As play-in battle with Bulls looms, Raptors can’t solve shooting woes

Fred VanVleet Pascal Siakam Raptors

The goal is to get the ball in the basket, and for the most part this season, the Toronto Raptors have been terrible at it. That continued Friday in Boston — and the disturbing trend could loom large in a play-in game against the Bulls.

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BOSTON – The goal is to get the ball in the basket, and for the most part this season, the Toronto Raptors have been terrible at it.

It’s not exactly the elephant in the room. It’s not like it hasn’t been a regular topic of conversation.

It’s just that accepting the reality of it has taken some time.

When the Raptors shot just 24.4 per cent from the three-point line in the pre-season, it was just ‘pre-season’. When they shot 29.5 per cent from the three-point line in November, it was ‘early’. When they were 28th in three-point shooting in December, it was ‘injuries’ and when they were 23rd in January and 19th in February, it was things beginning to ‘even out’. But then they slid back to 24th in March and it was, um, just the Raptors being the Raptors.

And yet there is still optimism. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse – to his credit, I guess – has consistently been upbeat, or hopeful at least, about the Raptors’ shooting, making it sound like a turnaround is right around the corner.

“Since February 1, we’ve played solid ball and at times really good,” he said earlier this week, referring to Toronto’s 17-11 record over the past two months or so. “The defensive numbers have shown that we’ve been really good as well, on top of that, not that it matters, but you know, I think it’s a pretty good indicator of connection and your chemistry and how you’re playing.

“[But] I think, listen, for us to really hit another level I think our shot-making still has to get a little better. I think we’re creating really good shots for guys that are pretty good historical shooters, and those numbers still have some room to go up.”

I almost feel bad pointing out that shortly after Nurse made his comments, his club went out against Boston and shot 6-of-33 from deep and 41.1 per cent overall in Toronto’s loss to a short-handed Celtics team on Wednesday.

The subject came up again before the Raptors faced Boston in the second game of their two-game series on Friday and you could almost hear the shrug in Nurse’s voice. “I went back and watched the tape. There were 13, I think, where there were no contests, wide open. Gotta make ’em. Gotta keep generating and gotta make some more.”

So, what would Friday’s rematch bring?

More of the same, only worse, it turns out, in a 121-102 loss that gave the Celtics 56 wins and a four-game sweep of the season series, while dropping Toronto to 40-41 on the season and spoiling what slim chance that they had of overtaking Atlanta for the No. 8 seed.

So, some certainty: the ninth-place Raptors will host old friend DeMar DeRozan and the 10th-place Chicago Bulls in the first play-in tournament game in franchise history. If they win that game – slated for Wednesday night – they will travel to play the loser of the Miami-Atlanta game needing to win that to secure the eighth and final playoff spot. From there, they would start a seven-game series on the road against the first-place Milwaukee Bucks.

Should be fine.

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Offensively, the Raptors picked up where they left off when they lost to Boston on Wednesday, and shot 6-of-33 from three and 41 per cent from the floor.

Actually, they picked up the pace.

The Raptors did force four quick Boston turnovers in the first four minutes, but they turned it over twice themselves on the same play in each case.

They made only two of their first 12 shots and finished the first quarter shooting just 7-of-24. Some of their looks were open, and they missed them. A lot of them were difficult – desperation forays in the teeth of the Celtics defence – and they missed those, too.

The difference is that the Raptors defence didn’t travel with them from their hotel to TD Garden. Boston led 34-16 after the first quarter and were up 36 with two minutes to play in the half before the Raptors put together a 9-1 run to cut Boston’s lead to 68-40.

“ …  We just made some bad choices [offensively] and that’s when it got tough,” said Nurse. “We were really hurt in transition on some of those. Not getting back, or if we were back, it was a quick, early drive at the rim or out to a three. “We just weren’t rotating out very good.”

“Our defence has remained pretty solid when going through these shooting slumps. Tonight it did not.”

It could have been worse. Boston is second in the NBA in three-pointers made and seventh in percentage but was just 9-of-25 from deep in the first half, with Jayson Tatum 0-of-5. But Tatum still had 21 points after sitting out Wednesday’s game and Boston – amazingly – was a perfect 15-of-15 on twos as the Celtics converted too many easy lobs at the rim by Robert Williams and picked Toronto apart with a variety of back cuts as Raptors defenders got beat trying to take away the three-point line.

