Lewenberg: Flat start spells trouble for Raptors in Charlotte

Josh Lewenberg
1/20/2014 10:44:38 PM
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CHARLOTTE - Jonas Valanciunas took a quick glance at the stat sheet, no longer banned post-game, crumpled it up into a ball and hurled it across the locker room.

At the bottom of the page the final score read "100-95" - Toronto's third loss in four games - but it was how they got there that had the Raptors' young centre shaking his head as he destroyed the evidence.

In the less literal sense he wasn't alone. The Raptors' locker room was filled with distraught players drowning their sorrows in a sea of chicken fingers and mac and cheese at the post-game buffet, eager to forget about their most recent setback.

"We can't really panic, but we've got to hold each other accountable," said Greivis Vasquez, moments after his team failed to close out what would have been a historic comeback in eventual defeat to a familiar, albeit perplexing foe, the Charlotte Bobcats.

"It's easy when we win and you smile and you're cool, you're hanging around, but when you face adversity or obstacles, that's when you really show your character, so now we've really got to show what [we're] made of."

For Vasquez - who helped engineer Toronto's late-game run - his teammates and his coach, there were no moral victories to be celebrated after cutting a 30-point third quarter deficit to one with 26 seconds remaining. No moral victories, not anymore, not if they fancy themselves a playoff contender. Instead the question was, how could they fall behind by 30 to the Bobcats - who had lost 10 of 13 and were playing without Kemba Walker - in the first place?

"Effort," Kyle Lowry said, and repeated six times in a three-minute scrum. For the final 16 minutes they played with plenty of it, outscoring the nemesis Bobcats 54-29 to close out the game. For the first 32 it was nowhere to be found.

"That's it, effort," the Raptors' point guard continued. "That simple. Effort."

It's not that simple, not for the team's fans or coaching staff that were left to wonder where that effort went for two and a half quarters in a game the Raptors sorely needed.

"It's a long season but you tell a lot about who you are in these situations," Dwane Casey said. "Today was a gut-check game and the fourth quarter we turned it around but it's about what we did in the first three quarters that's disappointing."

Coming off a loss to the corpse of the Los Angeles Lakers 24 hours earlier, and an equally disheartening defeat in Boston last week, the Raptors scored a season-low 11 points in the first quarter. For the second straight day they attempted nearly three times as many three-pointers as free throws and allowed the league's 28th ranked offensive team to score 100 points on 49 per cent shooting.

The loss was their seventh straight in Charlotte to a Bobcats team that has been varying degrees of terrible throughout that span of Raptors futility.

"We've got to take these two losses to heart," said Vasquez who had 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, his best line as Raptor. "We're professionals, we know what we're playing for, so, [there's] no excuses on this team. Some guys just got to step up and understand what we're playing for."

"I think we're fine," he continued. "We've just got to wake up and understand that one loss can't really take us down, but one win can really build some good momentum."

Veteran bruiser Chuck Hayes put it best. "It's an emotional roller coaster in this league."

A week ago they were riding high, winners of three straight and eight of 10, since then they've crashed back down to earth. Where do they truly stand in the grand scheme of things? Likely somewhere in the middle. Success in the league is fickle, as Casey knows and Hayes has learned in his years of service.

"After the momentum we had in December you would kind of hope it would shift over into the New Year but the New Year ain't been so good to us so far," said Hayes, who recorded his first double-double - 12 points and 13 rebounds - since Apr. 11, 2011. "But there's a lot of basketball left."

Hayes, along with fellow reserves Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, played the bulk of the fourth quarter in place of frontcourt tandem Valanciunas and Amir Johnson, who each played less than 19 minutes, and Terrence Ross, who logged 21.

For the fourth straight game Valanciunas failed to eclipse 23 minutes or score in double figures, shooting 6-for-21 over that stretch. On Monday he was overwhelmed in a daunting matchup with crafty, low-post shaman Al Jefferson. The Raptors' sophomore bit on Jefferson's pump fakes, got beat on the boards and most alarmingly let his frustration get the better of him. Jefferson, who had a double-double after the first quarter, finished with 22 points and 19 boards.

Fellow sophomore Ross has also seen his performance slip over the team's recent slide, recording just one point on Monday, shooting 0-for-6. Meanwhile, Johnson connected on just one of his four attempts and has exceeded 10 rebounds in one of his last 15 contests.

"We've got to find a start that fits us," said Casey, who wouldn't rule out an eventual lineup change but insisted it's too early to make that call.

"You can't spot any team in this league 25-30 points and expect to be successful."

The Raptors will be given a much-needed day of reflection before hosting the Mavericks on Wednesday. It will be the first time they've faced a winning team in seven games. After squandering three golden opportunities in six days, it could be the wakeup call they need.

"We've got another game," said Hayes. "This is not it, [it's] just a little adversity and we've got to find a way to respond."

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