Have you ever cut into an apple and had one half all delicious and juicy, only to find the second half rotten to the core? Yeah… I haven’t either, but the Raptors sure have. In the opposite of their usual start-slow-end-strong style, Toronto started strong only to have the wheels fall off against Indiana, who played the second half of the game like a desperate team with their backs against the wall. On the back of a ferocious third quarter run, Indiana kept up the pressure to batter a streaking Raptors team into submission. As PJ Tucker said post-game: “There’s a way to win and a way to lose in this league, and that ain’t the way to win.”
Despite the loss, the Raptors looked great in the beginning. Have you ever watched an airshow and thought how efficient, how talented, how impressive the whole affair was? That’s the Toronto Raptors in this stretch of the season, and they showed it in the first half. In a game that was never in doubt, and then was absolutely in doubt, there were several narratives running through the game.
The Raptors are a team on which everyone knows their roles. Even though it didn’t work tonight, it’s a good formula for the future. Every time first-half Lance Stephenson tried to dribble his way into avenging his mistreatment at the hands of the 2014 Pacers team (seriously, is it possible that he has held a grudge for years and only re-signed in Indiana to submarine the team’s playoff hopes?), it felt good. Every Raptor, from players like DeMar DeRozan at the top to rookies like Jakob Poeltl off the bench, is a smart player who knows his role in the franchise. Shooters shoot and rebounders rebound, and the team usually sails over their opponents seemingly effortlessly. The Raps don’t beat other teams with brute force, like old Kimbo Slice backyard fights, but smoothly, like old Jackie Chan movies. You know it was a good start to the game when I’m waxing poetic about Kimbo Slice and Jackie Chan.
Don’t believe me about how good the Raps were to start? Let’s walk it back…
Indiana came out looking as weak as the children playing the halftime game (who, by the way, attempted more NBA 3s than both NBA teams combined in the first half and scored a combined 0 points). I was shocked by how tired the Pacers seemed out of the gate. The Raps didn’t need to play with force; they just ran good sets, got easy shots, and played tight defense. There were some great signs: Jonas Valanciunas had a great high-low pass to Serge Ibaka. DeMarre Carroll was knocking in 3s. DeRozan was jumping passing lanes. Meanwhile, Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson pounded the rock, forcing flat line-drives that barely got above the rim. Leo Rautins predicted his poor decision-making early in the game. Matt Devlin was saying that this time around playing for Indiana, he would accept any role the team gave him. Leo, ominously: “that remains to be seen.”
The player of the first half was the Indiana crowd, who gave Stephenson a noisy standing ovation when he checked in. They must have forgot how he left… Stephenson let the noise get to his head, and he followed it up with a terrible first half of basketball.
There were a few poor signs in this game. Norman Powell in particular was concerning. He barely played, and he turned the ball over with zeal in the few minutes he did get on the court. Powell has to get right for the playoffs. On the other hand, Dwayne Casey showed some impressive subtle coaching chops. In an attempt to juice the offense of his all-bench unit, he started the second quarter with Valanciunas on the court, but the offense bogged down after JV sat. Casey checked DeRozan checked in at the 8:00 mark to boost the offense again, and it worked brilliantly. The offense stayed rolling in the second due to a minimal amount of time with Powell as the only shot-creator. Valanciunas is a good jump-shooter when he’s decisive. Poeltl can ball, too. Immediately after checking in in the 2nd, he tipped a miss to Patrick Patterson for an easy two then got a nice rebound on the other end to start a fast break. Sadly, more on Poeltl to come.
Despite some good signs (a Delon Wright 3!) it seemed like the Raps weren’t beating Indiana as much as the Pacers were beating themselves. Paul George, Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, and Stephenson all missed open threes.
Sadly, there were two halves in this game. The Raptors started the third with a sloppy possession, and it went that way pretty much for the rest of the game. The Pacers found some way to care about winning the game, and the Raptors couldn’t match it. For the first six minutes of the third quarter, Indiana took it to Toronto. DeRozan tried to isolate against the entire Pacers team, and the results were poor. The Raps alternated between being too cute with extra passes and too boneheaded with too few passes. Poeltl made a ton of mistakes on the defensive end. He was too low guarding a screener and conceded an open 3 to George. He got beat as the help and failed to challenge some Teague drives. He looked his age in the third quarter.
Paul George being crazy good as basketball carried Indiana for the second half of the quarter after Toronto remembered how to play. The last few minutes of the third quarter were as exciting as Christmas morning, with DeRozan and George trading incredible buckets on either end. The last few seconds had an exciting play where Poeltl blocked / body-checked Teague during a half-court heave. Poeltl finally had a call go his way, and he also got to put the hoeltl on Teague. That joke is courtesy of / straight stolen from Blake, so don’t blame me.
Powell started the fourth, turned it over, and promptly sat. While the Raptors played fine for short sections of the fourth, they really beat themselves. Patterson and Ibaka missed some wide-open threes. Then Lance Stephenson’s flashy nonsense started working. Just like last time around in Indiana, his game is really a metaphor for the entire team. His over-dribbling drives ended up with no-look passes for easy buckets. His line-drive 3s somehow found the twine. Stephenson was (and still is) Dion Waiters before Dion was Dion. Stephenson found some help from Thad Young, whose weirdo, off-beat lefty flip shots are impossible to guard. Young plays basketball like Neil Young used to sing, or like Manu Ginobili used to play basketball.
The Raptors made a little run late. Cory Joseph hit a jumper and forced an offensive foul. A Tucker tip-in was followed with a Carroll 3. 7 point game with 1:37 left. After the timeout, Born Ready hit a 3. Game.
That’s how I wanted to end this summary, but… that was never gonna happen. With 3.3 remaining, Stephenson – obviously – laid the ball in, which broke an unwritten NBA rule. DeRozan and Tucker started jawing at the guy, and there was a little fracas. Fortunately, Robin Lopez wasn’t there to start throwing his ham hands around, so things didn’t escalate past yelling.
The Pacers took a game in which the Raps just couldn’t find enough effort. That’s fine, because this is no longer a consistent issue with the team. I trust Tucker will rev the team back up, and Toronto will suffer no ill effects. Next game is tomorrow in Detroit, and luckily, and sadly, Stephenson will not suit up.