Nurse criticizes Raptors’ ‘unacceptable’ effort levels after being outmatched by Grizzlies

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If the other team has more talent, you have to play harder or smarter. If you don’t play harder and smarter, you lose, and if you keep losing, changes are coming.

That’s the circle of NBA life, and at the moment the Toronto Raptors’ season is circling down the drain. Their head coach can feel it, their management can surely sense it. When that’s the vibe permeating a team, the players can’t be faulted for beginning to look after their own interests, and at the point the death spiral begins. It’s an ancient ritual that hasn’t been seen in Toronto for a decade, but it plays out across the league every season like clockwork, and locally, the indications are there.

The Raptors aren’t precisely at that point yet, but they’re teetering.

As good a sign as any?

Head coach Nick Nurse delivered about as definitive a judgement of his team’s competitive spirit – or lack of it – as he has in his five seasons on the job after his team’s 113-106 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto’s fifth straight at home and 11th in their past 15 games overall.

“That’s pretty unacceptable with the effort we gave,” said Nurse, who will be looking for more when he team hosts the Phoenix Suns Friday night in a rare home-court back-to-back. “I thought the loose ball count was all in their favour. I’m not talking about 50-50 balls either. I’m talking about ones where we had huge advantages to get and we just, [didn’t get them] you know, that’s our identity of who we are.”

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It’s been a theme for weeks now: the team whose identity is built on a high-energy, high-effort defensive approach has been terrible at what they’re supposed to be best at: They are 29th in defensive rating in their past 10 games, and 30th in opponents’ field goal percentage for the past month.

Pinning it on the players and their effort so definitively is risky move for a head coach. It takes nothing for the players to point the fingers back at the staff for issues with the schemes. The next step is calling out management for limitations with the roster.

There is truth to all of it.

What comes next is anyone’s guess and there is blame to go around – from the players to the coaching staff to the front office.  But the status quo can’t hold much longer, not unless the Raptors are willing to spend a season stuck in the NBA’s version of purgatory: not good enough to compete as a playoff team, and not bad enough to find themselves into the juicy parts of the draft lottery.

I can say with confidence the Raptors have no interest in being in the mushy middle – it was team president Masai Ujiri who coined the phrase ‘play in for what?’ when he engineered the ‘Tampa Tank’ two seasons ago, don’t forget.

And after two convincing home losses to teams that are legitimate championship contenders – the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday and the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday – the Raptors would have to be borderline delusional to think that they are in that class. Both the Clippers and the Grizzlies are bigger, deeper, and better.

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The question: is there a realistic short-term or medium-term path to getting in that category?

The recent evidence says no, which means hold tight, things might get interesting in a hurry.

A couple of different examples stood out from the Raptors to Memphis.

Late in the second quarter, Steven Adams — at 6-foot-11 and 265-pounds he’s on the short-list for the NBA’s strongest man — pushed his massive frame into a crowd of undersized Raptors, reached up high and got both his meaty mitts on the basketball for yet another offensive rebound.

He didn’t bother to try and go up off-balance and in a crowd – and besides, the Grizzlies have options. Instead Adams flipped the ball out to Ja Morant, the athletic marvel who plays point guard for Memphis and the human highlight reel for the NBA’s digital properties.

After first pump-faking OG Anunoby to centre court, Morant accelerated to the rim on the catch as Adams leaned his 270-pound frame into Raptors rookie centre Christian Koloko – a toothpick in comparison – and cleared him out. The Kiwi made sure Morant could unload one of his strobe light dunks without having to contend with a shot blocker.

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The Adams rebound-Morant dunk was just one play, but it encapsulated some of what the Grizzlies were working with against the struggling Raptors: They were bigger, stronger, and more athletic at almost every turn. While that’s not the only reason Toronto came up short for the 11th time in 15 games and for the fifth straight game at home, it was a big part of it and is relevant, given the Raptors like to think in terms of championships.

In that context, the gap between the two rosters was hard to ignore.

But it’s not just that. Too many moments when Toronto failed to make the smart play, or the effort play or finish the play when the opportunity was there. And given that the Raptors have so little margin for error – they don’t score or defend well enough to bail themselves out of mistakes – it’s a problem.

And in terms of mistakes, they made real doozies, beyond their normal failure to rotate out to open three-point shooters. For example, midway in the second quarter Adams beat the Raptors down the floor to score a fastbreak lay-up off a missed three-pointer by Chris Boucher that gave Memphis a 14-point lead. Or midway through the third quarter when Memphis wing Ziaire Williams finished a fastbreak with an alley-oop after a made free throw, which should never happen, that put them up 21 in the third. There were others.

“Well, it was about as bad as it could get,” said Nurse. “I mean, there was times when we would make a free throw and they would throw it ahead and dunk on at the other end, like plays that can happen, they can happen maybe once every seven years. Like seriously, like no. So we’ve got to get focused and connected and get serious about playing harder.”

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Or what, is the question? Nurse was lamenting his team’s lack of effort defensively after the Clippers coasted to any easy win on Tuesday. The response wasn’t what he was looking for, clearly.

He doesn’t have a lot of levers to work with, which is what management has to answer for as they brought 11 rotation players back from a team that last season lacked size, point guard depth and perimeter shooting, giving Nurse a team that is still lacking in all three areas.

Short of a prolonged soft spot in the schedule – and none are on the horizon – it’s hard to see things correcting in any meaningful way, and even if they somehow managed a 24-17 finish in the second half, why would anyone trust it?

For now the Raptors lack anything that resembles quality depth, or at least will as long Fred VanVleet (back), Precious Achiuwa (ankle) and Otto Porter Jr. (toe) remain out. At full strength Nurse might have some options to juggle some minutes and rotations, but that might be a pipe dream. Porter Jr. was already rickety before he pulled his hamstring in training camp and since injured his toe. He’s played eight games, been out a month and can’t be counted on if he ever gets healthy. Achiuwa should provide some pop but ramping up after a 23-game absence – there’s hope he plays Friday when the Raptors host Phoenix – will take time, and he’s still a project anyway in his third season. VanVleet has had a collection of vaguely defined injuries dating back to the all-star break last season, and his performance has reflected it. Expecting him to right the ship seems overly optimistic.

Despite their coach’s tough words, the Toronto Raptors didn’t roll over after losing the battle on the offensive glass 14-3 to Memphis in the first quarter, and they forced the Grizzlies into eight of their 15 turnovers. In the process they cut a 23-point deficit midway through the third quarter down to nine in the space of 12 minutes before the Grizzlies took charge again. Morant calmly found Dillon Brooks for an open three and then Brooks rifled a pass to Adams, who had his man sealed under the basket and the lead was quickly back to 14. It was all part of a brilliant 25-point homecoming for Brooks, a Mississauga native, and career-best 17 assists for Morant, who also had 19 points – 13 in the third quarter when Memphis split the game open. The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam’s 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Scottie Barnes had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Gary Trent Jr. added 20 points off the bench.

Toronto fell to 15-20 with the loss and are outside the Eastern Conference play-off picture. Memphis improved to 21-13 and are very much in the championship conversation.

“We’re contenders,” said Brooks. “When we’re cooking like this, not a lot of teams can beat us.”

Least of all the Raptors, who are struggling to beat anyone right now, and who need to have an honest conversation amongst themselves as to why and what needs to be done about it.



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