Lemons into lemonade. Necessity as the mother of invention. Chicken salad from… well, you know the rest.

Rarely do things go according to plan during an NBA season, but the Toronto Raptors of late seem to have made going off script an art form.

After going 11-4 before the All-Star break while looking like they were prepared to leave the Eastern Conference play-in tournament behind and make a run at sixth place or higher, injuries have hit their already razor-thin line up and they have predictably started to scuffle.

Bad timing: The Cleveland Cavaliers were in sixth place before the two teams met at Rocket Mortgage Field House Sunday night. Cleveland had lost three straight and six of their past seven and suddenly were just two games up on the seventh-place Raptors.

Opportunity was knocking.

But the Raptors have their own issues, as they have slumped coming out of the all-star break. It’s bad enough that Fred VanVleet had to sit out against Cleveland, missing his fifth-straight game with a sore knee. But OG Anunoby missed his seventh game with a fractured finger and hours before the game the team announced that second-year point guard Malachi Flynn would be out “indefinitely” with a hamstring strain he suffered Friday.

Sportsnet’s Amy Audibert said he would be re-evaluated in 10 days.

Flynn has played the best basketball of his career filling in for VanVleet, and with him out Toronto lacked a true point guard on their roster.

What to do?

Well, in the Raptors’ position-less basketball universe the hope is that one day six-foot-eight rookie Scottie Barnes can be their primary ball-handler.

No time like the present.

“I think we are going to find out a lot tonight where he is at [as a point guard],” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse before the game. “It’s not like we’ve gone into a game at the start before and kind of given him the basketball. For me it’s getting a push in transition and get some early baskets for people and if he can push in transition and get some early opportunities for himself. That’s first and foremost. Then if that stuff is not there can he get us organized enough to get them off the ball and get it moving and all that stuff? Can he get some sets executed or not? That’s probably where it starts.”

It ended in another Toronto disappointment as the Raptor dropped a 104-96 decision to Cleveland for their third straight loss and fifth in seven games. Barnes played the way he often does — with good effort, a great sense of opportunity on defence and an unselfish heads-up approach on offence.

He was brilliant, frankly, as he matched Cleveland rookie Evan Mobley — the favourite for the rookie-of-the-year award — play for play, making his own case for the award.

But he hardly looked ready to insinuate an NBA offence, manipulate opponents in pick-and-roll action or consistently break defences by attacking the paint.

A lot of that work fell to Pascal Siakam — the Raptors’ power-forward who convincingly masquerades as a point guard — as it often does, but the Cavs were ready for that as they used their collection of long-armed defenders to harass him on the way to the rim.

And the biggest problem of all is that the Raptors — who don’t have a contact list full of offensive options when they’re healthy — are completely strapped when shorthanded. It didn’t matter too much what Siakam or Barnes did to initiate the offence, more often than not there was no one there to finish it.

The final score was closer than the run of play indicated as Toronto used a quick 7-2 spurt at the two-minute mark to turn a double-digit Cavs lead into a two-possession game when a Chris Boucher three cut the lead to five.

But the Raptors couldn’t score another field goal, the Cavaliers made their free throws and Toronto dropped their third straight. The Raptors are now 2-5 since the all-star break and 34-30 on the year. The win gave sixth-place Cleveland a three-game lead over Toronto and a 3-0 lead in the season series, assuring them the tiebreaker if it comes to that.

Barnes finished with 19 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and three steals — all without making a turnover.

He’s a long way from a polished NBA point guard, but he’s well on his way to being an outstanding NBA player — nothing new there.

“I think it’ll be a really good learning experience to just sit down and show him some tape and walk through what he’s seeing and what other possibilities are there,” said Nurse after the game. “…He may, at this point, overlook some things sometimes [but] he did a good job of running sets and executing play calls and keeping things organized. Wasn’t easy. They were switching defences a lot too. That’s a challenge for a young point guard to see but he did a good job.”

Siakam led the Raptors with 24 points and added four rebounds and four assists, but he shot just 8-of-22 from the floor.

