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Raptors need to stop looking ahead and focus on details

Improving struggling defense could help Toronto turn things around

POSTED: Mar 21, 2015 10:54 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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The Raptors last season ranked 10th in defensive field-goal percentage. This season, they've slipped to 27th.

— The way the Toronto Raptors have been playing lately, dropping six of their past nine games and 11 of 15, the best matchup for them in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs would be ...

Stop it. Just stop it.

Looking ahead to the postseason while ignoring the dwindling but vital expanse of games remaining in their regular-season schedule is precisely the reason the Raptors have been playing so poorly lately. There are contributing factors, sure -- increasingly shoddy defense, unreliable perimeter shooting of late and not much of an inside attack to tide them through such nights all are part of Toronto's current swoon.

We have to show some defensive pride.

– Raptors' coach Dwane Casey

But nothing trumps the too-quick and too-easy satisfaction that apparently crept in after the Raptors started strong and met with virtually no resistance from their tanking and/or troubled brethren in the Atlantic Division. In that NBA land of the blind, the one-eyed crew from Toronto was king. Until it started getting too far-sighted.

"We haven't done nothing," point guard Greivis Vasquez said after his team's desultory 108-92 loss to Chicago Friday at United Center. "I don't even know why we're thinking that we're something. We're nobody."

Raptors vs. Bulls

Nikola Mirotic scores 29 points with 11 rebounds, Mike Dunleavy adds 21 as the Bulls rout the Raptors 108-92.

Kyle Lowry, the Raptors' All-Star point guard, missed his fourth game of the season and his first after bruising his back against Minnesota two days earlier. So he got a good look at his team's struggles on the floor against the Bulls, the feeble resistance it offered as Chicago scored 32 points in the first quarter, led by a dozen points by halftime and shot 53.2 percent. Toronto got manhandled inside: outscored 54-6 in the paint, a 47-36 rebounding deficit and 37 percent shooting inside the arc vs. 40 percent outside.

Lowry, as a team leader, already was plugged into the Raptors' vibe, which has gotten way too casual and surprisingly complacent. He didn't like what he saw Friday and talked about it.

"I think we need to stop worrying about the playoffs and start worrying about the next game," Lowry said. "I think we're looking too far ahead. We're thinking way too far ahead. I think we're worried about things that are two, three months away. We need to worry about the day-to-day stuff."

Call it exhibit No. 189 that the NBA's regular season is too long: Toronto has lacked urgency since the final days of 2014 in its bid to improve on last season, turning their vision for the final months fuzzy.

After back-to-back road victories over the Clippers and the Nuggets, the Raptors were 24-7 on Dec. 28. By the time their heads hit the pillows that night, their lead in the Atlantic Division over the second-place Brooklyn Nets was 10 games. They sat atop the Eastern Conference standings, 1.5 games ahead of Atlanta even, on track to blow by last season's 48 victories by merely playing .500 ball the rest of the way.

Except that Toronto is 17-21 since then. The Raptors need to go 7-6 just to match last season's record. More pressing, they are 12 games behind the Hawks in the East standings and they've slipped behind Cleveland and Chicago, too. While they're safely headed to the postseason and are guaranteed a top-4 seed when they clinch the Atlantic, the Raptors are at risk of losing home-court advantage if their non-division-winning, first-round opponents -- the Wizards, say -- wind up with a better record.

The Starters: Toronto Raptors: How Worried Are You?

How worried are you about the Toronto Raptors free fall?

They can blame the Nets, the Celtics, the Sixers and the Knicks, if they like, for not pushing them hard enough. But that won't make a bit of difference a month from now, when those teams are sitting at home and the Raptors are on their way to joining them.

"It's nobody's fault but the players," Vasquez said. "We've got to go out there and do it. [Better] attention to detail. The best way to hide our limits ... we have to do it collectively. We have to play defense as a team, and we've got to stop our man 1-on-1, too."

Defensively, Toronto has been a mess. Emboldened by an improved attack early this season, it let things slip at the other end. Before the All-Star break, the Raptors' ratings were 108.9 offensively and 104.3 defensively; since then they've flipped to 103.8 and 106.0. That's a net swing of minus-6.8.

I don't even know why we're thinking that we're something. We're nobody.

– Raptors' Greivis Vasquez

Last season, even when points were hard to come by, Toronto could grind out success by locking in defensively. It ranked 10th in defensive field-goal percentage and 12th in defensive rebounding. This year? The Raptors rank 27th and 22nd, respectively.

"We have to show some defensive pride," said coach Dwane Casey after the Bulls loss. "We have to stop worrying that 'so-and-so got one shot [but instead] so-and-so got no stops.' We have to get the kind of personality where we don't worry about scoring. I'm concerned about who is stopping who.

"I don't know if we're ever going to be a defensive juggernaut. We've got to get some pride in our defense."

All is not lost, if the Raptors plant their heels now. They face the Knicks, the Pistons and the Lakers in the next week. They have the Timberwolves, the Nets, the Heat down the stretch, and play the Celtics and the Hornets twice each.

Then again, that's looking beyond Sunday's home game against New York. And that's why Toronto is in the predicament it's in.

"We need to re-focus and understand," Vasquez said. "It's not the end of the world, we've won some big games too. We're gonna go to the playoffs. But we've got to wake up and start playing defense.

"Kyle is right. We've got to stop thinking ahead."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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