TORONTO — At its lowest point, the Raptors’ game against atlanta Saturday was especially crucial.

Depending on how quickly certain players recover from injuries, particularly phoenix‘s Devin Booker Y Minnesota‘s Karl Anthony Towns – tea raptors they could be underdogs on the betting line in nine of their next 10 games. Eight of those games will be on the road, where the Raptors are 5-13. That will take the team to the precipice of the trade deadline.

The Raptors floundered, never getting closer than within seven points in the fourth quarter in an equally disappointing 114-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, though significantly more dysfunctional, team. To the extent that any game in January is a must win, this was it. The Raptors were bad on both ends of the ball.

“We’ve got a long way to go with some consistency,” coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “I…I would have liked to have said we’re making progress just being ready to go power and connectivity and all that, and then tonight it didn’t look like we had very good power to go into the game.”

Or at all, actually. With a few exceptions, the Raptors were unable to string together multiple stops on the night. It’s a theme. This is what we learned, or relearned, in the Raptors’ six-game home stay.

Scottie Barnes has found his role/role (for now)

scotch barnes has found his role with this year’s team. Forget the outfitter; Barnes is a screen setup thug.

Using Barnes as a blocker was always a sensible way to take advantage of his passes while his handling and shooting are still developing. As the Raptors saw one throwback center after another, they began to use more pick-and-roll. That put Barnes in a position to use his size and passing in situations that required him to make quicker decisions.

Barnes had a 30-to-6 assist-to-turnover ratio during the homestand.

Barnes said he’s focused on laying the ball from side to side, making it easier to move the ball that way. He can’t fully focus on it, because it’s not a goal in itself. Sometimes, especially in the Milwaukee and New York games, Barnes was too happy to make the next pass instead of using his dribble to gain space and get the defense moving like that. In the last quarter against milwaukee, showed he can score on some of the best rim protectors in the league. The more balance you show, the more unpredictable you become. Over time, that should have positive repercussions for the offense.

That said, Barnes has been more impactful than he has been all season in this role. The longer you’re on it, the better you’ll feel at finding that balance. As he is, he’s handling it pretty well already.

Atlanta’s game was different for Barnes, as Atlanta didn’t normally put up the snap. Onyeka Okongwu in it. After a tough first quarter, Barnes found multiple opportunities to overpower some smaller defenders, which he did frequently last year but hasn’t done reliably this year. He had just two assists but had 27 points and 12 rebounds. Perhaps focusing on a different role has opened up more of his game that was lacking in the early part of the season.

defense is not good

With nothing standing in the way of a reliable 25-minute rim protector a night, the Raptors’ defensive potential is limited to just being okay. It hasn’t even been that this year, which is the main reason they are in their current role.

Nurse made a solid adjustment recently, having the second unit run back into zone positioning in defensive transition instead of finding a man. He has helped them clean things up a bit.

Unfortunately, the Raptors don’t miss their opponents in the half court enough. They don’t have the one-on-one defenders they thought they had, which limits the usefulness of switching.

Raptors defense, last seven games

Adversary ORTG vs. rap ORtg 22-23 Difference eGFR% vs. rap eGFR% 22-23 Difference
123.2 113.2 (15) 10 53.8 53.7 (16) 0.1
90.4 110.5 (26) -20.1 47.2 52.9 (23) -5.7
117.9 114.2 (10) 3.7 56.6 52.1 (26) 1.6
104 113.2 (14) -9.2 50.7 55 (10) -4.3
125/115.2 108.8 (30) 11.3 63.4/61.7 51 (29) 11.6
116.3 111.4 (22) 4.9 57.7 52.5 (24) 5.2

(The Raptors played two games against hornets; the average of those two games was used to calculate the differential versus the average; league standings in brackets)

against the hawks, Fred VanVleet he had one of the worst defensive games of the season, and has been well below his level for most of the season. Dejounte Murray intimidated him into repeating short shots, while bring young he was going through it with his speed. The Raptors generally prefer VanVleet to defend off the ball so he can make smart plays in the paint, but against teams with two dynamic guards like Atlanta, that’s harder to do.

Defense was supposed to be the strength of this team. It’s not. The Raptors are never going to be consistent enough offensively to get away with that level of reliability.

Precious Achiuwa is coming

Besides Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, who missed much of the first half with an ankle injury, was the bright spot for the Raptors. As the homestand progressed, Achiuwa grew stronger, finishing with three straight double-digit scoring games, regaining his fluency on both ends.

Achiuwa had an outrageously chaotic streak in Charlotte’s first game, including one of the most irresponsible field goal attempts will you ever see After that, Achiuwa returned to his place, looking more like the version of himself from the second half of last year. He hit 4 of 9 3-pointers but, more importantly, made powerful, controlled moves into the paint.

Defensively, Achiuwa has as many advantages as anyone on the roster other than O.G. Anunoby.

The starting lineup remains problematic, mainly for defensive reasons. If Achiuwa keeps up this pace, he could start soon.

OG Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. are quality starters, not transformational players for this team.

Gary Trent Jr.Despite the past two games, he and Anunoby have helped stabilize the Raptors’ offense with their numbers picking up from deep. Trent has been at the center of some heavy reserve units that have been solid for the team, while Anunoby has returned to ultra-reliant mode. Both have contributed a lot to many victories this year.

However, with the defense still so bad, it’s also important to acknowledge its shortcomings. Anunoby has virtually no one on defense, but it’s still an adventure when he gets into the paint, the team’s biggest turnover risk. The defense cannot afford live-ball turnovers. Trent is a high risk, high reward defender. Anunoby not so much, though he is still in his prime when he can take chances.

The Raptors don’t have a rim protector that really allows Anunoby and Trent to chase him while still having a reasonable plan B. Without that aggressiveness, Trent loses most of his defensive utility, while Anunoby loses a bit. Anunoby isn’t a defense per se, while Trent isn’t consistent or diverse enough offensively to seriously change the Raptors’ ceiling.

It makes you think about the near future.

This team is not good enough

The Raptors are as healthy as they have been all year. They had a six game home stand and were favorites in five of them.

In the end, they went 3-3 with a total of over/under 16. They made doomed late-game comebacks in the three losses that account for a decent chunk of that positive differential.

The Raptors needed to make up significant ground during this stretch. they did not Masai Ujiri and the front office do not need to force it, but they are obliged to explore the market as sellers during the next few weeks.

(Photo of Atlanta’s Trae Young driving between the Raptors’ Precious Achiuwa and Scottie Barnes during the second half Saturday: Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press via Associated Press)

By sbavh

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