Final score: Raptors 104, Pacers 107
The Indiana Pacers had won 4 straight games coming into last night. The Raptors, on the other hand, were coming off of a disappointing loss to the Knicks, in which inconsistent quarter-to-quarter play handed them a narrow defeat. So…no matter what the final score would end up being in this one, it was safe to expect a full 48-minute effort from the Raps…right? Wrong.
It was a lethargic defensive start once again, with the front-court of JV and Serge looking as bad as they’ve looked to start the game. The backcourt defense on Darren Collison and Victor Oladipo wasn’t much better either as it seemed any Pacer wing could get their shot off whenever they wanted, with Bojan Bogdanovic, Lance Stephenson and others also taking turns from beyond-the-arc. Five 3-pointers later, the Pacers raced out to a 27-14 lead.
Dwane Casey, searching for answers, took JV out of the game earlier than usual, opting for a smaller lineup with the quicker and more mobile Pascal Siakam in place of Jonas. While the change helped slightly, at the end of the first quarter, the Raptors were immediately reminded of their problems. This slow start thing was happening again.
But, not surprisingly, the Raptors did what the Raptors do. Casey went to a bench lineup with VanVleet, Lowry, Powell, Siakam, and Poeltl. And just like that…that unit began to claw their way back into the game. Outscoring friendly face Cory Joseph and the Pacers 35-21 in the second quarter, the Raptors seemed to seize control of the game at that point. But they came out to start the third quarter exactly the way we were afraid they would. Despite starting the half with Siakam in place of JV, which I honestly thought would help, Indiana still started on a quick 5-0 run and continued to turn the tables on Toronto for the rest of the quarter outscoring them by 11 in the third and grabbing an unexpected 1-point lead heading into the final frame.
The Raptors certainly displayed the effort throughout the final quarter to win the game, but they had a ton of breaks go against them. The most notable ones came from Lance Stephenson, who burned Toronto repeatedly down the stretch hitting clutch back-to-back 3’s to put the Pacers up 11 with just over 4 minutes left. And after the Raptors came all the way back to bring it within 3, Stephenson got away with a blatant foul, pushing DeMar DeRozan trying to grab a rebound, and then hitting a dagger 3-pointer at the other end to put the Pacers ahead 106-100. Throw in a missed Serge free throw, a couple of missed calls on DeMar drives to the cup, and it was all over.
Every loss has it’s positives and this one was no different. First was the play of Kyle Lowry, who seemed to have the lift back in his long-range jumper, and was playing with the kind of energy, IQ, and overall feistiness that we’re used to seeing from him. The Raptors also got a huge lift from Fred VanVleet who was a +19 with 16 points in 23 minutes. FVV was a key member of the second quarter and closing lineups that brought the Raptors back from two separate double-digit deficits. There’s something about this guy that brings the Raptors back in games, but whatever it is…it’s not the permanent answer. I love the guy, but you can’t be relying on Fred VanVleet to basically carry you to victory, I’m sorry.
Besides the late-game officiating, which was an absolute joke, the Raptors did have one legitimate excuse. It was evident by the end of the game that they sorely missed CJ Miles. Miles was with his wife Lauren as she gave birth to their first child. That’s about as good as reasons get when it comes to missing a day on the job, so we wish CJ and his family all the best. Under normal circumstances though, I think Miles could’ve been the difference last night. His game would’ve provided some added bench scoring as well as some shooting down the stretch for the Raptors who hit a below-season-average nine 3’s on the night (Lowry had 5 of them). Unfortunately, for the Raptors who did play however, the inconsistencies continued.
DeMar DeRozan was completely outplayed by the Pacers wing combination of Bojan Bogdanovic (19 points on 8/16) and Victor Oladipo (21 points on 8/15, before leaving the game in the fourth quarter with a knee injury). For a 3-time all-star like DeMar, that’s just not good enough man. You can’t get outplayed like that. I’ll give DeMar a pass just for this game given how well he’s played overall this season, but last night was ugly.
The Raptors also were extremely sloppy handling the basketball with 18 turnovers, including a couple from Kyle Lowry late in the game. That opened the door for Lance Stephenson who, in a way, grabbed this game right out of the Raptors hands. Stephenson’s erratic and somewhat crazy style of play paid dividends for the Pacers. He was jawing at the Raptors after every made shot and was a clear spark plug for the Pacers fans who responded to his energy. It created exactly the type of recipe Indiana needed to close the game.
In many ways, last night showed every type of Raptors team we’ve seen thus far this season. We saw every single story of the past couple of weeks unfold before us…all in one game. Slow starts have been a thing, and we saw a slow start. The bench outplaying the starters was a thing, and we saw the bench outplay the starters for large chunks of the game. Starting the third quarter slowly was a thing (since Wednesday at least), and of course…we saw a slow start to the third quarter. Not to mention Serge and JV didn’t play great (-8 and -20 respectively), and the Raptors defense just seemed slow. It really was all on display.
No matter how the Raptors play to close out games or how many wins they get away with in the regular season, this inconsistency just isn’t good enough. It’s not a mark of a good team. This is the NBA. I don’t care who you’re playing or what national holiday it was the day before…if you don’t at least start games, halves and quarters with the effort to want to win…you probably won’t. So as a fan, I sat there after each of the first three quarters thinking…even if we somehow wound up winning this one, would it even feel good? Wouldn’t it just mean that we could see an effort like this bite us in the ass against the Hornets next week? Or the Kings the week after? Who knows.
A mini 3-game road-trip continues against the Hawks tomorrow to complete the second half of Toronto’s second back-to-back of the season. Yeah, the Hawks are terrible this year…but they still have Dennis Schröder, they’re playing with nothing to lose, and they’re coming off a big win against the Knicks…nothing is easy.
The Raptors will get their fair share of rest after that though with a 3-day break before returning to the ACC to take on Kemba Walker and the Hornets on Wednesday. After last Sunday’s home win against the Wizards, things were looking up for the Raptors. We probably thought all of these were winnable games that could extend our 4-game winning streak at the time (or at least I did)…but with how incredibly up-and-down the Raptors are playing these days, every night will be a grind.