The Toronto Raptors are on pace for a franchise-best win total and, at worst, will finish with the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. So it's a little weird that fatalism and the looming specter of past collapses still cloud so much of what would otherwise be a feel-good story.
But that's how it is for the Raps, who lost their third game in four tries, this one a 119-100 thumping at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Looking unsteady at a dangerous time, last year's ghosts feel more real than ever for the Raptors. And even if so many of the troubling signs from 2014-15's nosedive of a second half (which culminated in a first-round dismantling by the Washington Wizards) haven't been present, it feels reasonable to worry about an encore of the worst kind.
Toronto wore down last season, and Kyle Lowry, in particular, slipped in the second half.
So when the Thunder blitzed a seemingly fatigued Raptors team with a 27-11 fast break-point advantage Monday, it mattered because it felt familiar. Toronto seemed tired. And when Lowry shot just 4-of-14, making his cumulative total from the last three games a ghastly 11-of-46, well...you see where this is going.
Many of the big picture numbers and narratives suggest Toronto is nowhere near the level of systemic collapse it suffered in 2015.
After last year's All-Star break, the Raptors' net rating fell from plus-4.6 to plus-0.7. This season, the slippage is smaller, from plus-4.4 before to plus-3.4 after. Lowry transformed his body, and recent skid notwithstanding, has mostly sustained his productivity as the season has progressed. Toss in improvements from DeMar DeRozan, the addition of Cory Joseph and the huge potential upgrade in DeMarre Carroll's healthy return (fingers crossed), and these sure don't seem like last year's Raptors.
An optimist could even spin these recent losses positively. Lowry rested in Wednesday's road loss to the Boston Celtics, and Friday's slip against the Houston Rockets was close (112-109) and forgivable, considering James Harden is still good enough to beat almost anyone by himself.
Monday's excuse is even easier: The Thunder are the hottest team in the league, winners of eight straight. Russell Westbrook posted his league-leading 16th triple-double while Kevin Durant's 34 points, eight rebounds and eight assists made up the night's second-prettiest stat line. OKC does this to plenty of teams.
Three recent losses don't ruin a season. Three recent losses don't signal a collapse.
Still...that specter hovers. All year, successes in Toronto have felt a little less predictive. Failures more ominous. Everything the Raptors do gets refracted through the prism of last season's failure.
Per Paul Flannery of SB Nation:
While the Raptors’ status as an an objectively good team has not been in doubt, they are also locked in an unwinnable battle with perception. Back-to-back playoff appearances confirmed their abilities, but consecutive first round defeats seemed to establish their ceiling as also-rans.
The Raptors know that they have to perform in the playoffs. No matter what they accomplish and no matter how many franchise records they break, the postseason will serve as their final exam. That’s a tough way to get through the 82-game grind, but that’s their reality and they all understand and accept it.
It's been enough to make Luis Scola wax philosophical, per Josh Lewenberg of TSN 1050 in Toronto:
Luis Scola philosophizes: "What happened in the past doesn't really belong to us and what will happen in the future probably won't either"— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 28, 2016
Everything the Raptors do—every win, loss, trend, streak, slump and isolated in-game issue—exists in the context of its recent past.
NBA analyst Eric Koreen illustrated the mindset during Monday's game:
Lowry not getting some whistles on perimeter he usually gets, which is worrisome because those same calls sometimes don't come in playoffs.— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) March 29, 2016
And though we've already shown Toronto's net rating hasn't endured last year's precipitous decline, the defense, which has allowed almost five extra points per 100 possessions since the break, evokes concern, per B/R's Michael Pina:
Toronto's transition defense continues to have serious problems— Michael Pina (@MichaelVPina) March 29, 2016
As the Raps push toward a win total in the low-to-mid-50s, this alarmism starts to feel a little crazy.
But the truth is, fair or not, this narrative won't die until the Raptors kill it themselves.
RoLo vs. Pierre: Dawn of Justice
Actually, it's more like Late Evening of Justice—both because the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans met up at 8:00 p.m. ET, and because Robin Lopez has been dispensing his brand of mascot vigilantism for a good long while.
