TORONTO - In a tale of two halves, the Raptors' Wednesday evening collapse more than summed up the way in which their season has taken a turn for the worst.
"We've got to adjust to the game," coach Dwane Casey reflected moments after his team yielded to second-half pressure and the loss of forward Amir Johnson, falling 107-88 to the playoff bound Atlanta Hawks (40-32) at the Air Canada Centre.
"We've got to be physical," he continued. "We've got to meet the challenge and take the bull by the horn. That's the bottom line."
The Raptors (26-45) - losers of five straight and 12 of 15 overall - led by 10 at the break but were outscored 63-34 and held to just 34 per cent shooting in the second half thanks in part to the absence of Johnson, who sustained a left leg contusion early in the third and did not return.
"Toughness is a big part of this league," said Casey, speaking of the loss of Johnson. "We missed that toughness and what he brings to the table. We missed that and we need that."
With the victory, their 13th in the last 15 meetings with the Raptors and fifth straight in Toronto, the Hawks clinched their sixth consecutive playoff birth. Al Horford led the way with 26 points and 12 rebounds while Jeff Teague added 24 points to go along with 13 assists.
Five Raptors scored in double figures, paced by rookie Jonas Valanciunas, who had 19 points and eight rebounds, as well as Rudy Gay, who played through a back ailment to score 15 and grab 12 boards.
"Things may [not] be going the right way but we're trying to win," Valanciunas said. "For myself, I'm giving my best to win and I'm going to do that [for the rest of] this season."
Fast Breaking Points
- The Amir Factor
Johnson sustained his injury less than two minutes into the third quarter. After colliding with Horford, he was helped off the floor and into the locker room where he remained for the rest of the game, undergoing tests and receiving treatment on the leg (X-rays were negative).
To say that Johnson has been this team's most valuable player over the course of the season is probably an understatement. His value when he's on the court is indisputable and he has been praised at length, rightfully so. His value is even more apparent when he's removed from the equation like he was on Wednesday (on his bobblehead night no less).
"Amir brings a toughness, rebounding, the defensive intensity we need," DeMar DeRozan acknowledged after the game. "We kind of rely on Amir a lot for his energy and feed off him."
Without Johnson in the second half the drop-off was significant. Sure the team missed his trademark toughness, but the more measurable defensive meltdown is what stood out and is what ultimately turned the game in a hurry.
The Stat: The Raptors were +16 in the paint before Johnson left the game, they were -2 the rest of the way. They were +11 on the boards, (Atlanta with zero offensive rebounds) before the injury but were out-rebounded by nine for the rest of the game (Atlanta with eight offensive boards). The Hawks shot 46 per cent pre-injury, 53 per cent after it.
The Raptors reached the 20 assist plateau for the first time in seven games, which would be more impressive if that didn't accompany their 20 costly turnovers, ultimately leading to 24 points for Atlanta.
"20 turnovers, that's the name of the game," Casey admitted. "You turn the ball [over] 20 times for 24 points, that's that game and once that happened we didn't respond."
"That was our emphasis going in," he continued. "Our turnovers have [gone] up and you don't get those shots if you just give them extra bullets to go at your with."
Turnovers have indeed been in a problem for Toronto during this rough stretch. The team has turned the ball over 15 or more times in six of its last seven games. Naturally that is a trend that's challenging to overcome for a team that doesn't move the ball especially well. They simply can't afford to be throwing it away, especially with some of the careless passes that resulted in unforced errors on Wednesday.
"We [were] trying to make home run passes a little bit too much and being a little bit too careless with the ball," DeRozan said. "You can't do that against teams like Atlanta, they take advantage of that, push the ball and that's on us."
- The Rookies
With nothing more than pride and the development of their young players on the line, the Raptors' rookies were the lone bright spots once again.
"I thought [Terrence Ross] and [Valanciunas] both gave us something offensively," Casey said. They met the physical play. I thought JV, once we started going to him at the end, met the challenge, got to the free-throw line [and] completed the play. That's going to be his future right there on the block, going to work."
It is certainly looking like Valanciunas has a promising future as a low-post scorer and the Raptors would be well-served to feed him the ball on the block more often as the season winds down.
"I've worked a lot with the coaches on my post moves," the rookie centre said. "I'm still doing that and trying to improve in every game that I can play."
Defensively, Valanciunas faced another tough test in his first career match-up with Horford and came out of it with mixed results. The 20-year-old struggled to keep up with Horford -- a former All-Star -- at times, especially without Johnson to bail him out of missed assignments in the second half. Still, the learning curve on the defensive end of the floor is to be expected. Those lapses will begin to become less significant/frequent with experience and added strength.
For Ross, his offensive game is growing as well. With an efficient 13 points in 23 minutes, Ross flashed the improved discipline that we've been seeing from him this month, taking better shots and putting the ball on the floor with a greater purpose. It was surprising to see Alan Anderson -- 5-13, 12 points -- on the floor for 20 minutes in the second half while Ross played just 11 and Landry Fields saw just over one.
The Stat: Valanciunas has scored in double figures in nine of his last 10 games and has grabbed six or more rebounds in nine consecutive. During that stretch he is shooting over 70 per cent; he was 8-for-11 on Wednesday.
Notables and Quotables
The Hawks have won the first two meetings with Toronto this year and can sweep the season series in the final match-up on Apr. 16 at Philips Arena. ... The Raptors went 4-for-17 from three-point range and have now shot under 30 per cent from long distance in four of their last five games. ... Gay, a game-time decision, returned to the lineup after missing Saturday's 110-84 loss in New York to rest his lingering back injury.
"We let frustration get to us and they took advantage of it."
"His playing time is going up, he's getting confidence. You don't want to get in the habit of losing but his confidence level is gaining by the minute, by the game."
-- Casey on Valanciunas
"I think his back is still tight. If you watch how stiff he is and straight up he is, I don't think he'll ever admit it but I don't think he's 100 per cent. I thought he gave us what he could. He wants to go and that's admirable on his part that he wants to play when he could probably shut it down and not go because he has a legitimate injury."
-- Casey on Gay
The Raptors will visit Jose Calderon and the Detroit Pistons at The Palace of Auburn Hills Friday evening.