The first game back after a trip out west and the Raptors faced the Eastern Conference’s most underrated team. The Pacers, fresh off a loss to the Cavaliers – the east runs through Cleveland – were looking for a bounce back win against the “best” team in the league. Still without ‘Mike’ Lowry, and Serge Ibaka, the life-blood of the Raptors offense was taken from them. Not to mention integral pieces in their defense – “Not to mention” remains one of the best idioms.
Short-handed and staring down the 4th seed of their respective conference, the Raptors and Nick Nurse began constructing a Jackson Pollock painting of line-ups. More on that later. Greg ‘Moose’ Monroe got the start at center and made a clear impact in the games opening frame. Clever on the dive and brute-ish on the glass, Monroe opened up with 10-points and 5 boards. Not one to say no to a diving big-man (with the last name Monroe, apparently) Leonard happily supplied him early on, and tallied 4 assists.
Second to Monroe in scoring in the first quarter was Raptors-905 phenom Chris Boucher. Boucher hit a corner triple and a layup to remind everyone of the invisible stuff oozing out of his skin. Some people are saying this is called “potential” but who’s to say? While the flashes of offense were fun, Boucher got thoroughly embarrassed on defense. He was torched in the pick n’ roll, and I don’t say that lightly. He continually misplayed the angles and gave up tons of great looks to the Pacers. Constantly closing his stance and giving Domantas Sabonis runways to the rim.
This wasn’t exclusively a Boucher problem, but his defense made things really easy for Sabonis early on. Overall, it was a fun introduction for his first extended minutes as a Raptor. Monroe struggled with the same thing that Valanciunas does, often times dropping too low, which is dangerous against a player like Oladipo. Credit Nurse for recognizing that he couldn’t reliably guard the pick n’ roll with big men, and all the more credit to him for finding a quasi-solution later on in the game.
Outside of the pick n’ roll that was giving the Raptors headaches, they couldn’t produce reliable looks on the other side of the floor. Putting up 13 3-pointers in the second quarter and hitting only two of them. On top of that, the threes they were taking weren’t typically good shots, they were like: “3-points is a lot of points, gosh it would be nice to have 3-points, let me hoist this up” type of shots. The offense was floundering and stagnant and the outcome was an attempt at superb shot-making. Watching the Raptors over the last little while, we know theres roughy 2.5 players on the team capable of that, so it didn’t go over well.
Kawhi Leonard showing he can do everything is cool, but it’s crazy how the Raptors can’t muster up any kind of flow without Kyle Lowry.
— Vivek Jacob (@VivekMJacob) December 20, 2018
Luckily, the Raptors – mostly Kawhi Leonard – caused a slew of Pacers turnovers in the second quarter and jumpstarted their lifeless offense from time to time. Leonard and Siakam teamed up for 15 points in the quarter and dragged the Raptors through the mud. For all of the missed shots and defensive breakdowns, the Raptors climbed within 8 points by half-time.
The Pacers opened up the third quarter on a 16-8 run, with Myles Turner playing his best stretch of the game. He was spacing out the Pacers offense for Bogdanovic and Oladipo to work in, and closing off the basket to any Raptor who wanted buckets there. Nurse decided to bust out a zone to thwart the Pacers pick n’ roll offense, which was decimating the Raptors at this point. The jig was up, and Nurse decided that this wasn’t a game to stick with the bigs, even if they pumped some life into the offense.
As the zone created a bit of disfunction in the Pacers offense, the Raptors went back to what has always worked. Hand the ball over to Leonard and Siakam. Even if their creation wasn’t on par with the version of the offense Lowry runs, if it generates points it’s a win. Leonard and Siakam put their heads down and were often rewarded for their aggressive play in the latter half of the quarter.
With the lead down to 10 entering the 4th quarter it was pretty clear that there wasn’t going to be an offensive explosion in this game. If the Raptors were going to steal this one, they needed to lock down their own end. Holding the Pacers to 11 points in the 4th quarter was incredible to watch. It came largely on the back of four players. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Kawhi Leonard.
