Raptors muzzle Sabonis, conquer mammoth-sized Pacers

Toronto finally secured a win at home. Nate Bjorkgren drove home smiling.

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David beat Goliath on Wednesday night. Not in talent, nor in expectation — but in sheer physical size discrepancy. In Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner alone, the Indiana Pacers boast Philistine, giant-like individuals who hail from the book of Carlisle. The young, teeny-sized Raptors possess a clear identity — one that takes a recent league-wide metamorphosis of “small-ball” to heights never seen before, with no pun intended. And that is all by design, to boot. A youthful team that lives and dies with its ultra-effort, length and speed-dependent, hyper-switching scheme. So the question is, how do you stop a team that walks into your home and possesses the polar opposite in team qualities and characteristics?

The Indiana Pacers rely on All Star frontman, Domantas Sabonis as the anchor of their offense. The success and prosperity on that side of the basketball is built primarily upon the Lithuanian star. His game hinges on the interior dominance of his opponent, his advanced passing ability as well as his unparalleled skill to dictate an entire basketball game as a glass-gobbling (good luck saying that fast five times), instinctually elite rebounder. Coming into Wednesday night’s game, Sabonis led the league in rebounds per game at a stellar 15.8. Lacking in athleticism, defensive maneuverability and his clear deficiency in perimeter shooting — Sabonis, like any other NBA star needs a player who complements his playing style and hides his weaknesses.

Enter Myles Christian Turner. A player who is quite literally a lab-created, purely ideal complement to Domantas Sabonis. Lacking in athleticism? Turner has enough for both of them, and then some. Defensive maneuverability and rim protection? Turner’s one of the best shot blockers in the world who also navigates around the court (offensively and defensively) with incredible mobility. What about his perimeter shooting? Turner’s 3PA per game has steadily increased from 0.2 as a rookie fresh out of Texas to an astonishing 4.8 per game this current season. At a career 35% clip, Turner offers enough stability and consistency from 3PT land to keep NBA defenses honest. Now you see why this partnership makes total sense despite the constant trade rumors that seem to surround Turner on a semi-annual basis.

A mid-week game smack-dabbed in the heart of Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena homestand, the physically-imposing lndiana Pacers brought a supposed problem to Toronto’s supposed weakness — size. In a similar boat, Toronto brought their own set of issues to Indiana — but in speed. From the start of the game, it looked as though Toronto had the early edge. However, the ‘Navy and Gold’ began to creep back as the first quarter came to a close. What stood out for Toronto in the first 12 minutes was unsurprisingly their calling card — hard-nosed, physical POA defense with more switches than the Nintendo headquarters. It helps that Toronto’s usual two largest players on the court in Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa move and shuffle around the court like guards defensively. The Pacers made it a mission to feed Sabonis early. However even though he made two baskets early on, it is remiss to ignore how difficult the Raptors made Sabonis’ life around the rim. Asphyxiating double teams, smothering traps and consistent help around the rim was the clear gameplan for Nick Nurse and his defense to ultimately stifle Sabonis. And it worked to perfection. Sabonis went absolutely silent for the rest of the game, attempting only one more basket and finishing with an abysmal 3 for 4 from the field, equaling to 9 points in 34 minutes played.

Mentally? Checked out.

Physically? Outmatched.

At every possible moment, Toronto essentially created a whirlwind around Domantas Sabonis as soon as he received an entry pass within the 3PT line. So the question is, how did Rick Carlisle and the Pacers respond to this gameplan? Funny enough, they spent the next three quarters falling perfectly into Nick Nurse’s clever plan. They decided that the best counter-move to negating Sabonis from the game was… accepting it. The only problem is, they didn’t have the requisite firepower to allow Sabonis to disappear and open the game up for others. To make matters worse, their co-leading scorer in Malcolm Brogdon left the game early in the third quarter with an injury. That left a Pacers team without Brogdon, LeVert (who entered the game with a ‘Questionable’ injury tag), and TJ Warren. So who was there to pick up the slack versus a chaotic, suffocating Raptors defense? Well only rookie Chris Duarte, who to give him his own credit — entered the game as one of the great rookie stories around the NBA. The Dominican-Canadian rookie hailing from the University of Oregon was thrusted into a starting role with LeVert out with an injury. He’s responded extremely well this season, averaging 19.8 ppg on a 45% 3PT clip as he entered Wednesday night’s exhibition.

Ok, so that’s one — barely I think. He’s a rookie. You also have Myles Turner, who averages just over 12 ppg for his career. Ok, two — maybe. And that’s about it for Indiana. Beyond those players named above, their leading minute-loggers in this game were Justin Holiday, Oshae Brissett, TJ McConnell and Brad Wanamaker.

Yeesh.

For Toronto, you had Fred VanVleet step up and deliver a shooting performance Raptors fans have been waiting for. To be fair, Fred hasn’t necessarily disappointed this season. He’s been plunged into a brand-new role this season for the new-look Raptors — the ‘Kyle Lowry’ role. The ‘you basically gotta do everything to help your team win and make it look easy’ role. In this week alone, we’ve seen shades of VanVleet excel in that role. Not entirely but almost in pieces, so to speak. The career-high 17 assists on Monday night versus Chicago was the appetizer.

Last night versus Indiana was the three-course meal.

“I thought we were definitely very physical tonight,” VanVleet said. “OG set the tone in the paint offensively. I thought all five guys were on the same page defensively to start the game.”

The Raptors style of play wasn’t just praised by players, but also by the opposing coach.

“They’ve got quick, angular guys,” Carlisle said of the Raptors. “They were ripping at the ball all night and they knocked a lot of balls loose. Give them credit, they executed well.”

The Raptors’ rookies also set and pushed the pace for Toronto all throughout the game. Dalano Banton specifically was the heart, soul and engine of Toronto’s bench. Almost immediately after his initial substitution, the entire speed of the game took a nitrous boost. Banton and Barnes both played excellent games, showing why Nurse has given them free reign within the rotation to occasionally lead the starters (Barnes) and the bench (Banton). And boy oh boy, have the two rookies proved their head coach right. Barnes scored 18 points and posted 7 assists while Banton lead the bench with 10 points.

The other clear bright spot of the game was OG Anunoby, who posted a season-high 25 points and helped lead the Raptors to their first win at home in Toronto in nearly 20 months. Team-wise, the Raptors matched their season-low in turnovers with only 12, while forcing 22 Indiana turnovers. The difference in the team statistic was key to not just winning the game for Toronto, but utterly dominating Indiana throughout the night.

Oh and by the way, Goran Dragic was healthy and didn’t play a single minute.

This was my completely serious take on the situation backed by my personal 367 Raptors confidential sources I refuse to name:

So what comes next?

The Raptors continue their homestand and welcome fifth-overall pick Jalen Suggs and the Orlando Magic on Friday night. That should probably serve as the night we honour Masai Ujiri for his annual NBA draft mastery. You know? Just because.

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