and coughing up the ball 10 times.
At its peak, the deficit reached 34. The Raptors struggled with the Trail Blazers’ zone, but even when they were able to generate good looks, nothing was going down.
“I think we’ve played really hard and tough, really focused and all that stuff (recently) and it was just tough to do everything tonight,” coach Nick Nurse told reporters after the game. “We weren’t moving, we weren’t thinking very well early, and the only thing I can say is to give them a hell of a lot of credit for not quitting.”
Nurse wasn’t done praising his wards for a valiant effort.
“They kept fighting, and we didn’t really have much of a foundation to play from tonight, which means if we were gonna get back into it we were gonna have to make it a little funky out there, which we did, and we did a pretty good job at that, and fought hard,” the former Coach of the Year added.
Well, until they did start to go down.
Ratcheting up the defensive intensity in the second half, the Raptors began to peel away at the Trail Blazers’ lead slowly but surely, with Pascal Siakam leading the way and taking command of the offense. At the close of the third quarter, the lead had been cut to 19, and then, with only 1:24 remaining, it was a mere four points on the back of a 27-foot triple from Fred VanVleet.
“I’m super proud of the guys, man,” Siakam said. “I’ve been in the league for a little bit, and I feel like every time teams are down guys just kind of pack it in. I’m proud of the guys for just continuing to fight. Those are the type of guys you want to go to war with because at the end of the day, things weren’t going our way but we had to go keep going, we had to keep fighting and find a way.”
From there, however, something interesting happened—what had brought the Raptors back into the game (the increased gambling, home-run shots, all-around hyper-aggressiveness, etc.) worked against them. Rather than fall back into a more traditional mode of play with the game within reach, the Raptors continued to make risky moves that wound up costing them and sealing their fate.
Evidently, it’s quite difficult to shift out of a particular mindset—not only once it’s been ingrained, but once it’s proven successful. The Raptors were driven and steadfast in their relentlessness in the second half, but not being able to adjust to the positive results of that effort was just as vital as responding to their first-half shellacking.
That’s a lesson worth bearing in mind for the future.
Ultimately, yes, it would have been exciting if the Raptors had managed a true comeback—a victory would have been the largest in franchise history (that record still belongs to the 30-point turnaround against the Dallas Mavericks in 2019), after all. But finding a way to begin games with the same intensity the team played with for most of the latter half would be much more pragmatic, let alone sustainable.
Locking into the proper mentality for any given moment is a highly difficult skill to master, and it’s one this young Raptors squad is markedly still working on as a collective unit.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the way we wanted to play the game,” Siakam said. “But things happen, and once they do, we just gotta keep continuing to fight.”