While it wasn’t the dramatic collapse of Monday’s heart-breaker in New Orleans, the Toronto Raptors’ (37-20) 99-92 loss to the Dallas Mavericks once again demonstrated a troubling trend in which the club can’t match the energy and determination of their opposition down the stretch. After seeing an 18-point lead fade away against the Pelicans on Monday, the Raptors were unable to maintain what had been a 13-point advantage in the first half and fell apart completely in the fourth.
As the Mavs made six of their first seven baskets in the final frame on a series of well-executed lay-ups and open three’s to turn a three-point deficit into a seven-point advantage, the Raps missed three of their first four attempts in the fourth en route to a 6-19 quarter. Remarkably, Amir Johnson’s meaningless put back in the final seconds of an already-decided contest represented the only fourth quarter points from a Raptor starter. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot 0-5 over the final 12 minutes as part of an 11-36 shooting effort on the night.
It has been defence that’s been preached by Dwane Casey and the coaching staff throughout much of this season, but the past few contests have produced inadequate results on the offensive end. The Raps have averaged 88.3 points over their past three games – all losses – and have hit triple digits just once in their past six. On Tuesday night in Dallas, the Mavs out-performed their visitors from the floor (48.1% to 45.2%), from three-point territory (42.1% to 34.6%) and from the free throw line (15-18 to just 7-11 from the Raps). As we saw against San Antonio and Washington prior to the break, Toronto is still capable of winning with defence, but they simply haven’t established that as their calling card this season to the point where it can be relied upon.
On Tuesday, the Raptors weren’t done in by one particular Maverick or in one specific statistical category. For the second straight night, though, they couldn’t keep up with their opponents down the stretch despite having out-played them in the first half. This has to be a growing concern for Casey and his team.
Credit the Raptors for being active in the passing lanes against a club that is still finding their tempo with a high octane back court (Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis) and an aging, slow-it-down frontcourt (Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler and Richard Jefferson, in place of Chandler Parsons). They forced Dallas into 19 turnovers (four each from Ellis and Al-Farouq Aminu) and amassed 10 steals, including three from James Johnson. It was only when Devin Harris took the reins from Rondo (more on that later) that the Mavs were able to stabilize their ball protection.
The Raps would have been able to gain a greater advantage through ball possession if they didn’t wind up facing their own turnover issues. Of their 18 turnovers, 12 came in the fall-apart second half. Those 18 resulted in 28 points for Dallas, whereas the Mavs’ turnovers only led to 20 Raptor points. Just as James Johnson had three steals, he, along with Amir, DeRozan and Lou Williams, finished with three turnovers.
One of the common themes over the last two fourth quarter collapses against New Orleans and Dallas has been poor shot selection by the Raps, resulting in plenty of empty possessions and, often, a better chance in transition going the other way. Lowry, DeRozan and Williams, in particular, have been guilty of forcing bad shots early and allowing big rebounds that enable transition buckets. In taking too many long jumpers and not trying to drive, they were unable to slow down the collapse and failed to force their way to the line (hence the seven free throw makes).
After enjoying the fruits of Adam Silver’s extended All-Star break last week, the Raps have quickly felt the brunt end of it this week. While Silver agreed to lengthen the mid-season break to allow players more time away from the court, he didn’t extend the season at all. Therefore, the league is now filled with clubs getting their games in within a tighter timeframe. This latest back-to-back, part of four games in five nights, leaves six more still to come for Toronto this season. It’s hard to know whether this plan is a step in the right or wrong direction.
Tuesday night shone light on some of the inherent problems that plague Dallas. Rondo, whose fit and necessity within the Mavs’ offence was questioned when he was acquired earlier this season, still hasn’t quite gelled with him teammates. Against the Raptors, he slowed the pace at a time when coach Rick Carlisle was demanding an up tempo attack, resulting in an immediate timeout and the subsequent benching of the former Celtic for the rest of the night. It was around an effective Harris – not Rondo – that Dallas outscored Toronto 46-31 the rest of the way. Would the Mavs have been better off holding onto Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright instead of taking the Rondo risk?
The Raps now return home, but a one-game home stand against the Golden State Warriors on Friday (7:30pm, TSN) presents its own daunting challenge. This is the game that Casey has been anticipating since they last met on January 2nd – the question is whether Toronto is ready to step up their game.
Prediction: Warriors 102, Raps 96 (record this season: 36-15)