Another no-show makes an unlikely Raptors turnaround even more improbable

Are the Toronto Raptors going to do this?

And by do thiswe mean: erase their disappointing first half of the season with a second-half run that gets them into a similar playoff spot as a year ago?

The parameters: heading into their game against the visiting Atlanta Hawks (speaking of disappointing teams), Toronto was tied for 10th place, or the last play-in spot, with a 19-23 record and a three-game winning streak on the line.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse might not be looking at the standings just yet, but we certainly can.

The sixth-place New York Knicks – who the Raptors visit on Monday to start a stretch of 10 road games in their next 12 – started the night 5.5 games ahead of Toronto with a 24-19 record, playing at a 46-win pace.

For argument’s sake, let’s agree that matching that pace is the standard to escape the play-in tournament and at least be assured of a seven-game, first-round series.

What would it take for the Raptors to get 46 wins?

Well, after the Raptors’ 114-103 loss to the Hawks, it’s going to take a lot.

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Like, nothing impossible and all of that, but the Raptors’ margin for error is basically zero, and it got slimmer Saturday night after they no-showed early against a Hawks team playing on the second night of a back-to-back and couldn’t ‘t dig out from the hole they dug themselves.

If you see analogies to the Raptors season as a whole, well, no one is arguing.

The Raptors had no answer for the Hawks’ all-star backcourt of Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, who combined for 56 points and 15 assists on 19-of-34 shooting, compared to Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. combining for 10 points and seven assists on 3-of-16 shooting. It’s a big reason the Raptors shot 41.4 per cent from the floor (and 7-of-29 from deep) while the Hawks were 51.2 per cent and 11-of-27 from three.

The Raptors were led by Scottie Barnes, who continued his strong run of play with 27 points and 12 rebounds, and Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher combined for 27 off the bench, but it was not enough against the Hawks, who improved to 21-22 , while the Raptors fell to 19-24. They ended their six-game homestand 3-3 and saw their winning streak top out at three.

The Raptors put themselves in trouble early as they started out shooting 1-of-13 from the floor and quickly trailed by 18. They made 6-of-7 from there and ended up closing out the quarter respectably, though they still trailed 34- 25.

The Hawks backcourt got rolling after that as Atlanta pushed its lead to 12 by half with Murray and Young combining for 35 points and 10 assists. VanVleet and Trent simply couldn’t keep up defensively, and they couldn’t do much at the other end either, scoring just five points (all Trent Jr.’s) and counting two assists while shooting just 1-of-10 combined.

Toronto made a push in the fourth quarter after trailing by as many as 18 in the third.

Boucher’s second three of the fourth quarter cut the Hawks lead to seven with three minutes left, but Pascal Siakam fouled on the Hawks’ next possession, capping a frustrating night for the Raptors star, who finished with 15 points on 7-of-16 shooting , while adding seven rebounds and six assists.

But the Raptors couldn’t reel the Hawks in from there and Murray iced it from the free throw line with 1:13 to play, putting Atlanta up 11.

Before the Hawks arrived the Raptors would have needed to finish 27-13 over their final 40 games, which translates to a .675 pace, the equivalent of a 55-win season.

Now that they’ve left, Toronto needs to go 27-12 over their final 39, a .692 pace, or a 57-win season.

Which teams are playing at that standard (or better) right now? In the East, just Boston. In the West, only Denver and Memphis.

Apart from the sheer unlikeliness of a team that plays half a season at a sub-.500 rate suddenly playing a level commensurate with a championship contender for the second half, there are some additional logistical barriers the Raptors would have to overcome.

The primary one now, with the Raptors having concluded their season-high six-game homestand Saturday, is that the road beckons, and the Raptors have been a horrible road team all season. Their five road wins (in 18 games) are the fewest of any team in the league other than the Houston Rockets.

With 10 of their next 10 away from home and 23 of their last 40 – including seven-game and five-game west coast road trips still to play out – the Raptors’ only realistic hope of mimicking their 27-14 second-half finish from last year (which got them to 48 wins and the fifth seed) is to completely turn around a glaring weakness.

Even going a very respectable 12-11 on the road – which the Raptors will get a taste of this week with games at New York (Monday), Milwaukee (Tuesday) and Minnesota (Thursday) would mean the Raptors need to finish their home schedule scorching 15-2.

Does this seem like a team that can go 15-2 at home? Charlotte doesn’t play here again until next season, keep in mind.

Another factor: the Raptors will have to stay healthy, that’s a given.

In fairness, injuries were prominent in their first-half struggles, enough that they have been used as an explanation by Nurse at times.

“When we have half our team out, or seven guys out or six guys out … that messes up our organization,” Nurse said recently in context of why – at full strength – Toronto was able to string three wins together for the first time this season.

“And it takes time to get some of that stuff reorganized and now we’ve had some games and some practice time where these guys are here and we’re just more organized.”

But was the Raptors’ injury picture ever all that bad?

Nurse is entitled to exaggerate to make a point – who doesn’t – but Toronto has never had six players out for a game this season. Even counting Otto Porter Jr., who played eight games total before being shut down for foot surgery, they’ve only had two games when they missed four players from their top seven in terms of minutes played.

On the whole, the Raptors’ injury picture ranks them roughly in the middle of the pack. Before playing Saturday, they lost 112-man games to injury, placing them 12th overall and 15th in terms of the average salary lost to injury – a rough approximation of the value of the players lost – per spotrac.com.

They’ve played 20 games with all five of their regular starters available and seven more when they were missing only two rotation players. Their most injured player (other than Porter Jr.) has been Achiuwa, who missed 24 games with his ankle injury. Siakam missed 10 with a groin strain and other than that no Raptors regular has missed more than eight (VanVleet).

So, not great, but hardly a disaster. The Raptors’ worst stretch of health came in mid-November when they went 4-4 over an eight-game stretch. Interestingly, the Raptors’ worst stretch of basketball this season – the 5-12 run from Dec. 9 to Jan. 6 – was when Toronto was relatively healthy, fielding its regular starters for 12 games and missing only Achiuwa for 10 of them.

Not to mention the Raptors have benefitted plenty of times this season when other teams have been short-handed.

All of which to say, the Raptors are healthy now and will certainly need to stay at close to full health to make the run they are hoping, but pinning their struggles to this point on injuries probably overlooks more pressing concerns, like their halfcourt struggles both offensively and defensively, each of which were on display against the Hawks, or their overall lack of depth, another long-standing issue.

So can the Raptors pull this off? Their three-game winning streak was supposed to be the start of something, the platform from which to take another big leap.

Their loss to the Hawks shows the gap they’re trying to cross is big and getting bigger all the time.

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