Raptors looking to tighten defense vs. Rockets

HOUSTON — Three contests into a five-game road trip that represents their second longest of the season, the Toronto Raptors remain one of the most lethal offensive teams in the NBA.

Defensively the Raptors are sieve, and their issues on that end of the court continue to undermine their offensive might.

Despite averaging 113 points over their last five games, the Raptors (8-6) lost for the fourth time during that stretch on Monday night when they fell 123-115 to the Clippers in Los Angeles. Toronto is 4-4 over its last eight games, a span in which each opponent has scored at least 102 points.

Toronto ranks 24th in defensive rating, surrendering 109.2 points per 100 possessions and is allowing opponents a 51.2 effective field goal percentage that ranks 22nd.

“It seems like everybody we've played the last couple weeks we've turned it into an offensive slugfest,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Until we get defense in the game and maintain in the game (things will remain the same). I think our guys are trying. They're trying defensively but we're not getting it done. We're not getting stops when we need to.”

There was some concern that the Raptors would struggle initially following the loss of center Bismack Biyombo during the offseason. Biyombo helped anchor a Toronto team that finished 11th in defensive rating last season before signing with the Orlando Magic. Without his rim protection, the Raptors haven't quite been the same collectively, an issue that is also related to their individual defensive ability.

“I think we all can play better defense and that's something we can hold ourselves accountable for,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think we all want to be a better individual defender but we have to do it as a team. It's a lot of guys in this league that you pretty much can't guard one-on-one. You have to have five guys or 10 eyes on him.

“It's part of your game. We've got to get better.”

The Rockets (9-5) improved to 3-0 since guard Patrick Beverley returned from preseason knee surgery with their 99-96 win at Detroit on Monday night. That victory marked the first time in eight games that Houston failed to score at least 100 points, but their developing cohesion continues to carry them through trials.

Guard James Harden has played so exceptionally this season that nitpicking his flaws might soon become a necessary method of analysis. Harden is averaging 28.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 12.4 assists this season but his 81 percent shooting at the free-throw line represents his worst mark since his rookie season when he shot 80.8 percent with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009-10. Over his first four seasons with Houston, Harden shot 86.1 percent from the free-throw line.

After starting the Pistons' game 10 for 10 at the charity stripe, Harden missed 5 of 9 free throws down the stretch to keep the game interesting. Over his last four games Harden is shooting just 73.9 percent from the line.

“I had to laugh it off. It's funny,” Harden said. “But we all have games like this. Just can't let it happen consistently. I've got to take my time, go up there and concentrate, and make the free throw.”