This is how it happens when it’s all pear-shaped, isn’t it? You lead a team for the first 47 minutes and 57 seconds of a game and then let it off easy. You fail to foul, leave Al Jefferson open – and he hits the second three-pointer of his career to force overtime. You get a game-tying three-pointer from John Lucas – shooting 8 per cent (!) coming into the game – to force a third overtime but you can’t get a stop and lose 140-133 to the Utah Jazz, fall to 1-6 with a game Tuesday against the Indiana Pacers and, my oh my, it’s hard to see how it can get better any time soon.
The last triple-overtime game the Raptors were involved in was played on Feb. 3, 2001, when the Raptors lost 119-118 to the Sacramento Kings.
And that’s how it goes for the Toronto Raptors these days. There are excuses, to be sure. A run of eight games against teams that made the playoffs; Kyle Lowry out with an ankle injury and he probably wouldn’t have allowed Randy Foye to get off that pass to Jefferson, because he is this team's brain on the court. Landry Fields has a hand injury and Alan Anderson has a sprained left foot, and that small forward spot is in total disarray. If there is a criticism of general manager Bryan Colangelo’s construction of this team, it is the amount of money and space he had tied up at that position without any semblance of a sure-fire starter: Linas Kleiza is a bench player at best, while rookie Terrence Ross is not ready to log significant minutes on a team that has visions of playoff contention. Between Fields, Kleiza and Anderson the Raptors have almost $11-million (all currency U.S.) tied up; Ross’s contract is $2.56-million, and if you see a lot of him this season it means one of two things: he’s putting together a remarkable and, frankly, unforeseen rookie-of-the-year run, or the Raptors are playing for next season.
And that’s something that Colangelo and head coach Dwane Casey are in no mood to do: play for next season. This Raptors team was not going to be a finished product this season but it does need to get into the playoffs. If it looks like the season is getting away from them – and remember, the Raptors are playing 15 of their first 22 games away from home – and if the playoffs really are important, Colangelo must make a deal. The fear now is that they rush back Lowry.
The Raptors' worst seven-game start was in 2005-06 when they lost their first nine before beating the Miami Heat. They’ve started 1-6 on three previous occasions – 2010-2011, 1997-98 and 1995-96. Casey was right to be proud of his players – the word “fought” featured prominently in his post-game session and he even had a nice word for Andrea Bargnani, an over-reach considering Bargnani didn’t have a field goal after the 3:53 mark of the third quarter and was 2-for-10 after the half – but there was also a sense of wistfulness in the way he mentioned that his team “couldn’t make our own breaks.
“Still,” he said, “I know that close only counts in horseshoes and everything else.”
To his credit, Bargnani did at least acknowledge after the game that four years of missing the playoffs means there needs to be “a sense of urgency” to whatever the Raptors do. For the fourth time in six losses, the Raptors blew a lead of 10 points or more, this time an 11-point advantage with 7:01 left in regulation time. The Raptors took the lead with 23.5 seconds left in the first overtime, when DeMar DeRozan seemed to take out the frustrations of all seven games worth of ‘screw this’ with an angry dunk to give the Raptors a 115-113 lead, curling through the middle and taking advantage of a late rotation by the Jazz. It was a fierce look he had, but he missed a twisting jump shot with time expiring in that overtime, leaving the teams tied 115-115 going into a second OT. DeRozan tried to put the Raptors on his back – 60 minutes, 16-for-33 and 37 points – but Jefferson’s jump-hook pulled the Jazz back from the brink again.
“I knew we needed a three,” Johnson said of his game-tying shot in regulation. “I think Mo [Williams] ended up in trouble and he passed it to me. I gave it to Randy [Foye] and he tried to draw the foul and then he got it to me. I just set my feet and let it go and even though the ball wanted to tease me for awhile it finally dropped”
Until the Jazz tied the score, it seemed as if the collapse that everybody was expecting wouldn’t occur. This felt like a Raptors win, to be honest, especially when Amir Johnson’s put-back with 16.4 seconds left gave the Raptors a three-point lead. But the Jazz finally caught up when Jefferson drained his three, and with Kleiza and Johnson fouled out in the third OIT (they’d combined for 31 points and 21 boards off the bench) and rookie Jonas Valanciunas a forgotten man after four fouls (Casey preferred the experience of everyone, including Aaron Gray,) there was nothing left but tattered cloth. The Raptors lost this when they had Foye hemmed in along the sidelines but failed to foul. It was unforgivable. It was the Raptors' 2012-13 season, slowly slipping away.