It’s been a while since fans could complain the Toronto Raptors were in a funk. But with losses in four of their past five games and several key stats trending downward, they are arguably wrestling with one right now.
The reigning NBA champs had been rolling along beautifully, sitting with the best teams atop the Eastern Conference standing after seven successive victories from Nov. 18 to Dec. 1. They seemed unflappable, even as Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were sidelined with injuries for double-digit games. They were being applauded for the savvy way in which they weaved in their young newcomers and didn’t miss a beat.
However, since Lowry and Ibaka have returned, the Raps have struggled to regain their rhythm as a team. Shooting percentage has dropped for both men since returning (Lowry is shooting 28.6 per cent and Ibaka 31.8 per cent). It isn’t just those two. The team overall has stumbled through scoring droughts in the recent losses, eased off the gas pedal defensively and been clumsy with turnovers. Toronto sits at 16-8, fifth in the East.
“Those guys, they’re just obviously rusty from the long, long layoff that they both had and we’ve got to get them worked back in there,” Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said. “Again, our best version of our team is with those two guys clicking at a high level like they were. I thought before they got injured they were both playing maybe the best they’d ever played. We’ve got to get them back in rhythm and shape or whatever it is and let them work their way out of this.”
A few rough games is no reason to panic, both men have said this week.
“We’ve been there before as a team and it’s a couple games, it’s not like it’s going to be like this for all the rest of season,” Ibaka told the media on Friday. “You know, I’m a champion so I know how to bounce back.”
Toronto’s three-point shooting has plummeted to 31.5 per cent in the past five games – 27th among the NBA’s 30 teams in December. While thriving in November, the Raptors ranked eighth in offensive rating, but have slipped to 25th in that category in their five games this month. The Raptors had the fifth-best defensive rating in the league last month, but have since slid to 11th.
Pascal Siakam has cooled slightly as opponents continue to focus on him defensively. After having scored at least 30 points seven times in the first 18 games of the season, he has done that just once in December. Recently, the Raps have had to play without Fred VanVleet – who provides 18.5 points a game and leads them in assists (seven) and steals (two), while occupying the floor for some 37 minutes.
VanVleet, who has missed the past two games recovering from a knee contusion he suffered on Dec. 5, could return Saturday when the Brooklyn Nets (13-11) visit Toronto. Nurse said the point guard practised Friday and would be re-evaluated before the game.
“I think we’ll list him as doubtful and we’ll wait until game time [Saturday] to see if he’s ready to go. There’s a chance,” Nurse said.
After a terrible start to the season, the Nets arrive in Toronto having won nine of their past 12 games. and have done so without Kyrie Irving, who has been sidelined for 13 games with a shoulder injury. The Raps will need to slow Spencer Dinwiddie, a man who has stepped up in Irving’s absence, averaging 24 points, 7.6 assists and 1.1 steals a game.
Nurse is not worried that his team has lost its identity in this short stretch. In the Raps’ most recent loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, he saw his players guarding with intensity and playing with great pace, until they let a handful of missed shots and turnovers shift the course of the game.
“When you’re thinking about who are you and what’s your identity as a team, I think one thing we’ve always tried to be is a super hard-playing team,” Nurse said. “We need to make sure we execute a little better. And we’ve got to step in and make some shots. It keeps that energy flowing, which we need ... that’s who we are.”
The Raps have lost recently to the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and the Clippers – all top-five teams in their conferences.
The Raptors play host to the 6-19 Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday.