Spark: Norman Powell bounced back from a miserable outing against the Bucks with a season-high 23 points off the bench on 10-of-12 shooting. He was decisive on his drives, he froze Kyle O’Quinn with a Eurostep before sinking a soft teardrop, he caused havoc in the passing lanes, and he was money from distance. Powell has been a massive upgrade over C.J. Miles over the past three weeks.
If there was a gripe about Lowry’s return, maybe it was that he came back into the game late in the fourth after sitting a few minutes. Because he’d help driven a neutral performance for the starters and kick-started some solid bench runs, the Raptors were ahead 14 with four minutes to play when he re-entered. The Raptors surely wanted to lock up another quality victory — they’re somehow 7-1 on the second night of back-to-backs now — against a tough team close to them in the standings, and even with the late re-entry Lowry played only 32 minutes. He’d check back out two minutes later, the victory sealed, giving way to Chris Boucher for his now customary ceremonial garbage time three.
Statistically, Lowry’s impact was somewhat muted. He scored 12 points with eight assists and three steals, and he finished plus-6 on the night. Prompted to try to describe what Lowry adds beyond numbers after the game, teammates were at a bit of a loss. Intangibles are intangible for a reason, and things like energy and heartbeat and pace are sometimes hard to appropriately describe. A lot of what Lowry brings, and what Lowry has always brought, eludes finite measurability, and so while advanced metrics over large samples point to him being an All-NBA level player, sometimes it takes a night like Sunday where he returns and stability appears to be restored to put his importance back into perspective.
“Very good leadership. You can just sense an organized attack at both ends,” Nurse said. “Pretty good. There was some breakdowns here and there, but that’s what he does. He does 4-for-10, 12 points, 8 assists, but there’s about 32 other things out there that you’re not seeing that he’s doing that don’t get recorded on the stat sheet.”
For the Raptors, Lowry’s return couldn’t have come at a better time. Thursday’s loss to San Antonio punctuated a mediocre stretch largely in Lowry’s absence, an 8-8 chunk of the schedule in which the Raptors graded as middle-of-the-pack at both ends of the floor rather than the lofty top-five standard they’ll be measured to. Down Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas still on Friday, Leonard helped lead the Raptors to an upset victory in Milwaukee against a team that came in having won nine of 10. The Lowry and Leonard roles reversed Sunday, the Raptors held serve and more as slight favorites, emphatically beating a team with a rest advantage that came in having won 13 of their last 15.
The hope now is that Tuesday marks the beginning of some time with Lowry and Leonard together. Lowry did not expect to be out this long, saying Sunday that he initially believed his brief return against the 76ers was a proper return, only to see his back not respond as hoped. He’ll have to continue to do maintenance work to keep his back in top shape from here but mostly got through Sunday’s game without issue.
“Oh, hell yeah. I expected to be back quick. I thought the Philly game was going to be it, but my back didn’t respond the right way. We had to be smarter about the next move,” he said. “It was very difficult, but my team did a great job of holding down the fort. I believe in my teammates in one of the highest ways you can, and I knew they would hold it down. For me, it was just about getting healthy and making sure I was ready to go individually to help this team.
The Indiana Pacers got straight up worked tonight against the Toronto Raptors, snapping their six game winning streak, dropping 2 1⁄2 games behind the first place Raptors, and losing the season series to Toronto should a tiebreaker pop up late in the year. At no point could the Pacers corral in the Raptors offense, and unlike recent shootouts against lottery teams, the Raptors had no trouble halting the Pacers on the other end when they needed to.
The Pacers took the lead early in the second quarter allowing 37 in the first, but Indiana’s second unit faltered from that point, allowing the Raptors to flip a deficit into a double figure lead on a 12-0 run. The Pacers would spend the rest of the half cutting into the deficit only to have Toronto push it back into double figures.
Indiana got their end of the game’s flow to end the half and opened up the second with their best stretch, showcasing confidence offensively and purpose defensively, tying the game at 72-72. Then Danny Green hit a three. Pascal Siakam scored four straight, including two off of a Pacers turnover. Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry hit three straight threes.
Suddenly, the tied game was a 12-point one again and the Pacers struggled to close the gap in the same fashion. Indiana did have an opportunity in the fourth when they trailed by nine, only to come up empty on three consecutive possessions only to see Toronto run off an 6-0 run as a response. In total, the Pacers went scoreless for three minutes, and didn’t manufacture a bucket that wasn’t a putback for five minutes.
When they finally did, Toronto emphatically put a cap on the game in the fashion they did all night, by hitting a backbreaking three pointer. That was the most glaring difference in the game. Toronto went 17-33 from three point range while the Pacers were just 4-17. Toronto let it fly with a purpose while the Pacers let their hesitation get the better of them, bricking shot after shot while the Raptors splashed home seemingly every attempt they took.
Raptors bench made the difference
Despite playing on the second night of a back-to-back, the Raptors got a major boost from their bench in this contest. Last night against Milwaukee, the Toronto reserves scored a dismal 5 points. Tonight was a completely different story as their bench put up an absurd 49 points compared to Indiana’s 27. Typically, you can count on the depth of the Pacers to keep the team afloat as the starters get some rest, but not tonight.
As the NBA season hits the pivotal midseason mark, what’s clear for the Indiana Pacers is that the only East team they’ve yet to solve is the Toronto Raptors.
Toronto handled Indiana again Sunday night, 121-105 for the second time at ScotiaBank Arena.
“They just take us out of our element. They got up 33 3s tonight. We got up 17,” said Victor Oladipo, who was held to 6-for-15 shooting that included missing all four of his looks from deep. “They made most of theirs. We didn’t make enough of ours. Seemed like we got cold. Just a tough loss. Seems like we were exhausted out there.”
Against other top Eastern Conference teams, the Pacers are 1-1 vs. the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers and 1-0 vs. the Boston Celtics. They lost to the Raptors without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka earlier, and this time without Kawhi Leonard, who was being rested on the second game of a back-to-back.
In total, five Raptors hit three-pointers, going 6-of-9 overall. This game was not about offense, despite being nothing but that. After one quarter, with Toronto up 37-35, it was evident this would be a defensive battle — or more clearly, a battle to play defense.
That defense didn’t exactly materialize in the second quarter as much as fans may have hoped, but it was better. A three minute scoreless period by Indiana between the 10:00 and 7:00 minute marks helped spark a 17-4 run by the Raptors to give them a sizeable cushion for the remainder of the quarter.
Despite this, a small hiccup toward the end of the half shortened that lead to just seven points and the Raptors would carry a 70-63 lead into the third quarter. Of note, this was just the second time all season the Pacers allowed 70 points in the first half.
The man of the (second-quarter) hour however, was Norman Powell — who scored 10 second-quarter points in just 15 minutes off the bench. He was a perfect 2-of-2 behind the arc and 4-of-5 overall, capping off his stellar play with a break-away steal and dunk mid-way through the second. Coach Nurse is trusting Powell more with each passing game, and the third year UCLA alum is rewarding him with impactful play.
Not to be outdone, though, was Danny Green and his blistering first-half shooting performance. Green managed to hit 4-of-6 three-pointers (4-of-7 overall)
Overall in the first half, Toronto shot .568 from the field, and 10-of-18 for .556 from beyond the arc. It’s not hard to see the difference in the way Toronto plays when Lowry is running the show. His style of play is always from a place of urgency. Whether he’s begging for the inbound pass after an opponent makes a basket, or looking for an outlet after grabbing a rebound, Lowry always plays as if the score is tied.
The 25-year-old has been on quite the roller coaster ride with the Raptors since the team acquired him in a draft-night trade four years ago. From G-League standout to surprise playoff contributor as a rookie — and whose breakout came against a Pacer team with just one remaining player from the team that took the floor on Sunday night in injured big man Myles Turner — to potential sixth man, occasional starter, and, more recently, an odd man out.
Following something of a disappearing act last season — a worrisome development for a Raptors organization that had just inked the former UCLA standout to a four-year, $42 million deal — Powell was on his way to earning consistent minutes in Nick Nurse’s rotation this season, but a shoulder injury suffered against Utah in early November cost him 21 games.
He returned to the Raptors roster at a time when the team needed a sparkplug like him — especially one who can create problems for opponents on either end of the floor — given the struggles of rotation players like C.J. Miles, and the fact that the team hasn’t been shy about resting Leonard when deemed necessary.
Powell has strung a few nice games together in the eight games since his return but hadn’t exactly made a statement. Until Sunday, that is.
After a two-point outing the previous night, a motivated Powell scored a team-high and personal season-high 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting — including 3-for-3 from deep — in just under 32 minutes of action.
In the first half, Powell helped the Raptors maintain their first sizeable lead, turning defence into offence.
On the next possession, Powell crossed McDermott up and hit a step-back three to put the Raptors up by seven, and remained aggressive throughout the game as Toronto’s lead grew.
The Raptors have been trying to embrace the “next man up” mentality as they maintain a winning record while dealing with a rash of injuries throughout the season. Dealing with fluctuating minutes and roles isn’t easy for most players, but on this team, it’s a necessary ingredient to their regular-season success.
Lowry played in his first game in Toronto since Dec. 9th against Milwaukee, which coincidentally was the last time both he and fellow star Kawhi Leonard were in the lineup for the Raptors at the same time. Lowry had missed six straight contests overall and 10-of-11, with Toronto going 6-4 without the NBA’s No. 2 assists man (Former league MVP Russell Westbrook passed Lowry in assists-per-game while the Philadelphia product was out due to a back injury).
After playing 38 tough minutes in Milwaukee on Saturday night, Leonard was given the night off for load management.
Perhaps as important as Lowry’s strong performance was his admission afterward that, other than a couple of moments where he felt a little sore, his back came through the game well. He added that he’ll be a little bit smarter about managing the issue after he wasn’t able to keep playing after his return in Philadelphia on Dec. 22, the only other recent game he had been in.
“My back didn’t respond the right way. We had to be smarter about the next move,” Lowry explained of the wait since then.
“It’s going to be something that’s not going to go completely away, but we have to stay on it to make sure it’s as minimal as possible,” he said.
Lowry looked like his old self, doing a little bit of everything while showcasing his full bag of tricks. Whether it was passing, shooting, taking a charge (or two), getting in for rebounds or steals, the little agitator made his presence felt in this one
“He pushes the tempo and I don’t know, just him, you can’t really put it into context, but he just does a good job of bringing energy, pushing the pace, doing the little things, taking charges, being scrappy,” was how Delon Wright attempted to explain Lowry’s contributions beyond the obvious boxscore numbers.
It’s a lot, isn’t it? But it’s what Lowry provides, and what the Raptors have been missing since his bothersome back forced him out of action in mid-December.
And, with Kawhi Leonard sidelined on the latter-half of one of the toughest back-to-backs a team will encounter, it was exactly what the Raptors needed as they dispatched the rested Indiana Pacers, winners of 13 of 15 coming in, 121-105. Lowry finished with 12 points and eight assists in a nearly 32-minute shift. But he contributed so much more.
“That’s what he does,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “There’s about 32 other things out there you’re not seeing that he’s doing that don’t get recorded on the stat sheet.”
Lowry played all of his seven first-quarter minutes like he was trying to prove a point. He was darting all over the place on the offensive end, pacing around the perimeter off the ball, setting picks to help his teammates get switches, and creeping into the paint after shots, looking for ambush rebounds.
On the defensive end, he was constantly talking, guarding with arms stretched out wide, cheating for steals, trying to push the pace off buckets and turnovers. In the second quarter, he drew another charge, moving into second in the league, only two off the pace. Moments later, he went coast-to-coast in transition off a Pacers miss, sinking a floater from the paint while drawing a foul.
“He’s just the heartbeat of the team,” said Fred VanVleet, who had 12 and 8 of his own. “He’s a leader. Pace, energy, aggressiveness, switching, rebounding, finding guys, making shots — he does it all.”
The Raptors became the first team to win 30 games this season as they moved back into first place in the NBA. And the struggles that had popped up in the absence of Lowry and centre Jonas Valanciunas — Toronto was 8-8 in its last 16 games heading into the weekend — seemed to disappear in wins over Milwaukee and Indiana.
Led by Lowry, who had missed all but one game since Dec. 12, the Raptors picked up where they had left off Saturday night. They scored 37 points in the opening quarter, and 70 in the first half. They shot 51 per cent from three-point range, going 17-ofr-33. And the bench, which had struggled in Milwaukee, outscored the Pacers’ reserves 52-25. The second unit’s performance allowed coach Nick Nurse to divide the minutes more evenly throughout the rotation: eight of 10 players player between 21 and 34 minutes.
Nurse didn’t pull any punches when describing what he wanted from his bench after the foursome of Norm Powell, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and Greg Monroe went 1-for-15 from the floor with six turnovers between them on Saturday against the Bucks.
“They gotta step up, man,” Nurse said pre-game. “They’ve gotta play better, they’ve gotta play harder, they’ve gotta play with more passion, they’ve gotta bring it. I’m looking for that today. We’re gonna need it.”
Powell led the charge with a season-high 23 points. But it was Lowry who helped give Toronto its swagger back by pulling the strings all night long, logging minutes with the starters as well as the bench, He finished with 12 points and eights assists.
Bench play has been an issue all season, perhaps the most troubling aspect of the first 41 games.
With a team in perfect health, the starters would be Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Siakam and Serge Ibaka with Fred VanVleet and Jonas Valanciunas bookending the backup unit.
But finding two or three consistent players to round out a second group has been impossible. Picking from the group of Anunoby, Norm Powell, Delon Wright and C.J. Miles to fill the remaining two or three second-unit slots might be the biggest task of the second half of the season.
That inconsistency has been irksome.
“Defensively we’ve had some steps back some games, and some times we show phases of where we do well and phases of where we don’t do well,” Green said. “Offensively, the same. It seems as if, watching some of the film, we’re going through the motions a little bit, not being sharp, not coming out the way we needed to or not coming out ready.”
Injuries have been a large part of the story and the troubles.
Lowry’s back, Valanciunas’s thumb and the desire to perhaps sacrifice a game here and there to keep Leonard healthier for the late spring have denied Nurse a chance to truly massage the rotation. But that may be a temporary thing. And once everyone is healthy, 20 or 25 games should be enough time to get everyone on the same page.
So the halfway mark has come and gone and the Raptors have been outstanding except when they haven’t been. A half-season of ups and downs and good and bad and lurching from one supposed crisis to the next.
And when it’s looked at from a step or two back, with the Raptors in a tense battle for No. 1 in the league, the first half has to be deemed a success.
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