Midway through the third quarter against the Indiana Pacers, all seemed lost. The Raptors were down 16 points, and nothing was working. The Pacers were hitting everything they threw at the rim from deep — indeed, they finished an eye-popping 19-of-39 from behind the line — while the Raptors couldn’t create anything in the half-court. And for a team that is usually so adept at getting into transition and scoring on the run, the Raptors were mysteriously passive. Until they weren’t.
With 6:15 left in the third quarter, Nick Nurse the mad scientist threw guard Terence Davis onto the floor in place of center Serge Ibaka. Toronto’s biggest player was incidentally its most talented: Pascal Siakam. The Siakam-at-center look has received few minutes of playing time over the years, but that hasn’t stopped me from analyzing it. Last year, I wrote that even though it has a variety of areas in which to improve, in certain situations, it can work:
“The look has mostly been used as a defensive weapon,” I wrote. “The idea is to switch everything, grind defensive possessions to a halt, and force turnovers… Fewer miscommunications would allow the lineup to win its minutes against the right opponents.”
That’s exactly what happened here. Even though Indiana can field gigantic lineups, with Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner both starting for Indiana as nominal centers, Toronto wasn’t scared of playing small. Sabonis was hurting everyone the Raptors had, even its centers, so the damage really couldn’t be worse there. And Turner, despite his size, really doesn’t play like a center. Besides, the Raptors weren’t being killed in the paint, where they outscored Indiana 56-34; they were killed behind the arc. Playing Siakam at center, where he can switch onto any guard and terrorize them, allowed Toronto to push its pick-and-roll defense further from the rim and contest everything behind the arc. Indiana, despite the seeming nonsensical fit of the Siakam-at-center lineup, was a perfect victim.
Nick Nurse agreed.
“It’s a couple things,” he said after the game. “I just thought it was a pretty physical matchup for Chris [Boucher] to handle so we went smaller and it gave us a chance to switch a little bit more, too, and end up with instead of Chris or Serge [Ibaka] or somebody to have to guard [Malcolm] Brogdon on a switch we had Pascal or OG [Anunoby] up there that maybe can keep in front of him, or whoever the guard was out there.”
Toronto’s switch-heavy defense worked wonders.
Immediately, the Raptors forced a turnover on Indiana’s first possession. On the next one down, Anunoby found himself wrestling with Sabonis. Though Anunoby doesn’t have the screen-setting or rolling skills to play center on offense, he has the low gravity, immensely strong core, and length to wrestle with all but the biggest centers on the defense end. Anunoby did a fantastic job defending Sabonis.
“We had to put him on Sabonis some, and he was forcing catches out further away from the post and he was working out there,” agreed Nurse.
Offensively, the Raptors were also excellent with Siakam at center. When they weren’t scoring in transition, they were moving the ball far swifter around the court. Siakam as the only big unlocks quite a big offensively.
“He’s been effective on that,” said Nurse of Siakam’s screen-and-roll game. “It’s just another way to get him involved and get him the ball. I think with the skill of Fred and Kyle coming off those things, and even Terence, I would say, that they’ve got to be up, they’ve got to be up and if we’ll screen ‘em, that means the bigs have got to be up for a moment and there’s an opportunity for the pocket, or the roll and anything we can do to get Pascal the ball heading downhill with some force is pretty good.”
Toronto used its advantages quite well in the second half of the third quarter. An open Lowry triple from the corner brought the crowd back into the present, and all of a sudden Toronto owned the momentum despite trailing by 11 points.
Terence Davis was impressive, too. On one possession, the undrafted rookie guard found himself playing center in the middle of a Toronto zone, and he performed admirably in the bizarre position, stealing the ball. Later, he hit a corner triple. Siakam remembered to be patient on the offensive end, drawing double- and triple-teams, waiting for them to return to their original men, and then making him moves, scoring a little in the post. By the time the dust settled and the third quarter ended, Toronto only trailed by four points. One version of the group with Lowry, VanVleet, Davis, Anunoby, and Siakam finished plus-eight in a laughable two minutes of playing time. The other version with Pat McCaw playing for VanVleet finished plus-four in 3.5 minutes. The communal plus-12 to end the third quarter turned the tide.
It was an unbelievable run for a group that Nurse really didn’t want to play.
“And you know,” he added, “it’s one of those things, too, that I don’t love [Siakam at center], I don’t love it because we haven’t done that much but you roll with it and you see what happens and it was good in the game, it kind of turned the game back. I crawled back from a big deficit to get back in the game with that so we were, just like always, something works, we let it roll for a little while.”
Of course, the Raptors needed yet more magic to win their 12th game in a row and set the record for the longest winning streak in franchise history. The Pacers’ lead swelled to double-digits as Siakam and Lowry rested early in the fourth quarter. But when they returned to the floor, Toronto made its final run. It was not with Siakam at center, this time, but with Ibaka back in the game. Ibaka’s shot-making was phenomenal all night. As with most advantages in the NBA, they don’t exist over the course of an entire game. The magic of Siakam-at-center was spent, its job done in the third quarter. It was Ibaka’s turn to play hero.
In fact, it was Ibaka who hit the impossible, contested triple — bearing a strong resemblance to his shot in the playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers — that proved to be the winning basket. Ibaka passed brilliantly on the night, shot like a machine, and was altogether otherworldly. But for a brief stretch, Toronto employed a funky, rarely used group with Siakam at center. Its success, as well as Toronto’s success later with Ibaka back on the floor, is yet more evidence of the adaptability that has powered Toronto’s successful this year, and why the team has now won a franchise-record 12 straight games.