June 22, 2024

Raptors’ loss in Brooklyn stings now, could hurt more later

Toronto can’t afford to lose touch with the teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference.

There’s going to be a muddle in the middle of the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings all season and the Raptors are destined to be in the thick of it.

You can give the top spots to Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and, for now at least, Orlando, while relegating Detroit, Washington, Charlotte and, at the moment, Chicago to also-ran status. The remaining teams are going to be in a season-long round-robin series that will ultimately determine any post-season participation.

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It’s not too early to consider those games — against Brooklyn, New York, Miami, Indiana, Cleveland and Atlanta — hugely significant in the long-term picture. It’s why Tuesday’s 115-103 loss to the Brooklyn Nets stings now and may hurt even more later on.

A couple of late-game defensive lapses that led to key Brooklyn three-pointers cost the Raptors dearly Tuesday and they simply weren’t good enough offensively to make up for them. It was the second straight road game in which Toronto played well but not well enough to win.

The Raptors, led by 17 points from Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes, shot just 40 per cent from the field and let the Nets dominate the fourth quarter.

Spencer Dinwiddie had 23 points for the Nets and Royce O’Neal made six three-pointers for Brooklyn.

The middle of the East is tight. Seven teams were within two games of each other at the start of play Tuesday. There will be much leapfrogging between now and April, but staying in touch with the group is imperative. The next couple of weeks have to be seen as a key portion of the Raptors’ season.

After facing Phoenix in Toronto on Wednesday, they play the Knicks twice, the Hawks twice and will have two other outings against Eastern Conference foes next week once the league settles the schedule with the eight In-Season Tournament quarterfinalists determined.

The Raptors got themselves in trouble against the Nets with a poor offensive effort that was missing any of the aspects that makes their scoring effective. They weren’t able to get on the paint for kick-out passes and there was precious little side-to-side ball movement.

“We want to be more of a free-flowing team, playing with really good spacing and creating open chances for each other,” Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic had told reporters at a New York practice Monday. “We’re constantly watching and showing guys on the film: ‘That’s a tough, contested, off-the-dribble shot without any ball movement, we don’t want those.’

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“We work so hard on the defensive end to get a stop (and we don’t want) to just go in iso and take toughs shots early in the shot clock. We need to go with ball movement, we need to be aggressive, we need to touch the paint. If the ball is kicked out and you have a wide-open shot, you’re an NBA player, you have to be ready to shoot those shots.”

The open looks, and the kinds of shots they need to take and make in rhythm, were few and far between in Brooklyn. It was the same in a Sunday loss to Cleveland that had followed three good games.

“You’re working on those shots every single day so you got to step on the line and make those shots,” Rajakovic said. “It’s a part of development, it feels like every time when you’re making strides forward, it happens a game like (Sunday) that we take one step back.

“It’s never going to be perfect … It’s finding the balance: How do we connect with each other and how do we find the best available shots?”

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