Statement games in December are a bit of a stretch, but the Toronto Raptors did seemingly have something to prove.
After all it was just over a week ago that they had their first crisis of what could be many this season after capitulating to the Atlanta Hawks - acknowledged as one of the worst performances in recent franchise history.
"We just have to stay competitive," Chris Bosh said before last night's return match-up against Atlanta at the Air Canada Centre. "We can't get too down ourselves if things aren't going well and we can't get too high if things go our way. We have to play one possession at a time, one possession at a time."
Unfortunately the Raptors kept falling behind, one possession at a time, as they lost 111-89 to drop their second in a row and fall to 10-15 on the season after winning three in a row when the blowout in Atlanta inspired a team meeting, a renewed commitment to defence and improved communication.
All fleeting apparently. The statement last night was, maybe next time.
"They're a tough team for us to guard because we have a hard time keeping them in front of us," said Raptors head coach Jay Triano. "They're very good one-on-one players."
Toronto didn't give up 146 points as they did in Atlanta just over a week ago, but after jumping out to a peppy 18-10 lead through the first eight minutes they were outscored by 30 points the remaining 40 minutes of the game.
The versatile Hawks lineup shot a cozy 22-of-37 from the floor during the second and third quarters, including 5-of-8 from the three-point line, with a good share of their offence involving Joe Johnson or one of his teammates dribbling into the middle of the defences and either scoring in the paint of pitching out for an open three-pointer. When they missed, they regular chased down the rebound and were rewarded by scoring 20 second-chance points to eight by the Raptors. The closest Toronto got in the fourth quarter was 16 points.
Toronto shot 48.6 per cent from the floor, but just two-of-10 from behind the three-point line.
"It's a little bit deflating because you work hard, force them to miss shots and they scramble to get the ball back, throw it out and a guy knocks down a three," Triano said.
There is the possibility that the Raptors thought they were at Phillips Arena in Atlanta and thus in kicked the muscle memory. The crowd of just 17,032 was light for a Friday night at the ACC and those that did brave the frigid weather booed the Raptors ice-cold touch from deep on their home floor.
Toronto is now shooting 29 per cent from behind the arc in its last eight games.
That and the Raptors turnovers - they handed the ball over 17 times for 18 points - were the main difference on the scoreboard.
The difference in attitude is harder to quantify but the Hawks, 30-52 in 2006-07 when the Raptors won 47 games, have an athletic young nucleus bolstered by veteran help in the form of Mike Bibby and Jamaal Crawford. The win improved Atlanta's record to 16-6 and solidified their status as the fourth member of the Eastern Conference's upper class.
The loss sets Toronto up for a tough stretch this week hosting the gritty Houston Rockets tomorrow before heading to Florida for games against Miami and Orlando.
The lower-half mire of the Eastern Conference means Toronto's tendency to lose games badly and in bunches hasn't threatened their playoff prospects yet, but their credibility is taking a beating.
Triano was hopeful that playing Atlanta so soon after their beating on the road would "resonate" with his club.
Andrea Bargnani led the Raptors with 17 points after missing Wednesday's loss with a sore ankle. The seven-foot centre also finished with a single rebound in 34 minutes. Bosh had another of his league-leading double-doubles, finishing with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
He may have to temper his optimism, however.
"I like where we are right now," he said before the game. "We have a lot of potential and a lot of upside and it's a long season."
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