Running off Raptors misses into a scrambled Toronto defence didn’t hurt their cause, either.

Boston shot 55.6 percent from the floor and was 15-of-44 from three, more than enough than to survive the 21 turnovers Toronto was able to force. Sam Hauser led them in scoring with 26 and was 6-of-12 from three.

Toronto shot 43 per cent from the floor and was 9-of-31 from deep. Pascal Siakam, who had 19 points in 30 minutes, led the Raptors in scoring.

Toronto shot 15-of-64 from three over the two games in Boston.

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The Celtics, who are locked into the second seed in the East, were without a two starters on Friday in Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, as well as Malcolm Brogdon, the likely sixth man of the year, who scored 29 points off the bench on Wednesday. It didn’t seem to matter as Tatum, a fringe MVP candidate,  rotated back in as did Al Horford, the sharp-shooting veteran big, and Payton Pritchard, their excellent third-string point guard.

They may not be the NBA’s best team – though they might be – but they are almost certainly the league’s deepest.

The Raptors have actually been a very good defensive team since the all-star break, their 110.9 defensive rating second during that period to only Boston, which explains their 12-9 record (before last night) since the break.

But the shooting? It remains a problem as they are 27th in effective field goal percentage over the same period.

The good news is they have room to go up right across the board. It’s not just three-point shooting the Raptors struggle with.

Here’s a sampling of where the Raptors rank in a variety of shooting categories:

Drives: 29th

Catch-and-shoot jumpers (all): 27th

Catch-and-shoot threes: 26th

Pull-up jumpers (all): 27th

Pull-up threes: 29th

Their overall effective field goal percentage is 28th, even with the uptick recently.

What you’ll hear the Raptors say regularly is that they’re getting good shots. They even have a proprietary statistic for it: ‘expected points per shot’ — which is supposed to capture what should happen on a particular shot, based on who’s taking it, how open they are and who is defending.

The Raptors apparently are very good at this. They generate good shots.

“I will say I usually just grade it on like, what are we generating? You know what I mean? And if we’re generating good shots in the flow of the offence, then most times you know, you’ll be able to live with the result,” Fred VanVleet, who was 5-of-25 (4-of-18 from three) over his two games in Boston, said Wednesday. “And … obviously Boston is one of the best defensive teams in the league for a reason … So I usually just focus on like, what shots are we generating and tonight, you know, not great in terms of flow and rhythm and energy.”

The Raptors have created a playing style that offsets their shooting woes. At least part of the reason they work so hard to create turnovers and generate offensive rebounds is so that they can take more shots than their opponents most nights, and hopefully with more chances they can at least break even. They’ve been successful at it – the Raptors lead the NBA in shot differential – and they’ve been able hang in on the edges of the playoff – or play-in race – because of it.

“I like to coach defensive basketball. I like to game plan, break it down, trying to take away teams’ strengths, take away individual players’ strengths, trying to come up with ways to make it difficult for teams to score,” said Nurse before the game. “… The first thing I’m always doing is putting together a game plan to win, and it always starts on the other end of the floor.”

But when coaching a team that struggles to create offence in the halfcourt?

“I think we always try to make the best decision based on our team,” he said. “First and foremost. It’s also something I really believe in.”

But it’s so much easier if you can score. In the second half, the Celtics went into coast mode. They sat Tatum down after his 20 first-half minutes and suddenly the rotations weren’t quite so sharp and the energy not bubbling quite the same.

The Raptors made three three-pointers in the first five minutes of the third quarter and were able to cut a 10-point chunk out of the Celtics lead, cutting it to 18 with 17 minutes to play. Doable.

But the Celtics continued to create their own offence. A tip-in by Williams, a three from Horford, the fifth of the game by Sam Hauser, starting in place of Brown, and the lead was back to 25 before they took a 95-73 lead into the fourth quarter.

The Celtics, it should be pointed out, have 10 players in their rotation averaging at least one made three a game. Toronto has four and one of them – Gary Trent Jr. – was 0-for-Boston this week.

It’s a tough way to play and it’s been the story of the Raptors’ season. Unfortunately, after 81 games, it’s not changing.

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