Jonas Valanciunas desperately wanted to play, to test his mettle against DeMarcus Cousins, regarded in many quarters as the most offensively gifted big man in the NBA.
But the seven-foot centre has been experiencing left-knee pain for much of the past week, something the Raptors have kept under wraps until moments before Sunday night’s game against the Sacramento Kings at Air Canada Centre when the team said Valanciunas was going to sit this one out.
The Kings were able to take full advantage of a weakened Toronto outfit devoid of its top rebounder, holding on for a 96-91 decision as the Raptors lost for just the second time in six games this season.
With Valanciunas sidelined, Toronto coach Dwane Casey was forced out to send out a lineup featuring two raw rookies along the front line in Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl, making his first NBA start at centre.
And it was not enough to get the job done – that along with shooting a paltry 35.7 per cent (30-of-84) from the floor.
“We were out of kilter the entire night offensively, off rhythm,” Casey said. “They did a good job of sending bodies off of our young guys on to DeMar, on to Kyle, on to our shooters and we didn’t do a good job of making sure we got off it quick enough to move the basketball.”
Cousins is a load at the best of times and the Raptors were counting on Valanciunas to try to stifle his rival’s offence. Cousins went into the game averaging 26 points and 8.4 rebounds.
And he certainly made his presence felt down the stretch in the fourth quarter when the outcome was still in doubt.
First, Cousins lowered one of his big shoulders at the top of the key to muscle his way around Poeltl, who was playing with five fouls, for an easy layup that moved Sacramento in front 90-88 with just under three minutes left.
On the ensuing Toronto possession, the 6-foot-11, 270-pounder made a steal off DeRozan.
Moments later, with the Kings leading 92-88, Cousins made a big block of a DeRozan floating jumper that all but sealed the deal.
Cousins finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds while Rudy Gay, the former Raptor, led the Kings with 23.
“He puts up a lot of numbers against a lot of people,” Casey said before the game when discussing Cousins’s many attributes. “We’re not any different. Again, we have to respect what he does.
“He’s so powerful, he’s so athletic, he’s so quick for his size that you can’t guard him with one guy. You got to bring a crowd, you got to make sure the paint is tight, make his catches hard. And then you got to make sure that you run him at the other end.”
DeRozan went into the game as the first player to start a season with five consecutive games of at least 30 points since Michael’s Jordan’s streak of six games to start the 1986-87 season.
But his remarkable run came to an end on Sunday as he could only manage 23 points to lead Toronto.
Valanciunas was scratched from the lineup just before game time with what the team said was a left-knee contusion.
The Raptors said the injury occurred some time last week and Valanciunas experienced some swelling pregame and the decision was made to sit him down. The team is listing his condition as day-to-day.
Eight of Toronto’s next 10 games will be on the road, beginning Wednesday in Oklahoma City against the Thunder.
The Raptors have been winning despite struggles in a couple of areas, including three-point shooting. Toronto has only connected on 27 buckets from long distance over the first five games. The Raptors’ 27-per-cent success rate from three-point territory is the worst in the 30-team league.
Against Sacramento the trend continued with Toronto hitting on just 7-of-30 from distance.
Poeltl, Toronto’s first-round draft pick, ninth overall, was understandably a bit amped up by his first start and played just five minutes in the opening half after getting dinged with three fouls.
Siakam is turning into a revelation with his up-tempo play. His unbridled energy is clear and he is fast becoming a fan favourite.
He was on the scoring end of an alley-oop feed from Kyle Lowry in the first quarter and he scored 12 points to help Toronto secure a 50-44 lead by the half.Report Typo/Error
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