The bill appears to have come due for Kawhi Leonard's Game 7 shot.
The basketball gods have turned on the Toronto Raptors. After being one of the NBA's most clutch teams over the past two seasons, the Raptors have suddenly found themselves unable to create magic when the game is on the line. They rank 29th in the NBA in clutch plus/minus and 26th in the league in clutch Net Rating, per NBA Stats.
Sunday night's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves was a cruel taste of exactly what's gone wrong for Toronto this season. With seconds ticking away in the fourth quarter, the Raptors pulled off a brilliant trap to force a Malik Beasley turnover, opening the door for Pascal Siakam to get redemption after two last-second misses cost the Raptors earlier in the season.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse drew up a misdirection play using Fred VanVleet as a decoy to create space for Siakam to go one on one with Jaden McDaniels. Siakam caught the ball, turned, and started charging downhill. With a little more momentum he probably could have dunked the ball, tying up the game and potentially forcing overtime.
Instead, he could only muster a layup and the ball rimmed out.
"Oh my God," Siakam yelled in disbelief.
Three times this year the Raptors have watched as Siakam has just barely missed crucial clutch shots.
“We’re three games under .500 and we could be six games over .500. It’s that small of a difference," Kyle Lowry said Sunday. "You’ve just got to continue to work and continue to just push and push and hopefully roll off some more wins in a row. I think that’s what we’ve missed this year, is just a consecutive win streak, a big five-, six-, seven-game winning streak.”
The Raptors of 2018-19 and 19-20 used to string together winning streaks of five or six games with ease. They'd take care of business against the NBA's below-average teams and occasionally add in a few statement victories along the way. This season, though, the Raptors have gone the other way. They've just 3-4 against the NBA's 10 worst teams this season and they're coming up with innovative ways to lose in the clutch.
“You can go through a whole game and find things that happened: missed free throws, missed open shots, missed this and that. You can always find little things, minute things, big things that altered the game," Lowry said. "You don’t want to put yourself in that position, but that’s the game of basketball. In the game of basketball you’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to make shots. You’re going to miss shots. You’re gonna do this, that, and the other."
This season, though, the ball is bouncing the other way for the Raptors. Instead of being a 15-12 team like their plus-49 point differential this season would indicate, they're 12-15, stuck in the middle of the pack in the East, and trying to find their way out.
In a muddled-up Eastern Conference, you can make do around .500 especially with the addition of a play-in tournament this season. But these do not appear to be the Raptors of old and as the sample size continues to get bigger, it's becoming harder and harder to ignore.