Indiana

Raptors facing a massive January for their future, and it started poorly

January 2023 is one of the most important regular season months of the last decade.

If the Raptors string together some wins and begin to fulfill the promise that has largely fallen short this season, team president Masai Ujiri will have to think long and hard about trading someone from the core of the team. When given the option, Ujiri is generally a conservative dealmaker. If the Raptors continue to struggle, Ujiri will be pushed toward “seller” status, a place they haven’t been in a while, with the notable exception of the 2020-21 Tampa Tank season. Ujiri doesn’t want his team to be fighting for mediocrity, and since he doesn’t have a good chance of making the playoffs, Ujiri has said that he doesn’t want to invest in a team that’s qualified for the lower end of the play-in tournament (resp worse).

The Raptors are playing for their survival this month in this form. With the return of Fred VanVleet and Precious Achiuwa to the lineup, they’re in the healthiest they’ve been in a while. They have a schedule that should allow them to thrive – if they can start playing good defense consistently. They couldn’t do it this Monday and started the crucial month with a 122-114 loss in Indiana.

In the kind of contest they have to win more often than not during this stretch, the Raptors briefly let go of the rope in the second quarter of a competitive game. After the win against Phoenix, Nick Nurse said he wanted his players on their day off to just focus on the controllable – effort basically – and then they fell apart in transition in a second quarter where they lost 13 points. Their misses sparked many of the Pacers’ transition chances, but many of the looks could have been avoided by either coming back faster or putting pressure on the ball after missed shots. The Pacers hit 15 offensive rebounds on the Raptors’ 12 and grabbed 23 fast break points on Toronto’s 12.

The Raptors came back into the game with an excellent defense, only to fail to execute during the stretch when Indiana surpassed them. The Pacers, who have massively exceeded expectations this season, looked like the deeper, better team. Period.

It was the start of a series of games that will determine how the Raptors’ season goes. Despite having a seven-game Western Conference trip in their schedule before the deadline, it’s not particularly hellish. They only have one back-to-back on this trip and only face two of the six teams in the playoffs: Memphis and Sacramento. (Granted, street matchups in Golden State and Phoenix, assuming those teams have reasonable health, aren’t gimmes.)

That way, the Raptors’ schedule is more likely than not: They’ll play 14 of their 20 games before the close against teams in play-in or lottery positioning. They have more quiet advantages than disadvantages. You only have three back-to-backs.

Raptors schedule before close

At home one way In total

total games

9

11

20

vs. playoff team

2

4

6

vs. play-in team

4

5

9

against lottery team

3

2

5

Back to back

1

2

3

With peace of mind

3

4

7

With residual disadvantage

1

3

4

(Teams classified by placement ahead of Monday night’s games.)

If you’ve played like one of the eight or ten worst teams in the league, not many games will seem like automatic wins. However, if the Raptors can put together more than five weeks of good play, it could very well happen at this stretch.

It will have to. The Raptors came into play Monday in 12th place, just a few percentage points from last play-in tournament spot. If they haven’t managed to improve their standing by the February 9th close, they should seriously consider trading likely future free agents VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. It would be irresponsible not to do so. It can’t just be baby steps either. They must have a notable uptrend and a path to becoming one of the top six seeds in the Eastern Conference.

Coincidentally, Indiana came into play in that sixth place, 3 1/2 games ahead of the Raptors. It’s 4 1/2 now. We’re only a few days into 2023, but the Raptors are playing for their season.

observations

• I hate bank points as a statistic. Reserve players have different roles, and not every bank unit is designed to score a lot of points. I prefer bank minutes because you can understand the posts better that way. Indiana has 97. The Raptors have 44. (Bank points? The Pacers won that 54-7.)

• When he feels it, Trent makes it so much easier to watch the Raptors. It’s not like his shooting creates much more room for the Raptors’ go-getters, but he does give the team some much-needed shot power at the end of a possession that goes nowhere.

• Another poor shooting night from VanVleet, who returned after missing two games with back spasms. He made a defensive decision, trying to push the ball away from Aaron Nesmith instead of moving to stay in front, which was disastrous.

• Nurse missed short runs for Achiuwa in the forward’s first game since spraining and damaging ligaments on 9 November. Scottie Barnes threw him some bizarre passes to get him going, but other than that, Achiuwa looked nice and bouncy. He had a big traffic block and finished one of those Barnes Passes. Achiuwa was down for a few possessions as the Raptors ferociously defended on the perimeter. He had a great individual defense against Tyrese Haliburton to end his evening. Achiuwa had three points and three blocks in 12 minutes.

• With Barnes playing de facto center square, he set many screens against drop coverage. Indiana’s Myles Turner hung as close to the edge as possible. Throughout his career, Barnes hasn’t shied away from taking long 2s, but he didn’t want to shoot against cover at all. It worked as the Raptors rained in about 3 seconds, but there’s probably a good middle ground where Turner at least drips in the paint to get Turner to move around a bit. Barnes doesn’t necessarily need to shoot in these sets, but he can’t just look to pass the ball either. At times, Barnes seemed to pay homage to Raptors-era Marc Gasol.

• On the other hand, this is a very impressive catch and a very nice effort to try and finish a dunk over Turner. He doesn’t get the foul call if he tries to put in the ball. He also had a nice tip from a missed 3 from Trent to OG Anunoby for a put back. That should be of help. Barnes was also great guiding the Raptors in the transition. Barnes had 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in what was an intriguing game for him.

• I have no idea how the officials reviewed the small skirmish between Anunoby and Bennedict Mathurin and decided that only Anunoby should receive a technical. Anunoby held up the Montreal-raised rookie and Mathurin shoved Anunoby, who pushed him back. It’s either nothing or technical fouls on both players.

• It was a tough road from Malachi Flynn to the end of the first quarter. He was beaten twice, one-for-one by TJ McConnell, and then threw away what should have been the last possession of the frame. Knowing Nurse, the former will stand out more than the latter. He was also at fault for the first two buckets of the second quarter, earning him a spot on the bench. His bad play was part of those amazing bench numbers.

(Photo by Gary Trent Jr. and Buddy Hield: Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

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