Before I go on, Louis Zatzman wrote about both VanVleet and Siakam specifically. Both articles containing nuggets of truth and analysis that make understanding their integral part in this win all the more clear.
After trying a multitude of things in the third quarter – Malachi Richardson taking CJ Miles minutes, for example – Nurse arrived on one ironclad solution: Leonard will play a lot, one of Siakam or Anunoby will join him. This opened up the door for the Raptors to switch everything. On the front-end, the Raptors did a terrific job competing with the pick n’ roll before conceding it, and started full-court and half-court pressing periodically. They did this to eat up clock.
The next step is to switch, and when that happened the Pacers were reluctant to turn down a post mismatch. Siakam, Leonard, and Anunoby all played stellar defense when matched up with one of Thaddeus Young, Turner or Sabonis. But what if the switch was with a guard? Well that’s why VanVleet and eating clock was so important. If the switch came and a guard was stuck on a big, the Pacers always swung the ball to the wing for the entry pass. The Raptors defense was so tight that the Pacers didn’t want to risk the turnover entering from above the break.
Forcing the Pacers to go to secondary actions eats more clock, the Raptors needed to do this because they planned on doubling the big-man. The Raptors doubles – big shoutout Lorenzo Brown for his defense as well – were spot on and sharp. The defense around them accounted for the rotation and forced the big man to survey the floor. All this while the clock kept ticking down. This led to errant passes, many that Siakam was happy to gobble up. The Raptors initial defense was so effective at forcing the Pacers into late clock situations that they eventually shifted the offense completely into Oladipo’s hands, for lots of isolations.
The Raptors took away both of the Pacers greatest offensive strengths in this game – post-ups and pick n’ rolls – and clamped them down. All this while cleaning the glass with an undersized front-court, only allowing one offensive board in the 4th quarter. Staggering defense, man. Terrific stuff.
On offense the Raptors benefitted from a little bit of regression. VanVleet hit all three of his triples in the 4th quarter, which almost equals the Pacers whole output as a team. Of course, Leonard remains one of the best offensive weapons in the NBA and he lifted the Raptors to a victory in this one. Highlighted by this huge left handed slam:
VanVleet has no shortage of big shots for a bench guard, and added to his resume tonight. With 26 seconds on the clock he hit a triple to put the Raptors over the top. A hustle play from Miles, tipping a rebound to Danny Green, who then made the pass to VanVleet for the triple. This ended up being the winning bucket and what a game for the Raptors. VanVleet after the game, per Josh Lewenberg:
“As long as I’m out there on the court fighting with my teammates and I get open shots I’m going to shoot it regardless of what happened before. It’s short-term memory and having the confidence to knock them down. That’s how you allow yourself to make big shots like that.” – Fred VanVleet
Leonard’s ability to muster up the defense and gumption to keep this team in games is bordering on LeBron-esque. His on-court impact is nuts, it’s the stuff of legend. Watching Leonard rip the ball out of opposing players hands was a treat when he was on the Spurs, but seeing him do it for the Raptors as he leads the charge in Toronto is schadenfreude. Sans-Lowry and Ibaka the Raptors are much less talented, but they are plenty gritty.
What a fun game to watch. After all the pessimism towards Anunoby after last game, it’s heart-warming to see him play such a massive role in this one. His defense against opposing centers as a wing player was inspirational, he really dug in. Likewise, Siakam was searching all game for his game to bust through, and it finally came when he could abuse Sabonis’ lack of speed. Siakam, VanVleet, and Anunoby all joining a bonafide star in Leonard to lift this team to a victory no one would have expected after the third quarter.
Great work by Nurse, searching for anything that might do the trick. The insertion of Brown and the switch-up of the pick n’ roll defense was masterful. Awesome win, and a real reward for the fans who had to watch some mucky basketball the last two outings. The Raptors move to 24-9 as they eye the surging Bucks, still the top-dog, though.
Oh yeah, Anunoby definitely fouled Bogdanovic on that final shot. Nothing to do about it now, but going forward Anunoby should try very hard not to do that again.
Have a blessed day.