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Raptors looking for more stops against Rockets

Feb 1, 2023; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse reacts to a play against the Utah Jazz in the first quarter at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

There are no definitive means to measure how much the trade deadline rumors are adversely affecting the Toronto Raptors, but what is abundantly clear is their uneven play of late.

The Raptors suffered a 131-128 road setback to the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, their sixth loss in nine games, dropping them to 12th in the Eastern Conference standings. The Raptors played without forward OG Anunoby — whose name has been bandied about most often in advance of the Feb. 9 deadline — for a third consecutive game and will be without Anunoby on Friday when they visit the Houston Rockets.

Despite a top-10 offensive rating (114.5) and a net rating that ranks in the middle of the pack in the NBA, the Raptors have been unable to sustain momentum. Their lack of overall success can be linked to their middling defense, which is 20th in the league in defensive rating at 114.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.

Toronto allowed the Jazz to shoot 53 percent overall, including 17 3-pointers, and watched Utah make 26 of 30 free throws. The Raptors were consistently overmatched by Jazz 7-footers Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler, who combined to score 45 points on only 23 shots while grabbing 27 rebounds, nine on the offensive end.

“In the guts of the game, I thought we were making them miss quite often. I think we had a stretch of seven consecutive stops,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “And then the two or three would-have-been stops as well if we would have limited them to one shot.

“It was just keeping them off the glass there for a little stretch. Again, for the most part, it wasn’t bad initially defensively.”

How the Raptors will address improvement in the near term is a mystery. They are falling off the pace to participate in a play-in game, a reality that might shape their decisions at the trade deadline. In the interim, Toronto will have to rally around who is available despite a murky future.

The Rockets, saddled by injury misfortune, have nevertheless uncovered the path to victory in consecutive games. They followed a road win Saturday over the Detroit Pistons with a 112-106 home victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday despite the absence of starting guards Jalen Green (calf) and Kevin Porter Jr. (foot). Houston won consecutive games for the first time since Dec. 11-13.

Moxie and toughness served the Rockets well in both games, with contributions coming from a number of corners. Five Rockets scored in double figures against the Thunder with Eric Gordon (25 points), Tari Eason (20) and Josh Christopher (11) all recording season-high point totals.

Eason, a rookie forward out of LSU, and Kenyon Martin Jr. have come to personify the Rockets’ stubborn will of late. On the heels of producing 15 points and 13 rebounds against the Pistons, Martin tallied 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Thunder.

Eason, meanwhile, recorded his third consecutive double-double after entering this stretch with just one previously. He added 13 rebounds, including a whopping 12 offensive boards, and three steals to his ledger and continues to embrace the role of doing the necessary dirty work.

“I have never seen someone get 12 offensive rebounds in 13 total,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said of Eason, who secured four offensive boards to extend one late-game possession. “That just shows the fight that we had at that moment of the game.”

–Field Level Media

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