AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The Raptors continue to stumble and bumble towards the post-season.
It's no great shame losing to the powerhouse Detroit Pistons, as they did yesterday afternoon at the Palace of Auburn Hills. But the Raptors, in reality, lost to Detroit's reserve unit.
And that cannot be good for their already-shaken confidence heading into next weekend's playoffs.
The Raptors limped into yesterday's game still in the fight for a better playoff position, hoping to move up from sixth to fifth place. The Pistons, on the other hand, already had second place in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage locked up for the post-season.
So Toronto head coach Sam Mitchell knew that he would be seeing a lot of the Pistons' bench players. Given that scenario, everything appeared to be in place for a much-needed confidence-boosting win yesterday. The Raptors trailed by only two points (65-63) heading into the fourth quarter, and the Pistons' starting five settled comfortably on the bench.
But Detroit's reserve unit outplayed what was essentially Toronto's starting five in the last 12 minutes. Led by reserve Rodney Stuckey's 10 fourth-quarter points (Stuckey had 18 points overall, matching the entire output of the Raptors' bench), the Pistons prevailed 91-84.
The result came despite the best efforts of Toronto's all-star forward Chris Bosh, who had another big game for the Raptors, scoring a game-high 30 points, while picking up 10 rebounds and four assists.
The loss dropped the Raptors' record to 40-40, tied with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors, however, remain in sixth place, and are lined up to play the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs, as they have won the season series against the 76ers, who are seeded seventh. Toronto has two games remaining, tonight against the Miami Heat and Wednesday in Chicago against the Bulls. If the Raptors lose both and the Sixers, who also have two games remaining, finishes with a better record, the Raptors would drop to seventh and face the 57-23 Pistons in the first round, and that obviously is something they want to avoid.
The Raptors have beaten only one winning team since Feb. 20 (the Pistons, at home on March 26), not exactly a good omen heading into the playoffs. Still, everyone in the visitors' locker room was keeping a stiff upper lip yesterday in the face of their weak play of late. The Raptors have lost 16 games since Feb. 29.
"(But) we've beaten a lot of good teams before that, so we can't just let the last two months discourage us," Bosh said. "That's not the definition of our season. We still have a lot of good things we can do. The last three games we're 2-1. That's how I look it."
Bosh certainly is holding up his end of the bargain, but many of his teammates are not. Only he and centre Rasho Nesterovic, who recorded 18 points and seven boards, really stood out for Toronto yesterday, although point guard T.J. Ford had 10 points and eight assists.
The Pistons suffocated the Raptors defensively and out-rebounded Toronto 44-33. The Raptors were only 3-for-16 from beyond the arc and shot 43% overall, compared to 49% for Detroit. The Pistons' bench outscored Toronto's 48-18.
Still, starting shooting guard Anthony Parker believes that the Raptors do have the ability to turn the season around.
"We don't have to convince ourselves that we can do it. We know we can do it," he said.
"We don't sit around looking at a bunch of stats and data and that kind of thing. Playoffs are completely different. You're locking in on one team and everybody knows what each other's going to do. And we have the confidence that no matter who we play, we can win."