Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 127-100 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.

1: The alarm bells are ringing for the Raptors, who have suffered blowout losses of 27, 32, and 30 points in three of their last four games: This is not just an anomaly, and it will require immediate solutions to stop the bleeding. One of the calling cards of this team is how hard it competes, yet the Raptors were nowhere close in any of these losses. Some issues are outside of the team’s control, but there are also a handful of minor adjustments that should be implemented as soon as the next game. The best they can do is to correct their self-inflicted issues, while hoping for health. There is undoubtedly a good team in there somewhere, but right now, the Raptors are lost, confused, and having to regroup.

2: The biggest issue in this game was the Raptors’ total inability to guard Trae Young: The game plan was to run him off the arc, but the Raptors also applied zero pressure on the Hawks star once he got inside the arc. The point of attack defence was poor, as Fred VanVleet on a sore knee was no match for Young’s quickness, and there was a total lack of support behind him. Young repeatedly got downhill without a second defender rotating over to slow his momentum, which resulted in him making 16 two-point shots, including 13 shots from inside the paint. When the Raptors did try to crowd the paint, Young was able to pick out shooters with his 11 assists. Toronto tried different defenders against Young, but they would all make the same mistake of playing him too tight, which allowed him to get a step and go around. The Raptors haven’t allowed themselves to be carved apart by one player to this degree all season, so you do have to give lots of credit to Young’s talents.

3. It’s obvious that VanVleet isn’t healthy: Nick Nurse hinted strongly at VanVleet being unavailable in the pre-game interviews, but as is often the case, his prediction on player availability turned out to be inaccurate. VanVleet was better than the eight-point effort he showed against Charlotte, but he is clearly laboured. This was one of the rare instances where VanVleet was a liability on defence since he couldn’t move laterally, which Young exploited repeatedly in pick-and-roll sequences. VanVleet was able to score and distribute close to average levels, largely by playing in the two-man game with Pascal Siakam to exploit mismatches in the defence, but the Raptors need him at his best on both ends of the floor. VanVleet first experienced knee soreness in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, which was two weeks ago, and it still hasn’t improved. It is hugely concerning since the schedule remains jam packed.

4. There aren’t any great options to spell VanVleet at point guard: Malachi Flynn has shown some signs of life in limited stretches, but a good game for him at the moment looks like six points and zero assists on 2-of-10 shooting in 20 minutes. Flynn played in two stretches alongside VanVleet, which is a lineup that the Raptors have explicitly shied away from since it leaves the backcourt far too short on size, and they were burned. Dalano Banton is the other option at point, but he is more of a secondary playmaker instead of the one who consistently gets the team into their sets while being able to slash and shoot consistently. While VanVleet is in this limited state, Nurse’s best bet is to turn most of the playmaking over to Siakam, and to use VanVleet more off-ball to limit how much he needs to create. That being said, the Raptors would still need to give Siakam some time to rest, and those moments could be very dicey given their injury situation.

5. Siakam’s struggles should be short-lived: He is under the weather with a non-COVID illness, which will eventually give way to the energetic and lively Siakam that consistently delivered near triple-double production before the break. Siakam was better in this game as compared to the Hornets loss, as he was able to get downhill a few times. The issue is that the Raptors need him to attack aggressively for 40 minutes a night, which is hard to ask of him even when he’s fully healthy. The Raptors also weren’t generating any stops, which neutralized Siakam’s effectiveness in the transition game. Siakam is the floor-raiser for the team at the moment, and when you compound his cold spell with VanVleet’s knee and OG Anunoby’s absence, it’s hardly a surprise that the Raptors have lost by 59 points in the last two games.

6. Khem Birch is not delivering on either end of the floor: It can’t be easy for him, as Birch continues to wear a clunky mask owing to his facial surgery earlier last month, and his entire season has been stop and start due to various injuries. But the bottom line is this: Birch isn’t positively impacting the game on a consistent basis to command a spot in the starting lineup. Birch’s defence has been absent all season outside of a few short blips, as he doesn’t have the foot speed to play outside the paint, nor does he carry the threat of shot blocking, and Young hunted him non-stop in his 13 empty minutes on the floor. Birch’s value comes on the offensive end, where his screening and quick passing helps to grease the wheels for others to score, but the problem is that he can’t actually reliably score when it’s his turn. He almost never gets to the rim, and settles instead for a short flip shot that is usually his specialty, except that he’s missing those chances as well. Outside of that, he doesn’t space the floor and there are better options to crash the glass. The reality is that the team has proven capable of winning games without Birch, and there is nothing that he doing at the moment that would warrant an automatic start ahead of players who have actually produced. Birch is situationally useful in the way that a corkscrew can come in handy, but nobody keeps the corkscrew in the same drawer as the knife and fork.

7. The rotations have been in flux because Anunoby is out while Thad Young has been brought in: The simplest solution? Start Young in place of Anunoby. That keeps everyone in the same spots as they were in over the past two months, with Chris Boucher and Precious Achiuwa being the first two bodies off the bench, while Banton and others compete for spare minutes at eight or nine in the rotation depending on the matchup. Young is a like-sized substitute for Anunoby on defence, and while he isn’t nearly the same level as a shooter, Young does offer playmaking out of the post which should allow the Raptors to port over many of Anunoby’s plays. Young’s best attribute also seems to be his quick and intuitive passing, which will have more of an amplifying effect when paired with the starters who can actually capitalize on open chances. Similar to how the Raptors ask Birch to be the in-between player on offence, Young can serve the same role except with more of an actual threat to finish.

8. Achiuwa had his best game as a Raptor and keeps trending positively: Achiuwa is starting to find his spots offensively, and it’s allowed him to drop hints of his scoring skillset. He handles the ball well for a centre, and is strong and quick, which allows him to get to his spots. The trouble is that earlier in the year, Achiuwa didn’t seem to know what those spots were, and it made for awkward shots that broke momentum. Achiuwa has now found some synergy with VanVleet on the lob, and is timing his cuts well as he paired nicely with Siakam on a baseline dunk. The most promising aspect of his game, however, is his defensive prowess. He is quick enough to guard all over the floor, he keeps his man in front and forces them to shoot over his length, and he rebounds consistently. Achiuwa has been the Raptors’ best defensive option at centre this season, and if it’s not Young that replaces Birch in the starting lineup, it should be Achiuwa. The Raptors are a respectable 13-10 in games where Achiuwa has started this season.

9. Shooting remains a massive issue for the Raptors: The team numbers hover around average since VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. have been lights out, but that’s really the extent of their shooting especially now that Anunoby is out. Nobody else on the team is a consistent threat to even hit two threes a game. That has hurt their offence which has to work deep into the shot clock just to get anything going since their main options routinely get double teamed because there isn’t the threat of shooting to keep them honest. Over the last four games, the Raptors have averaged just eight made threes per game. In Anunoby’s absence, the coaching staff should encourage more players to let fly from deep, especially in situations like where Young recorded two shot clock violations where he insisted on driving on a short clock, just to give the main guys more of a break.

10. Nurse is catching heat as any coach does after losses, but much of this is out of his control: The roster was flawed coming into the season, and their immediate weaknesses were not addressed at the trade deadline. What this team needed was a third guard who can make plays and shoot consistently, and instead the front office added another forward. Many have pinned the injury situation on Nurse, citing the Raptors having three players in the top-five in minutes per game, but can anyone specifically link Anunoby or VanVleet’s injuries to playing an extra two minutes as compared to other top players? Rather, it’s the lack of depth by virtue of the front office’s one-dimensional team construction that leaves the team entirely dependent on five players that always need to be be healthy for the team to compete.


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