The Toronto Raptors are entering a stretch of schedule where there may not be a real sense of urgency. Already off to a quality start, the Raptors won’t see many threatening teams over the month of December. Their wins, then, may not always be enough, alone, to signal progress and growth. They’ll need to win in ways that seem repeatable against better competition, and they’ll need to iron out some wrinkles and sustain some positives. Those are things they’re more than capable of doing, and it looks like a good month for padding the record as some other teams come down to earth.
Friday night’s game against the Indiana Pacers wasn’t that, though. Not only are the Pacers off to a quality start of their own, proving themselves once again to be a potential threat to be a low-seed and a plucky out in the Eastern Conference, they’re also a team that nearly sent the Raptors into a bit of a tailspin just last week. This one, then, stood as a test both in terms of being a regular game against a quality opponent and in how the Raptors could respond to a dispiriting performance in short order.
If the Raptors were looking for a good harbinger about their third quarter from the performance of their starters in the first, they found it in the opening minutes. The opening play of the game saw DeMar DeRozan tip a pass and then bait a foul at the other end, and Serge Ibaka settled in with a three shortly after. Myles Turner stretched the defense out with a long two and a corner three, a concern that stood out less with the Raptors’ offense generating good looks every time down. Even Jonas Valanciunas, who struggled last time these sides met and was blocked on a dive to the rim, bounced back with a nice contest on a switch on Bojan Bogdanovic and then a sweeping bank shot posting him up at the other end (Valanciunas continued with a nice defensive effort, primarily guarding Thad Young to keep him off of Turner).
The Pacers found an offensive groove out of a timeout, with Victor Oladipo getting to work and the Raptors making a couple of turnovers to fuel Indiana the other way, a major problem in the last meeting. One of those turnovers allowed Ibaka to obliterate a Bogdanovic layup, so it wasn’t all bad. It was just mostly bad, with the Pacers pulling ahead with a 14-0 run that came against the starters and through three different Raptors substitutions, and saw Jakob Poeltl pick up two quick fouls.
Naturally, Fred VanVleet’s entry into the game stopped the run, with the plus-minus monster swinging a ball to C.J. Miles for his first three of the night. The last few minutes of the quarter played out like a Too Mainey highlight mix of the bench’s best moments, with a stop leading to a VanVleet transition basket, Pascal Siakam cutting and finding Poeltl for a dump-off, and Poeltl putting back an offensive rebound. Poeltl ended the quarter by pinning Lance Stephenson to the backboard, and Stephenson responded by picking up a tech to trim Indiana’s lead to four.
The all-bench unit continued rolling into the second, highlighted by Norman Powell blocking T.J. Leaf faced up on a jumper. Nate McMillan opted for a quick timeout and a move back to his starters, but the Raptors’ second unit still wound up a plus-six during their time as a fivesome, led by VanVleet’s seven points. Cory Joseph tried to answer the call and settle things, stopping Powell one-on-one and then hitting a pull-up jumper after a crossover against VanVleet, symptomatic of a run where the Pacers stuck jumpers in response to Siakam and Poeltl effectively sealing off the paint.
“It’s good man, it’s always good battling against Cory,” VanVleet said. “I came in the league battling against him all summer and last year in practice, learning and absorbing from him, but obviously on the biggest stage, it’s good to just compete and play against Cory, who I think is one of the best guards coming off the bench in the league. It’s a lot of fun.”
Things went awry for the Raptors with their starters back in, with Oladipo going on a personal 6-0 run amid some sloppy Toronto play. Valanciunas responded in the post, and each of the other four starters followed with points of their own to stem the tide and prevent an single-handed pull-away (Oladipo finished the half with a ridiculous 20 points on 11 field-goal attempts, Indiana’s primary source of offense). Valanciunas would close the half with a strong stretch, too, blocking Oladipo, securing a tough defensive rebound, flirting with running the break, and then making a rim-run as a trailer for an and-one to send the Raptors into the break up seven, armed with confidence in their starting group.
