Josh Lewenberg: Inevitable qualifying tournament for Raptors after loss to Cleveland

TORONTO – Nick Nurse won’t soon forget the Raptors’ last trip to Cleveland. It’s the kind of experience that tends to stick with a head coach, even one who’s seen an awful lot in his three decades around the sport.

It happened on Boxing Day, just after Toronto’s roster was decimated by a team-wide COVID outbreak. With 10 roster regulars and four emergency signers joining the club ahead of the game, half of its eight available players met on the bus ride to the arena.

“I remember it was a lot of fun,” Nurse joked, thinking back to that night and what turned out to be a predictable 144-99 loss to the Cavaliers.

With the Raptors returning to Ohio for Sunday’s game — an important game in the tight Eastern Conference standings — that late-December loss seemed relevant again. If nothing else, it provided much-needed perspective.

This time they only had to introduce a new teammate before tipping.

They were already without a few key starters, Fred Van Vleet and OG Anunoby, when they found out emerging playmaker Malachi Flynn was running out of time due to hamstring strain. So, with less than 24 hours before they face the Cavs, they called Armoni Brooks, who was in Atlanta playing for the G League’s College Park Skyhawks, and told him to get on the first flight to Cleveland.

Toronto had to cut the injured DJ WilsonThe 10-day contract is short to bring in Brooks, also on 10 days. He arrived in time to make the rounds with his new team on Sunday morning, and even entered the game for five minutes scoreless to open the fourth quarter.

“We moved pieces like crazy anyway,” Nurse said. “Might as well move another one, right? »

It could always be worse, as the Raptors know, but it was going to be a tall order. There were two teams in freefall – Toronto came in having lost six of their last nine games, while Cleveland had lost six of seven – battling for a guaranteed playoff spot. However, one club was faced with the unenviable task of trying to steal an unlikely win on the road with minimal shooting and no traditional point guard on the floor.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. The guys who were there fought hard and ended up making it a game, cutting a deficit that was once as big as 18 points to five in the final minutes. But it’s hard to win in this league without shooting, playing and depth.

The Raptors had 12 players available Sunday. 11 of them recorded at least three minutes. Ten of them fired at least one shot. Only six players scored and four of them had 83 of the team’s 96 points on the night. Overall, they made just six of their 24 three-point attempts and were outscored 33-18 from beyond the arc. They shot 25 for 55 from inside the paint, including a dreadful 13 for 34 in the first half and 16 for 26 from the free throw line. They went almost seven minutes without a basket to close the third quarter.

“We just had a few stretches where things really didn’t go our way, but we kept fighting to get back there,” Nurse said after his side lost 104-96. “We kept fighting and it’s a credit to our guys to keep playing. I thought they gave it their all tonight.

In the absence of VanVleet and Flynn, the Raptors started strong, with Pascal Siakam, chris butcher and Birch of Khem in the frontcourt and Scottie Barnes as the interim point guard next to Gary Trent Jr. in the backcourt. Although Siakam handled a lot of the point guard duties, as he usually does, Nurse wanted to get more reps from Barnes as the primary ball handler. It’s a role he’s had before, mostly as a reserve in college last year and here and there throughout his rookie season, but this was his chance to do it as a starter. .

They struggled to generate offense early on. It took them more than eight minutes to register their first assist of the night – a Boucher lay-up from Dalano Banton late in the first quarter – but that reflects a bad shot as much or more as the lack of ball movement . You don’t get help if no one can hit a shot. Barnes and Siakam were doing their best to pick up the pace and get the Raptors into their sets, but there was very little space to operate in the half court – a running theme as VanVleet and Anunoby were out, even worse without Flynn, who had played the best basketball of his young career.

In seven games since the All-Star break — all without Anunoby and the last five without VanVleet — Toronto is hitting 9.4 threes per game (29th in the NBA on that streak) on 33% shooting (26th in the league). It was hardly a surprise to see the Cavs take out their zone defense as often as they did on Sunday. The Raptors just couldn’t beat him.

All things considered, Siakam is doing everything he can, despite drawing more defensive attention than he should. He followed up with an admirable 34-point performance in Friday’s 24-point loss to the Magic against Cleveland, despite missing six of 13 free throw attempts. Barnes was solid despite some defensive shortcomings, finishing with 19 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in 42 minutes. Trent’s shooting slump continued; he was 2-for-8 from long range and hitting just 22% of his threes since the break, but looked better overall, scoring 19. Boucher had 21 points when he started and helped fuel the rally of endgame with his energy.

“I think we walked in and knew what was at stake. [and] obviously they did too,” Boucher said. “These are two good teams playing for a good position in the playoffs. Kudos to them, we tried to run errands, and they fought back. It’s a good team too. It was a fun game. Obviously we would have liked to win, but there’s not much you can do.

Once again, the Raptors fell victim to circumstance in a loss to Cleveland, and this one looks particularly costly. With a win, Toronto would have come within a game of sixth place. Instead, the Cavs cushion for sixth place has increased to three games. They will also win the season series (they lead 3-0, the last meeting being in Toronto later this month) and take the tiebreaker.

Whatever chance the Raptors had of earning a guaranteed playoff spot and avoiding the play-in tournament was a blow Sunday. The scorching Celtics, who beat Brooklyn in a thriller earlier in the day, have won 14 of their last 16 games. They have the best point differential in the conference, the highest-ranked defense in the league since Jan. 1, and have looked like a legitimate contender at the top of the East, tied with Miami, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Chicago.

Among the East’s top six, the young Cavs, who have started to look vulnerable lately, looked like the team that could be sent off. It’s still doable, if the Raptors can get healthy and run. With a few more days to rest his wobbly knee, the hope is that VanVleet will be ready to go to San Antonio on Wednesday. Anunoby could be back when the team returns home from its six-game road trip in about 10 days, in which case the plan is to reevaluate Flynn. This all-star big man Jarrett Allen expected to miss some time for Cleveland after fracturing his finger in the first half of Sunday’s game could make things interesting. Even still, with 18 regular season games to go, it’s a long shot at best.

After Sunday’s loss, the Raptors seem destined for the qualifying tournament, and given how competitive the East is this year, it won’t be an easy road. To earn their spot in the playoffs, they’ll probably have to beat one or maybe two of Brooklyn (a sleeping giant if they have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons on the floor this time next month), Charlotte and Atlanta (a few teams they lost to by a combined 59 points last week).

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