The Toronto Raptors took an ‘L’ before the ball even went up.
The coach’s choices for the seven reserve spots in each conference for the NBA All-Star Game were announced and Fred VanVleet wasn’t among them.
Also missing were Pascal Siakam, a first-time all-star a year ago and Kyle Lowry, who had his string of six straight all-star appearances come to an end, as did the Raptors’ record of seven consecutive years with at least one representative in the game.
But it was VanVleet who had the strongest case. In addition to averaging a career-high 20.1 points a game and a team-leading 6.6 assists, the hard-nosed, six-foot point guard leads the NBA in deflections, ranks second in loose balls recovered and seventh in steals per game, with 1.7.
Even more impressive are his ‘advanced’ metrics, which include not only his boxscore stats but team performance when he’s on the floor. By some measures, VanVleet should have been a starter, rather than been snubbed as a reserve.
“I think that what his biggest asset is is his competitive drive and the way he influences winning,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Now, what is that? You can probably add up a lot of things: His defence, his hands, his feet, his toughness, his big shot-making, his ball-handling, there’s lots, his leadership, there’s lots that go under that category, but I think that’s what his biggest asset is, he’s a winner.”
But you can’t win’em all.
In addition to VanVleet’s all-star snub the Raptors stubbed their collective toes in the second of their two-game series against the Philadelphia 76ers at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
The Sixers blitzed the Raptors early and while Toronto kept grinding away at it they couldn’t reel in the Eastern Conference’s top team as they fell 109-102, ending their four-game winning streak.
It wasn’t VanVleet’s strongest outing either, as he shot just 4-of-14 from the floor but overlooking the fact that he contributed eight assists, two steals and four blocks is overlooking what really makes the Raptor guard all-star worthy — even when he’s not scoring he’s moving his team closer to winning. The Raptors were down six with 5:05 to play and it looked like they were positioning themselves to complete a comeback from down 21 in the first half, but the Sixers were able to respond with a quick 7-0 run on their way to what seemed like an insurmountable 17-point lead with 1:48 to play. But in a final closing flurry, the Raptors launched a 14-3 run that cut the Sixers lead to six with 21 seconds to play before the Sixers closed it down from the line.
Toronto held the Sixers to 41 per cent from the floor and continued their hex over Joel Embiid who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds but was just 3-of-13 from the floor — although he was 11-of-12 from the free-throw line. But the Raptors couldn’t connect from deep as they finished 11-of-37 from beyond the arc. The Sixers shot 17-of-38 took 30 free throws to 13 for Toronto and combined it was too much for the Raptors to overcome.
Toronto fell to 16-16 as they get set to travel to Miami for a game Wednesday night while the Sixers improved to 21-11.
The Raptors entered the fourth quarter trailing 79-65 although they’d cut the Sixers lead to six midway through the third quarter. But the Sixers were able to push it back to double figures quickly. Toronto’s defence was fine — Embiid was being bodied by Aron Baynes and swarmed by everyone else and the Sixers were just 6-of-18 from the floor in the period — but Toronto was 7-of-26 from deep at that point and was struggling to make up ground.
The Raptors had a lot of success in the first game of the series by limiting the Sixers to just 11-of-37 from three even while swarming Embiid into 6-of-20 from the floor.
“I think if we can contest as hard as we did the other night — I’m not saying we’re gonna get exactly the same results, but we could probably can prevent a 22-for-40 night, you know, or 22-for-38 or something like that,” said Nurse. “As as long as we move like we were the other night. [But] that’s a challenge. We had a gear we were in, you know, especially once we got going. And it’ll be it’s always a challenge to recreate that.”
They recreated part of their defensive equation. Once again the Raptors were able to contain Embiid — a leading favourite in the MVP race — as he was a miserable 1-of-8 from the floor in the first half with two turnovers, but otherwise the Sixers ball movement was a beat quicker or the Raptors defensive rotations a step slower or both.
Philly knocked down seven threes in the first quarter alone as the Sixers sprinted out to 37-18 lead in part thanks to Furkan Korkmaz — starting in place of injured Seth Curry — who was 4-of-6 on his own. Things levelled off somewhat in the second quarter as the Raptors forced the Sixers into five turnovers in the quarter that helped them score 11 points in transition, as the Raptors used an 11-0 run to cut what had been a 21-point Sixers lead to a more manageable 55-42 deficit at the half.
Falling behind by that much that early is hardly a recipe for success, but the Raptors next goal is to prove that having all-stars in the lineup isn’t a required ingredient for a successful season.