Head Coach Dwane Casey will be the first to say it – his Toronto Raptors simply can't figure out how to play with a lead these days.
It looked as if the Raptors were about to come out of their recent tailspin on Sunday. They led the Detroit Pistons for most of the night in front of a warm home crowd at Air Canada Centre – at one point by a whopping 16 points. Yet they let commanding leads slip away all night, and finally the Pistons hit a go-ahead bucket with 13 seconds left on the clock and stole the game and energy out of the ACC with a 102-101 win.
"We put ourselves in position to win, but we've got to learn to play with a lead – that's our biggest issue right now," Casey said. "Some of the shots we take when we have a lead or we're behind trying to get a lead may not be good shots. Those are things we've got to continue to get better at. I'll take the blame on that. We've been concentrating so much on [fixing the] defence, but still offensively, we've got to execute and make sure we take the shot we want to take."
DeMar DeRozan had a 26-point night, Jonas Valanciunas had 17, while Kyle Lowry and DeMarre Carroll rolled for 15. But their bench was outscored badly, and they couldn't reclaim the lead when it mattered most.
The Raptors were coming off a rare three-day break between games after a very disappointing loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday night. DeRozan jumped out to a 10-point first quarter as the Raptors played to a 27-25 lead.
The Pistons punched back by seizing the lead in the second, but they didn't hold it long. Led by an eight-point quarter from Valanciunas as he tangled with Detroit's Andre Drummond in the post, the Raptors built up a 12-point lead. Detroit squeezed the door open a little as the half was closing. Ish Smith got loose for a few buckets to narrow Detroit's deficit, and Toronto took just a 51-45 lead into the locker room.
DeRozan had a 10-point third, hitting jump shots and getting to the free-throw line. Cory Joseph hit his first buckets of the night for six timely points, and Toronto had built a commanding 82-66 lead as the quarter closed.
Once again, the Raptors allowed an opponent to creep back into a game in the late-going. Drummond dominated the boards while Smith, Tobias Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope piled in points, and Toronto's lead dwindled to just three points in the final three minutes.
With points from Valanciunas, DeRozan and Lowry, the Raptors were going basket for basket with Detroit in the final moments. Then Caldwell-Pope hit a three-point dagger with 13 seconds remaining to put the Pistons ahead by one.
The Raptors got DeRozan the ball in the final seconds as the Air Canada Centre crowd stood, sure they would regain the lead in a game they had dominated for so much of the night. DeRozan's fadeaway shot didn't fall and Toronto walked off with the loss.
"I'm starting to get worried, yeah," Lowry said after the game. "It's not going the way we're supposed to be going and things aren't changing, so yeah, I'm starting to get worried."
Patrick Patterson did not rejoin the lineup for Sunday's game. It was the 14th game in Toronto's last 23 that he has missed because of a strained or sore left knee. The Raptors are 7-7 during this stretch without him. Toronto juggled the lineup, starting seven-foot rookie Jakob Poeltl at power forward, which scrambled the rotation.
The Raptors, who are facing a congested schedule during this stretch, have won just two of their six games so far in February. The team dropped to 32-23 and hover around the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
They head to Chicago to play the Bulls Tuesday before returning to host the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday – a Toronto Huskies night and the team's last game before the all-star break.