Before New York and New Orleans tipped off, Lopez and Pierre (easily among the league's most punchable mascots) prefaced their confrontation:
Lopez followed up in person:
The 99-91 Pelicans win staved off official elimination from playoff contention for a couple of hours, but when both the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz secured victories later on Monday, the lottery became a certainty. With Anthony Davis out for the year and nothing to chase but ping-pong balls, Pierre will have to keep the non-basketball entertainment coming. There's no other reason to watch New Orleans over the next two weeks.
I guess the only question now is: Should we use Twitter or an email blast to recruit other right-thinking centers who'd like to tackle the league's creepiest mascot?
Byron Scott Is Running Out of Time
Following their 123-75 (not a typo) loss to the Utah Jazz, the Los Angeles Lakers have just eight games left in the regular season. From head coach Byron Scott's perspective, that means he only has eight more games to belittle the young players on his roster.
Here's the latest, per Mark Medina of the LA Daily News:
Byron reiterated Kobe's belief that no one on the Lakers team currently has what it takes to lead the franchise.— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 28, 2016
Two things here.
First, Kobe Bryant and his chief enabler/yes man/head coach are probably right. Unless you believe D'Angelo Russell's ceiling is in Chris Paul territory, nobody on the current Lakers roster looks like an organizational pillar.
Second: Don't say this publicly. Just don't.
It's fine if Bryant wants to speak his mind. He's had carte blanche for most of his career and all of his farewell tour. He doesn't care anymore, and he's tap-danced all over the line between candor and cruelty for most of the last few years.
But Scott, in theory, should care about the development, psyche and general self-worth of his young players. Even if he suspects (as he probably should) he won't have a job next year, there's no reason to keep piling on. It comes across as defensive at best and petty at worst.
Per Andy Kamentzky of ESPN Radio:
It's nakedly obvious that Byron considers everything that comes with development to be one massive pain in the ass. AK— Kamenetzky Brothers (@KamBrothers) March 29, 2016
This seems like a good time to note Russell has taken huge steps forward during his rookie season—in spite of a broken offensive system and a coach who hasn't exactly fed his confidence.
There's also this from ESPN Stats & Info:
On his birthday, Byron Scott drops to 452-641 as an NBA coach. The 189 games below .500 is currently most by any coach in NBA history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 29, 2016
It sure is unlucky that Scott keeps getting players who aren't any good, huh? I mean, what are the odds?
If I were one of the Lakers' young talents, nothing would delight me more than blossoming in Scott's absence.
The Bulls Do Not Have Enough
Perhaps the most enduring image of Tom Thibodeau's tenure as Chicago Bulls head coach came after a Game 6 loss in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. Just days after a violently ill Nate Robinson scored 34 points in a triple-overtime Game 4 loss—one in which a brutally thin bench required 60 minutes from Kirk Hinrich, 57 from Luol Deng and 50 from Carlos Boozer—Thibs told reporters, "Hey, we have enough. We have enough."
It was inspiring, but comically untrue.
Following a 102-100 loss to the Atlanta Hawks Monday, the Bulls' fourth in a row, it's untrue again. Sporting a ghastly record over the last couple of months and watching their playoff dreams slip out of reach, the Bulls don't have enough, per K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Better effort but Bulls' self-proclaimed do-or-die week begins with some dying. They're now 14-25 since facing Atlanta on Jan. 9.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) March 29, 2016
Battling through his persistent knee issues, Jimmy Butler scored 15 inefficient points in 35 minutes. Derrick Rose added 20. Pau Gasol chipped in 19 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. But the defense was poor again, unable to limit Atlanta's good looks and ultimately costing the Bulls a rare game in which they didn't lose the effort battle.
