Raptors looking for answers after loss
PHILADELPHIA – The glum look on Nick Nurse’s face said plenty.
The Toronto Raptors coach had just come from reviewing film of Thursday night’s Game 3 debacle. It was a horror show.
“It was difficult to watch. We obviously didn’t play well enough in a lot of facets of the game,” the coach said, his black monogrammed baseball hat pulled down low on Friday. “So it’s not that much fun to watch a team you know is that much better than that, a team that has been playing very well and competing at a super-high level to play that way.”
The Raptors are searching for answers after a blowout loss to the Philadelphia 76ers that has them trailing the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series 2-1. It has raised all kinds of questions about a roster that was specifically built with a long playoff run in mind, but is coming apart at the seams.
For the third straight game, Kawhi Leonard was spectacular. But the rest of the Raptors looked lost, which brought up concerns Friday about load management — the team’s injury prevention plan that had Leonard miss 22 games in the regular season.
The Raptors won 17 of those Leonard-less games in the regular season. Could having him back playing major minutes throw the rest of the team out of synch?
“It might have last night, right? It felt like it might have last night a little bit,” Nurse conceded.
The Raptors didn’t practise Friday, instead studying video. Meeting the media afterward in a room at the team’s posh downtown hotel, Nurse said it was tough to pinpoint once particular area of the game that was worse than another.
“It was rebounding, it was transition, it was screening, all the physical parts of the game,” he said. “Passing wasn’t as good. Contested shooters wasn’t as good as it needed to be. There were a lot of things.”
Nurse does know his team can’t treat the brutal loss as just a blip.
“No, we got to change it, man,” he said. “You can sit around and say ‘It’ll be OK,’ but I tend to take the version of we’ve got to make it OK.”
The brutal loss was particularly shocking coming after six consecutive post-season games of decent, and at times downright smothering, defensive play. In front of a raucous Wells Fargo Center mob on Thursday that made the Scotiabank Arena crowd feel like a Sunday church service, the Raptors looked like proverbial deers in headlights on the defensive end.
Apart from Leonard, who’s held up his end of the bargain scoring 113 points through three games so far, the team’s offence disappeared. Leonard had pulled Toronto to within seven points with his perfect third quarter, but when the 2014 Finals NBA MVP sat for two-and-a-half minutes to start the fourth quarter, he could only watch helplessly as his teammates — including three starters — virtually handed all hope to their opponent on a silver platter.
Asked if Leonard could log a full 48 minutes, Nurse said “I don’t think so.”
Is there a ceiling on his minutes?
“No, there’s no ceiling,” Nurse said.
Leonard, whose future in Toronto could hinge on this series, needs some help from his teammates. The Raptors bench, which averaged 36.2 points in the regular season, has scored a combined 30 points in this series. Serge Ibaka, Norm Powell and Fred VanVleet are 10-for-41 shooting. VanVleet is a woeful 1-for-11, going 0-for-7 on Thursday.
“He’s had a few good looks and he’s had a couple that they’ve gotten to,” Nurse said of VanVleet. “I think he’s going to have to take the ones that are open and he’s going to have to probably make some more plays.”
It hasn’t been just the bench that’s struggled this series, though. While Pascal Siakam adapted to the defensive adjustments Philly made after the Raptors’ decisive Game 1 win, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol were ineffective on both ends of the floor.
The two were a combined 4-for-16 shooting, and looked hesitant in passing up numerous wide open shots.
Nurse smiled grimly when asked if the team perhaps passed the ball too much in the blowout.
“I’m just smiling because usually it’s not enough passing, now it’s over-passing, it’s always something, right?” the coach said. “No, it’s making the reads and I don’t think we want guys like Kyle, Danny, Marc turning down opportunities, even if they think there’s a slightly better one on the other side.
“It’s just the feel of stepping in and pulling the trigger, or if you’re absolutely sure the next pass is the right one, then make it.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown said while his team has done well containing Lowry, he’s always wary about what the five-time all-star guard and Philadelphia native is capable of on a good night.
“I think it’s always dangerous bringing him back to Philadelphia,” Brown said on a conference call Friday. “The notion of his skill package and this stage and Philly and all of that is never comfortable for me as a head coach. Our players respect him tremendously. We do have a defensive game plan in place, something we’re trying to lock down. But for him to come out and have a massive breakout game, that is always on my mind.”
The series heads back to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday. A Game 6, if necessary, would be back in Philly next Thursday.
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