Gary Trent Jr.’s shooting slump continued, though he showed some promising signs later in the game as he was 3-of-5 in the fourth quarter for eight points. But he finished 2-of-8 from deep and is now shooting 22.2 per cent from the three-point line since the all-star break and 29.1 per cent overall. In contrast he was shooting 42.2 per cent from deep in 19 games prior.

“Control what you can control, put in the work, go to the gym, continue to shoot and whatever happens, happens,” said Trent Jr. of his strategy to rediscover his stroke.

In general shooting continues to be a big problem as the Raptors shot 6-of-24 from deep while Cleveland was 11-of-36. The Raptors didn’t help themselves by going 16-of-26 from the free-throw line.

The Raptors did well to keep the game within reach given how they started.

The Cavs were by far the better team in the first quarter — at least aesthetically — but the Raptors found a way to keep the game close early.

They had eight more shots than Cleveland in the first quarter because they grabbed seven offensive rebounds to four by the Cavs and forced five turnovers while not making any themselves.

Boucher — who started in place of Flynn as Barnes was shifted over to point guard — came up with three offensive rebounds and Khem Birch a pair.

But the Raptor who made the biggest impact was Precious Achiuwa, who was able to convert some of the extra possessions into offence. More than once he put the ball on the floor, beat the first defender and was able to finish at the rim as he scored eight points in eight minutes off the bench.

The Raptors’ biggest problem wasn’t creating offence without a point guard, however, it was defending the Cavs budding star at the position, Darius Garland.

The 22-year-old who was taken fifth overall in the 2019 draft didn’t generate the buzz of Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and RJ Barrett who were taken first, second and third, respectively, but he’s proven every bit as worthy. Repeatedly he showed why he was named an all-star last month as he ruthlessly exploited any match-up the Raptors tried to throw at him.

More than once he hunted Barnes on switches and blew past the Raptor rookie. Then, once in the paint, he would dump off to fellow Cavs All-Star Jarrett Allen to finish with a dunk or Garland would simply keep it and finish himself. The Cavs made nine of their first 10 twos as a result as Garland counted six assists in his first 10 minutes.

Still, the Cavaliers could only manage a 30-29 lead after one quarter, due to the Raptors’ activity on the glass, the Cavs’ turnovers and Cleveland’s icy three-point shooting early.

“He’s just getting better all the time. He’s really a problem,” Nurse said of Garland, who came into the game averaging 20.7 points and 8.1 assists a game. “… He’s really becoming a great point guard in this league.”

Garland finished with 17 points and 10 assists.

Things got stickier as the game unfolded. Even with Garland on the bench Cleveland was able to get into the Raptors’ defence and pitch out for open threes. Eventually, the Cavs started hitting them. Veteran Kevin Love hit his first two, Lauri Markkanen hit three and Cedi Osman came off the bench for three more.

Meanwhile the Raptors kept pitching bricks. With VanVleet and Anunoby sidelined the Raptors were missing 40 per cent of their made threes on the season and Flynn was shooting 55 per cent from deep over his four starts in place of VanVleet.

The Raptors came into the game shooting 30.2 per cent from deep over their previous three starts and — if you take away a hot-shooting night against Brooklyn — 29.7 per cent from long range since the all-star break.

The trend continued.

Not surprisingly Toronto is seeing a lot of zone defence as teams pack down the paint and dare them to shoot over them and once again, the Raptors haven’t been able to do it.

They were 1-of-10 from deep in the first half to 8-of-20 by the Cavs as Cleveland raced out to a 59-46 lead at the half.

To their credit Toronto’s defence picked up after the break, never more than in the opening moments of the third quarter. Toronto created a 13-2 run to start the third quarter that featured three steals and a drawn charge. Barnes had his hand in all of it with a pair of assists and a steal. Another assist by Barnes on a lay-up for Gary Trent Jr. pulled the Raptors within a point with 6:48 left in the period, but then the battery seemingly ran out on the Raptors offence.

They didn’t score a field goal for the rest of the quarter and were down 73-62 to start the fourth.

Given they are shorthanded and playing without a point guard, it was a tall order to expect the Raptors to pull all the way back from there and that proved the case.

The good news? There is optimism that VanVleet will be back in the lineup on Wednesday when the Raptors travel to San Antonio.

They could use him.


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