Excuses and Conditions

Title: Excuses and Conditions
Date: December 11, 2014
Original Source: Raptors Republic
Synopsis: This article looked at whether moral victories or losses with acceptable conditions are really just making excuses for a team, as some accuse. (Spoiler: No.)

The Toronto Raptors lost a winnable game on Tuesday night.

That doesn’t seem to have ever been in debate. They held a lead at halftime, they had a lead in the fourth quarter, they executed poorly down the stretch, and they lost the game. They couldn’t score at all in the fourth quarter, ditching the unselfish play that had produced a ton of easy (and aesthetically pleasing) points against a Cleveland Cavaliers defense still finding its way, and showing a complete aversion to getting to the rim, a core tenet of the team’s three-chord offense that has been lacking some with DeMar DeRozan on the shelf. The defense was more or less fine considering how good Cleveland is, though there were a few rotation lapses that made things easier on the Cavaliers than they needed to be. Specifics aside, the Raptors played three really good quarters and laid an egg in the fourth, letting the game slip through their fingers.

These are descriptive facts about a game that many feel – surely, the Raptors are included in this group – the team could have and perhaps should have won.

After the game, I sent a few tweets that basically amounted to “this isn’t the end of the world,” and, “it’s not a bad loss.” The message behind those tweets was not that losing this particular game didn’t matter, or that playing in any sort of sub-ideal condition makes a loss excusable. I was accused of making excuses for the team, which is not really the case.

With close losses, especially ones against good teams, there will always be good and bad. A team does not hang tight with the Cavaliers without doing a lot of things well, and a team does not cough up a fourth-quarter lead against anyone without doing a lot of things wrong. Maybe the amount of time between the final buzzer and my “Reasonablist” tweets (what an awful nickname, EK) should have been longer, but my intention was not to make excuses for the loss, but point out that, all things considered, the Raptors had a pretty good showing.

Those “all things” that were considered are not excuses. Like with the descriptive facts about the actual game above, the conditions under which the Raptors played are also facts, ones that, yes, make the loss look better in retrospect. I have literally zero incentive to make excuses for the Raptors. On a professional level, the organization has shown that they’re not averse to the sometimes-critical coverage of the team here at Raptors Republic, affording us some access to games and practices and never once suggesting that access can only produce positive spin. I have no concern that if deserved, a scathing piece about the team’s play would have no impact on my relationship with the club. At a personal level, Twitter analytics would surely show that negativity, pessimism, and misery are better for the brand than blowing smoke up a professional sports franchise’s ass. That kind of approach is transparent and, to be honest, boring. And, like most of you, I’m a passionate fan, too. I don’t enjoy the Raptors choking in the fourth in what could have been a keynote victory.

So I’m not making excuses for the team when I reflect on the game and lay out the following:

  • The Raptors played the game without DeMar DeRozan, their second-best player, second-leading scorer, and one of their best one-on-one chances of slowing down LeBron James. The offense has hung in there without DeRozan, in part by producing more assisted buckets, but DeRozan’s ability to create for himself and get to the line is particularly paramount late in games. Your mileage may vary when it comes to the “star” tag for DeRozan, but he’s a key component on offense and an intelligent, low-mistake player on defense. They played this game without him, while the Cavaliers were missing only reserve wing Mike Miller.
  • The Raptors were on the road. Road teams have won just shy of 47 percent of games so far this season. Road games are more difficult than home games.
  • The Raptors were on the second night of a back-to-back, having played at home against Denver the night before. There’s a great deal of evidence that back-to-back situations are harmful and difficult. Depending on the timing of the study and how specific you want to get with the travel situation, the Raptors would have been expected to win about 37 percent of the time on Tuesday, if they were an average team facing an average opponent.
  • The Cavaliers were also on the second night of a back-to-back, though historically that’s an easier task when finishing at home. What’s more, the Raptors played poorly Monday, requiring overtime to beat the Nuggets and tasking three players with playing 39 minutes or more. The Cavs, meanwhile, handled the Nets easily, and James led the team with just 34 minutes. Between the minutes load and the home-court advantage, the Cavs were conceivably better rested.
  • The Cavaliers are really, really good.

These are not excuses. The Raptors still had every chance to win the game once it started. But later in the season, a four-point road loss to the Cavs without DeRozan the night after an overtime game is going to be looked at as a “quality loss.” Similar to how the narrow home win against a shorthanded Memphis team won’t necessarily be a “quality win” because of the conditions under which the Grizzlies played the game, we’ll look back on Tuesday as a strong showing. They were six-point underdogs for a reason, and they played 36 very good minutes against the best team in the conference.

The Raptors are far past the point of moral victories being of any value to fans, and there’s little that stings quite like a fourth-quarter collapse. I get all of that. I was disappointed, too. Had the Raptors been down early and come back to just lose by four, maybe the sting would be less and the whole, 48-minute game easier to view. It was an ugly ending and an abjectly poorly-played fourth quarter. There are tangible things the Raptors could have done differently to win that game, and they didn’t, and it’s a tally in the loss column.

The sky, it is not falling. The Raptors aren’t as good as the Cavaliers, and they still played them very tight under some adverse conditions.That’s just fine.

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