This is a personnel issue, and it bears discussing—if only as a way to get out ahead of the inevitable offseason criticism coming Fred Hoiberg's way. It's true his offensive schemes haven't taken Chicago to the next level as so many expected they would, but the team's lack of defensive personnel—Joakim Noah has been out for weeks, Butler isn't himself, Taj Gibson is perpetually hobbled—isn't on Hoiberg. And the resulting slippage on that end isn't either.
It's true Chicago's front office underestimated the toll of losing a coach for whom players always competed as hard as possible. Giving up on Thibodeau changed something fundamental about the team's makeup. But it's equally true that Hoiberg hasn't been solely to blame for the Bulls' disappointing season.
They just don't have enough.
Karl-Anthony Towns Is Disappointing
The Minnesota Timberwolves got 27 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and a wrong-footed “no 7-foot human should be able to do that” dunk from Karl-Anthony Towns in a 121-116 win over the Phoenix Suns Monday.
And it wasn’t enough—not for Devin Booker anyway.
Per Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press:
Booker on Towns: "I thought he was going to score 80 points in the game."— Jon Krawczynski (@APkrawczynski) March 29, 2016
There you have it: KAT is disappointing. He’ll just have to up the ante next time. Maybe levitate, part a sea, avert an imminent nuclear threat.
Towns has won four straight Rookie of the Month Awards. When he wins for March in a few days, it'll be five. Despite falling short of Booker's expectations, he's exceeded everyone else's. With Anthony Davis ailing, there may not be a better individual building block among the league's young elites.
Advanced Studies In Offensive Innovation with Professor Lance Stephenson
It feels like maybe it’d take an entire semester of scrutiny to unpack all the levels of meaning in this play from Lance Stephenson, which came in an inconsequential 101-87 loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
In the interest of brevity, some study questions should help facilitate a basic discussion.
1. Does Gregg Popovich rise coincidentally at the exact moment Stephenson’s ball fake appears to target him as a recipient? Or does Stephenson’s confidence in his own nonsensical actions have the power to animate other humans?
2. Was someone supposed to be there? The corner is a good place for a shooter to be. Does it follow that Stephenson actually knows Memphis’ schemes and isn’t a complete loose-cannon freelancer?
3. Can Stephenson see into other basketball dimensions? Ones where there is a shooter in the spot toward which he faked?
4. If Stephenson can see other basketball dimensions, does he borrow moves from them?
5. Is this why he dribbles in circles and generally conducts himself like the rules of his current basketball dimension can’t contain his genius?
Bonus: Please diagram this play described by Chris Harrington of the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
Stephenson airballs a three, Barnes gets the rebounds, pass comes back out to Born Ready, ball bounces off his face and into the backcourt.— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) March 29, 2016
Answers on my desk by Wednesday, please.
It's Not Going to Be Hard to Strategize Against the Celtics
The Boston Celtics couldn't match their season-high five-game winning streak, dropping a 114-90 contest to the Los Angeles Clippers. But Isaiah Thomas scored 24 points, slotting himself alongside an all-time Celtics great in the record books, per play-by-play man Sean Grande:
Isaiah Thomas (24) ends up leading the Celtics in scoring for the 13th consecutive game.— Sean Grande (@SeanGrandePBP) March 29, 2016
That ties the franchise record.
Larry Bird - 1988
That's pretty amazing, but it also might not be good.
Imagine you're a playoff opponent with tons of time to scheme such an obvious defensive objective: Stop Thomas, and Boston doesn't score. That's a little scary, right?
A lot can still change in the East's crowded middle tier. But at the moment, Boston is set to square off with the Miami Heat in the first round, who've got their rotation hammered out and enjoyed a vintage 30-point night from Dwyane Wade in a 110-99 win over the Brooklyn Nets. Does anyone think Erik Spoelstra, with all his championship experience and a bunch of defensive weapons to deploy, will allow Thomas to get loose in a series?
The Celtics defend well and have a reputation as a starless, equal-opportunity bunch. But only one guy scores consistently. As much as that looks like a strength now, it might turn out to be a weakness against a prepared, experienced playoff opponent.
Not sayin'. Just sayin'.
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Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played March 28.