5 things: Raptors lack energy and focus in humbling loss to Pelicans

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Here are five takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 126-108 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

1. The Raptors did not execute defensively from the start, and the result was the same as always. Toronto allowed 40 points in the first quarter and was never in the game from that point onward, save for a spirited comeback that petered out before getting to within single digits. For a team that prides itself on defence, there was no resistance whatsoever against a Pelicans team that was without two of their top scorers in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram. New Orleans still got whatever it wanted by giving the ball to Zion Williamson, who played one of the most complete games of his career, while young prospects Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels also had impressive career nights flanking the Pelicans’ size advantage in the paint. The Raptors got stops only in the fourth quarter, and by that point it was far too late. They simply aren’t good enough of a team to ever expect anything but a loss if they don’t show up defensively.

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2. Williamson was too much for the Raptors to handle, and dominated from start to finish. O.G. Anunoby is on a run of shutting down star players to bolster his case for defensive awards, but was easily overrun by Williamson, who blasted past him for a pair of and-ones to start the game. Anunoby always has the strength advantage against wings, and if he is matched up with centres, he can out-quick them; Williamson firmly had the edge in both fronts. The help defense was also lacking, as Williamson would either get ahead of traps that were too slow to arrive, or pick out the right passes to counter the doubles that were simply too obvious. Williamson also ended the Raptors’ run at the end, skying for an impressive block and getting ahead of the pack for a pair of dunks to firmly shut the door on any hopes of a comeback. It’s games like these that showcase Williamson’s prodigious talent because he’s one of a very small handful of athletes who can realistically lay claim to being the best player alive some day.

3. On the other side, the Raptors got nothing but an unfocused showing from Scottie Barnes, who didn’t even see the court for most of the second half and finished with four points. Barnes was hardly the only offender, but his stretch of misplays at the end of the first quarter allowed the Pelicans to pull away. Barnes whipped a pass at Juancho Hernangomez’s ankles for a turnover, took a reach-in foul on a harmless play in the bonus, hoisted a two-for-one triple completely out of rhythm, and then hustled backward by saving a rebound with two seconds left only to pass it directly to Larry Nance Jr. for a dunk. Despite being one of the few Raptors to actually have a size mismatch, Barnes rarely looked to drive the ball as coach Nick Nurse has repeatedly asked for, opting instead to settle for outside jumpers and swinging the ball from the top of the floor. The expectation was for Barnes to take a bigger role this season, but he hasn’t even performed up to the standards he established last year, and his inconsistency is a clear issue that he and the team will need to improve. To be benched in his previous game, to respond with only four points and even fewer minutes played, is a concerning trend to say the least.

4. Barnes needs only to look at his teammate Gary Trent Jr. as to how to respond. Trent Jr. has also dealt with injuries and missed time, which has undoubtedly bled into cold stretches, but he’s been singled out for his defense by Nurse, been bluntly characterized as potentially not a fit, and then benched for two games. But you wouldn’t know it from how Trent Jr. has performed of late, including this game, where he scored 35 points while accounting for half of his team’s threes and steals. Even with his circumstances worsening, Trent Jr. has only increased his focus on the court, while giving mature and accountable responses when facing the media. He was always too good of a shooter to stay in a slump too long, but his effort defensively has been stronger. Since Nurse called out the dip in disruptiveness, Trent Jr. has averaged nearly three steals a game. Trent Jr. also continues to work in a strong pairing with Pascal Siakam, who consistently gets Trent Jr. easier looks on kickouts, where he can catch-and-shoot, or pump fake and to attack the closeout.

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5. Fred VanVleet has also lacked consistency despite being one of the two main stars on the team. VanVleet was abysmal from the field, shooting 1-for-8 while missing all seven of his threes, and found himself ejected early in the second half. It was a soft technical to be sure, as VanVleet simply clapped his hands once and said “Come on, man” after being bumped by Jose Alvarado, but he should never have been there in the first place. VanVleet and Nurse were adamantly complaining to the officials in the first half for calls, despite the main problem being that the Raptors were just simply being outworked and outplayed. VanVleet has his share of great performances (wins again Chicago, Miami, Houston and Dallas come to mind) but it’s concerning that his lows have been so low, especially considering his status as one of the main pillars on the team. In his defense, VanVleet has been very open about how much he was impacted by the flu and that he is still working to get back to full health.

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