Just how bad have the Raptors’ third quarters been? McMillan saw fit to talk things over in response to an 8-6 mini-run for Toronto, because it felt like 16-0 compared to the last third quarter between these sides. DeMar DeRozan scored six quick points and set up Valanciunas for two more, Lowry hit a triple to keep up his obscenely hot shooting, and Valanciunas took Turner into the post for a sweet turnaround. Outside of Oladipo still cooking (cooooking), it looked like a different third-quarter Raptors team. That Lowry avoided a technical despite protesting after being cheated out of two layups provided additional evidence that a third quarter really can be okay, and Ibaka hitting a three he picked up off of his shoelaces reiterated the point.
The quarter wasn’t perfect. Oladipo was a problem they had little solution for, and Indiana still scored 31 points. The Raptors even lost the quarter, technically, when Joseph hit a late three. There’s work to do at the defensive end in general, and it’s not as if one decent third is the end of the discussion. This shouldn’t even be a persistent talking point, really. Still, they came out with energy, tweaked the gameplan for the Ibaka-Valanciunas frontcourt, and may have been able to kill that cloud hanging over them every time they come back out of the tunnel.
“Much better,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “The force we were playing with, running the floor, just the pace we set moving the basketball. We had, what, 29 assists? I was really pleased with the way we came out in the third quarter. Now we’ve got to create a habit. It was one game we’ve got to make sure we create a habit of coming out, playing with force, running the floor, moving the basketball starting the third quarter. We came out with the right mindset tonight.”
Casey rolled with the all-bench group at the top of the fourth, and McMillan countered by getting Oladipo minutes against them. It was Powell against Oladipo from there, with the Pacers guard continuing his ludicrous night and his Toronto counterpart going for an and-one, a three, and then a tremendous dunk. Poeltl was a major factor, too, reaching a career-high 18 points and completely dominating his matchup all night. Casey made a light schematic shift, asking Poeltl to corral Oladipo a bit more, resulting in a scoreless closing six minutes after the budding star checked back in.
Lowry’s return saw him take yet another charge, and a VanVleet push the other way nudged the lead to nine. It was 13 less than a minute later. The VanVleet-Siakam-Poeltl trio is truly unstoppable, with a plus-9 in this game and a net rating of plus-27.8 in 99 minutes on the season, and if the Raptors are going to roll Lowry-and-bench again soon, it looks like that should be just fine, too.
That bench trio earned the closing nod despite a long stretch of time on the floor, and Casey rode those three with their stars in largely meritocratic fashion. A lead hovering around double-digits didn’t soothe any tension that had been bubbling most of the game, though, and Lowry picked up a technical foul on behalf of VanVleet (the ball did not lie). Indiana kept pushing, trimming the lead back to five with under two minutes to go, forcing the Raptors to talk things over.
With Poeltl having played over 14 minutes straight, Casey went to Ibaka at center, and it looked shaky when he immediately missed a 20-footer and then had a defensive rebound go off his hands out of bounds, then had the ball bounce off of his hands a couple more times. The Pacers missed three consecutive shots around it, though, and while Toronto’s offense couldn’t produce much but chewed up clock, the free-throw end-game helped them close things out.
“We understood the moment,” DeRozan said. “The guys that were out there understood the moment. We can’t give this up on our own floor. We got to use that to our advantage especially late in the game. The crowd got behind us, gave us energy, we got it going and just took care of business.”
DeRozan padded what felt like a quiet night (but really wasn’t) there, and he and Lowry finished with a combined 37 points on 32 field goals. That seems light, but their 12 rebounds really helped the bigs, and their 13 assists were a driving factor in the team posting a 60.4-percent assist rate with just 12 turnovers.
All told, it was another solid home win with areas to clean up, fairly similar to the Charlotte performance and probably similar to a few more that will come in an easy December. The defense can be better than the 111.5 points per-100 possessions they surrendered here, and they’d surely like to pull away earlier in some of these outings (though Lowry and DeRozan continue to see reasonable minutes totals). This time of year is for continued growth, and the Raptors are good enough to beat even solid teams like Indiana while they’re finding their best selves. The offense was terrific, the bench is unspeakably good, and it was a very fun Friday night game.