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In the midst of yet another lackluster start that saw the San Antonio Spurs race out to an 11-point lead after one quarter and hold a 20-point advantage with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first half, Toronto Raptors leader and All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry lit into his teammates during a second-quarter timeout:
The mid-frame freakout didn't pay immediate dividend as the Spurs continued to push the listing Raptors around, running their lead as high as 26 points on a Kawhi Leonard alley-oop dunk off a Tim Duncan feed with just more than seven minutes left in the third quarter.
Toronto did mount a comeback, though, going small to spark a pair of third-quarter runs that chopped down the deficit and making it a two-possession game in the final four minutes of the fourth behind the attacking and shot-making of Lowry and Lou Williams. But the empire struck back, with Leonard and Danny Green giving San Antonio enough of an offensive boost down the stretch to seal a 117-107 victory that extended the Spurs' winning streak to six games and handed the Raptors their ninth loss in 10 games.
Since Feb. 1, the Raps have the NBA's seventh-worst record and sixth-worst defensive efficiency mark, a dismal run of form that has caused the team that once led the East to tumble down the standings to fourth place in the conference. While they're all but assured a top-four seed for winning the Atlantic Division — even with their struggles, the Raptors are still 11 games up on the Boston Celtics with 18 games left — they would not be guaranteed home-court advantage in their opening-round matchup if their opponent had a better record; the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards are just two games back in the standings entering Wednesday's action.
After the loss, Lowry — who finished with a game-high 32 points, with 24 coming after halftime and 17 in the fourth quarter — declined to share the specifics of his in-the-huddle comments ("It's not TV-friendly, so I'm not going to repeat it," he said with a laugh). But he did emphasize the importance of the Raptors getting off to better starts than they have been:
Lowry had cooled down marginally by the time the Raptors room opened to reporters but got hot again when asked if a first half like that might just be the kick in the behind his team needs to get to the level they had been playing at earlier in the year.
“It’s nine out of 10 (losses),” Lowry said dropping one more unprintable word before catching himself.
“We need to play. We don’t need no kick in the ass. We’ve literally been getting our ass kicked. So we shouldn’t need that type of first half. We should be able to go out and do it.”
The numbers bear out Lowry's assessment of Toronto's early-game struggles. Over the course of the full season, the Raptors have outscored their opposition in every quarter except the first, in which they've been outscored by 39 total points:
The first-quarter slippage has come on both ends. The Raptors' offense — the unit that's carried the club this season, racking up buckets to the tune of 107.8 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the NBA — has taken some time to get cranked up, and their defense — a calling card last year (ninth-best in the NBA) and a sympathy card this year (22nd among 30 teams at 104.6 points-per-100 allowed) — has taken some time to even get to mediocre:
And, as luck would have it, the trend toward first-quarter pre-collapses has dovetailed entirely with the Raptors' post-January swoon. Toronto played opponents even-up in the first quarter through their first 48 games; they've rolled up that -39 mark solely in the last 16 games.
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Toronto has shot less accurately, turned the ball over more frequently, and allowed more second-chance and fast-break points in the first quarter than any other frame during its slide. The biggest drop-off has been on the offensive side of the ball, where the Raptors are generating buckets at a rate (93.7 points-per-100) that would top only the dead-last, league-worst Philadelphia 76ers (92 points-per-100) over the course of the full season.
Digging into that a bit, it seems like the biggest issue is a steady diet of early midrange jumpers. One-third of Toronto's first-quarter shots over the last 16 games have come between the paint and the 3-point arc, with stars Lowry (44.2 percent of his first-quarter looks from midrange) and DeMar DeRozan (a whopping 56.7 percent of his opening-frame shots) standing as the largest culprits. The backcourt leaders have combined for just about half of Toronto's first-quarter field-goal attempts (10.1 of 20.4) during this stretch, and both are shooting less than 37 percent in opening frames since the start of February as the Raptors have flagged.
Sluggishness, settling, low-value contested shots ... it's all a recipe for slow starts, putting the Raptors behind the eight-ball more often than not over the last five weeks. Coach Dwane Casey, for one, is sick of it, according to Josh Rubin of the Toronto Star:
“We shouldn’t have to wait to get kicked in the teeth and hit in the head before we start playing. It’s like I told the players, it doesn’t matter what seven or eight guys are out there doing it, as long as we are playing hard, playing with some intellect, playing together as a unit, it doesn’t matter who it is,” said Casey. [...]
“First half, that first quarter in particular, it was terrible. We played like we hadn’t seen each other before. They pushed us around, got to all the rebounds. I think they had 10 offensive rebounds in the first quarter. That set the tone for the rest of the game,” said Casey.
If there was one thing Casey took away as a positive, it was the performance of Lowry. Not just the 32 points he poured in, but the fire he showed in taking over the second quarter huddle.
“I was glad to see somebody had a give-a-crap level. That’s what it has to be about and it shouldn’t be just one guy. I should have two, three or four guys upset and teed off that we are playing that way. I shouldn’t be the only one jumping up and down and going crazy and cursing guys out or getting on guys,” said Casey.
It's true that Lowry's fire matters and is, generally, a positive for the Raptors. If Toronto's going to stem its slide and begin to climb back to the top of the conference, though, the answer might be a little less fire and a little more commitment to generating the sorts of looks on the interior and from beyond the arc that have made them one of the league's best offenses over the course of the past two seasons. A few more pushes and a few fewer pull-ups could help Toronto pull itself out of this tailspin before it's too late.
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