What a difference 24 hours (and one key personnel loss) makes. The Toronto Raptors (37-18) lost their three-point prowess, ball protection and general offensive zip were absent on Saturday night in Houston, just like Lou Williams (sprained left ankle), in what was a 98-76 loss to Corey Brewer and the Rockets.
After shooting 43.3% (13-30) from deep against the Hawks on Friday, Toronto’s long distance shooting efforts went dry without Williams on Saturday. The Raps shot 4-18 (22.2%) from the three-point line as part of what was just a 32.5% effort (25-77) from the floor. They didn’t outscore the Rockets in any quarter and even failed to top 18 points through the first three frames. Although Houston also shot poorly from deep (6-29, 20.7%) and matched the Raptors’ abysmal 23 turnovers in a sloppy affair, they comfortably out-rebounded their guests (52-39) and at least came close to matching their turnover total in assists (22, compared to 12 by the Raps).
Saturday also marked a night of surprise leading scorers on both sides of the court. Brewer led the Rockets with 26 points on 12-19 shooting off the bench, balancing his performance with 10 rebounds and five steals. Meanwhile, for the Raptors, James Johnson offered similar production, scoring 27 points on 10-16 shooting while adding five rebounds, four blocks and four steals.
With Williams out of the lineup, Johnson was essentially on his own in sparking the Raptors’ offence. The starting back court of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan went a combined 6-27 from the floor (with 12 turnovers) and no other Raptors topped the 11-point mark or made more than four shots from the field in what was the club’s second-lowest scoring output of the season (they managed just 75 points in a February 2nd loss to Milwaukee).
JJ gets the spotlight
Some have speculated that the pre-ASB emergence of Johnson as a key part of the rotation afforded Masai Ujiri plenty of leverage and contributed to the GM’s decision to hold off on a deal. And certainly, performances like Saturday night lend creedence to the thinking that Johnson can fill a wide array of team needs, be it defence, rim protection, rebounding and scoring.
Neither of the Raptors starting guards were on their game in extended roles with Williams out, but Lowry was particularly bad and has shown some worrisome signs of a recent slide in performance. Lowry’s 2-13 shooting effort, a showing that included an 0-7 mark from three, left him with a 32% clip (16-50) over his previous four games, none of which saw him top 13 points. While he has averaged 6.5 assists over that stretch, that has been counter-balanced by four turnovers per game, including seven on Saturday.
The three-ball certainly wasn’t a strength for the Raps on Saturday, but the Rockets mitigated that with a poor shooting night of their own from deep. Instead, it was matters of ball possession that helped the home side earn seven more shot attempts (84 to 77) and three more free throw tries (31 to 28). Even without Dwight Howard, the Rockets pulled down 13 more rebounds, including four more on the offensive glass. They also made the Raps pay for a sloppy, turnover-laden effort.
Time to call myself to task for a pretty ugly prediction string here. Dating back to late January, I’ve flubbed eight of my past nine Raptor predictions, turning a pretty darn good (if I do say so myself) 33-7 mark into what is now a less impressive 34-15 record. And yes, I can admit that my call on a Raps’ 113-107 win against Houston was about as off the mark as could be.
The Rockets, one of the many teams in the West that could either reach the NBA Finals or lose first round, will go as far as Howard and Harden take them. However, there’s still something fascinating about Daryl Morey’s inventive approach to roster building and knack for creatively acquiring basketball talent on the cheap. Already this season, the Rockets GM has added Josh Smith off the waiver wire and acquired promising (but contractually complicated) rookie K.J. McDaniels for the meager cost of little-used Isaiah Canaan and a second rounder. Morey is no stranger to such moves, having mined young talent like Thomas Robinson, Royce White and, yes, Harden at excellent value in recent years.
A string of four straight Western opponents continues on Monday night in New Orleans (8:00pm, TSN) against the Pelicans. While the Pels aren’t likely to overcome Oklahoma City for the No. 8 spot in the West, they do hold a road win over the Raps this year – a win that came without franchise star Anthony Davis.
Prediction: Pelicans 97, Raps 91 (record this season: 34-15)