Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors' 116-103 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
One — Tired: The Raptors didn't have enough in the tank to sustain their effort for a full 48 minutes. The Nets had more talent, but they didn't exactly beat the Raptors with tough shots. Rather, it was Brooklyn's depth that hurt the Raptors in the end, as they had reinforcements off the bench to maintain a high level of play, while the Raptors looked exhausted by the end and collapsed defensively. It's not the first time this happened to the Raptors this season, and it won't be the last.
Two — Lagging: It was a difficult night for both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, who combined to shoot 6-of-33 from the field. They got good looks within the flow of the offense, but even the open threes and point-blank layups rolled out, and VanVleet summed it up by nearly ripping his jersey in frustration after missing a routine corner three in the third. For VanVleet, it appeared as if he was operating below capacity without his burst which affected him on both ends, while for Siakam, it was the typical sloppiness coming out at the most inopportune moments late in the game. As much as they are both excellent players, the inconsistency in their performances (with a heavy caveat of COVID-19) has been a pattern in many losses.
Three — Honest: For his part, VanVleet was transparent and honest about his own culpability in the loss. VanVleet said he felt "like s—" physically and openly admitted to not being 100 percent, which dragged the team down as a whole. This is the human toll of playing through a pandemic, where VanVleet is not only finding his conditioning, but also playing through a banged up hip, while being on the road all season. Maybe fans are tired of hearing the excuses while watching the same results, but it's the reality they're in.
Four — Emerging: OG Anunoby did his best to carry the load with two of their three main players struggling. Anunoby scored 20-plus for the fifth straight game, and this despite early foul trouble limiting him to 10 minutes in the first half. Anunoby had several standout moments, including a fading jumper on Kevin Durant, and a late cutting dunk, while being the Raptors' best option on catch-and-shoot threes. The Raptors are even giving Anunoby reps as a featured scorer, including on one play in the first half where Anunoby drew a foul in the post, then on the inbound, the Raptors repeated the same play. By the second half, the Nets were even sending doubles at Anunoby in the post, which almost never happens.
Five — Perspective: Anunoby's growth will end up being the most meaningful development from an otherwise lost season. There was some question around his potential after the Raptors signed him to a $72-million extension last offseason, but in retrospect it was an excellent move by the front office. Anunoby would be worth his deal just on his three-point shooting and his defense, but he's starting to gain confidence in all aspects on offense. In terms of his shooting, Anunoby has doubled his attempts from deep as compared to last season while maintaining the same efficiency. He's also improving with the handle, as evidenced by Anunoby crossing up Durant before driving in for a dunk early on. There is still a question of how Anunoby would fare as even a secondary option on offense, but for a guy that was the fifth option last season, to even entertain that conversation is a huge step forward.
Six — Sharp: Kyle Lowry did his best to keep the Raptors close, going shot-for-shot with the Nets' stars in the first half. Lowry asserted himself early on with his scoring, and he set the tempo for the Raptors' starting group that continues to shine early in games. What Lowry needs is someone else on the team to sustain the offense later in games, since it's hard for a player of his size to consistently get his shot in half-court scenarios, but the Raptors don't have that guy right now. It's the same problem most of the team has, in that there are plenty of second and third options but no central piece to lead consistently.
Seven — Active: Khem Birch was a man possessed on the glass, collecting nine offensive rebounds which single-handedly kept the Raptors close through second-chance points. The Nets play small with Jeff Green at center, and Blake Griffin isn't the rebounder he used to be, so it was smart of the Raptors to send Birch to the glass as much as possible. Birch also gave the Raptors solidity around the basket, and shows enough skill offensively where he can be relied on as a finisher and as a passer out of the pick-and-roll. He fits the starting group like a glove, and this group is also allowing Birch to showcase his expanded skillset.
Eight — Flurry: Malachi Flynn gave the Raptors a huge boost in the third quarter, right when it looked like the Nets were about to pull away. Flynn canned a triple off a kick-out from Anunoby, then stripped Kyrie Irving on the next play, setting the break where he found Anunoby for a layup. Flynn then got to the line twice with his quickness, including on one sequence where he had Giffin on a switch and got by him so fast that Griffin had to resort to grabbing Flynn by the waist as if he were performing a lift in ballet, but Flynn still completed the and-one. Flynn's confidence is growing by the game, and next to Anunoby, his progress is hugely important for next season. Flynn is already a quality reserve point guard as a rookie, which doesn't happen often.
Nine — Decision: Despite the run by Flynn, and the struggles from VanVleet, Nurse still decided to close with his starting five. Nurse eventually took Birch out in a small-ball look with Flynn and the other two point guards, which was mostly used to spur the offense, but the Raptors couldn't catch up to the Nets. This has been a common theme for Nurse late in games, where his preference is usually to go small because that's where the talent is. But then again, that speaks to a roster imbalance if your end-of-game lineup in a pivotal game is to have three six-foot guards on at once.
Ten — Aggressive: Nurse's game plan against the Nets' stars was great, however, as the Raptors kept Durant and Irving to 31 points. The Raptors sent hard doubles at Durant to force him into passing, and were also aggressive in how they pressured Irving. The downside is that the Raptors were leaving shooters open, but the Raptors were fairly diligent in their rotations. What ended up hurting them in the end were the one-two punch of Griffin and Mike James off the Nets' bench, as they combined for 28 points, along with Tyler Johnson who had 10 of his own. That's a type of firepower the Raptors don't have on their reserves.
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