TFW Russell Westbrook comes to town. Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Russell Westbrook's John Wick tour of the NBA claimed another victim on Thursday, as the Oklahoma City Thunder star bulldozed into—and through—the Air Canada Centre, sending the Toronto Raptors careening behind closed doors. After Westbrook's latest triple-double concluded midway through the third quarter, game in hand, the Raptors listlessly played out the stretch run, ultimately falling 123-102 and leading head coach Dwane Casey to make a public statement of regret to the fan base.
"That exhibition of basketball was unacceptable," he said, a full 38 minutes following the final buzzer. "I want to apologize to our fans, everybody, for the way we played tonight. The effort, the competitive spirit wasn't there."
Casey's comments were delayed because the dispiriting loss was the impetus for a closed-doors meeting in the locker room. At first, only players were allowed in, with DeMar DeRozan revealing that multiple voices spoke up in what sounds like was a passionate session. Coaches filtered in later, and Casey made it clear that the staff will start searching for any combination of players "who are going to compete."
It is perhaps reductive to simply point to effort as the root cause in yet another ugly loss. It's predictable, too—Kyle Lowry suggested back on Feb. 12, when things looked even more direr, that any further Raptors struggles would be attributed to just playing harder. While it's true that Toronto's energy was found completely wanting on Thursday, the force of its play nonexistent, saying that the solution is to "try harder" hints at a concerning reality: The Raptors aren't sure how to fix things.
Coach Lowry giving instruction. Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
It's telling that P.J. Tucker, just acquired at the trade deadline and the team's newest player, has quickly emerged as an important voice not just on defense but in the locker room. Tucker's a veteran and a leader by nature, but the idea of a brand new piece having to step in to send these messages is a reminder that the moribund play is not new, and that the Raptors slept through the better part of January and February, too.
The deadline reinforcements were supposed to help right the ship. But the absence of Lowry, who required wrist surgery immediately following the All-Star break, has extended the issue. The Raptors have survived without him, and it's the team's 6-5 record with a slightly positive net rating that confuses nights like Thursday even more.
"That's definitely the biggest frustration. Obviously we proved we can do it," DeRozan said. "We've done it, and we do it at times. With however many games left, and going into the postseason, it has to be something that's consistency."
The formula without Lowry is tenuous, though. DeRozan has to play like a superstar, and for the most part, he has been. The team needs to dial in on defense, and it has been, but there have been nights that stand as glaring exceptions, like Saturday in Miami or Thursday against the Thunder. And depth pieces need to play beyond their roles, a challenge that a few names are doing but others, particularly the team's shooters, are wilting in front of—the Raptors are shooting 30.9 percent on threes since the break and are dead last in the NBA in 3-point makers over that stretch (only three teams are shooting a smaller portion of their shots from beyond the arc).
DeRozan is averaging 26 points on 46.9 percent shooting from the field in 11 games without Lowry post-ASG. Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
There are legitimate basketball concerns underlying the occasional dearth of energy and urgency. But playing harder is the lower hanging fruit, something the team should be able to do with or without Lowry, and something that absolutely has to be present for it to survive another couple of weeks without one of its All-Stars.
"I said what I had to say. A lot of people talked a lot, it was a good conversation but enough talking," Tucker said. "We've got 14 games left, it's time to put it into action, it's time guys go out and show that we care about each other and we want to do something special here. We have the team to do it."
The need for a players-only meeting is never a good thing. Doors don't get closed to pat each other on the back or engage in affirmation circles and trust falls. The Raptors felt the need to call each other out, and their play over the last week has mostly warranted it. Like Tucker says, though, it's one thing to talk about it as a group and another altogether for each player to look at themselves and change their approach. Friday should be telling.