Fred VanVleet stars, but the Raptors fall to the Pacers, 114-97

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It turns out one good half of defensive basketball does not a good defense make. Coming off of 24 extremely good minutes of basketball — perhaps the best of the season for the Toronto Raptors — the team disappointed against the Indiana Pacers. The mistakes were same old, same old: overhelping, lack of awareness leading to back cuts, lack of size in the paint, and much more. The result was Indiana pasting Toronto with 114 points.

Two nights after Precious Achiuwa was the defensive savior against the Memphis Grizzlies, he struggled against the Pacers. Domantas Sabonis is a much more polished post scorer than anyone on Memphis’ roster, and Achiuwa had trouble matching him in the paint. (Khem Birch, a perhaps more polished defender than Achiuwa, might have been a huge difference had he been available.) Sabonis feasted on the offensive glass and in the post, and Toronto had little option but to swarm him — leaving his teammates plenty of space to score. The Pacers didn’t exactly shoot well from deep, at only 28.2 percent, but they shot 62.1 percent from two-point range. That’s not Achiuwa’s fault, but it points to the Raptors’ lack of size both as initial defenders and as helpers in the paint.

Similarly, Scottie Barnes had some highlights, including showing some quick hands for strips as a helper, but his general defensive contributions remain lackluster. He was back cut multiple times and made some mistakes with his closeouts, giving up uncontested baskets to a Pacers’ team that seemed to score fine without any extra help from the Raptors. Toronto asks an exceptional amount on the defensive end, and Barnes isn’t fitting in perfectly yet. That’s normal for a rookie, and even though it hurts in the short term, it’s for the best in the long run that Barnes is going over these speedbumps.

Frankly, Toronto didn’t have the size necessary to compete in this game. Having one of Khem Birch, OG Anunoby, or Yuta Watanabe — all sizeable frontcourt players who can protect the rim and clean the glass — would have breathed life into the rotation. Missing all three was a death knell. As it was, Toronto saw Svi Mykhailiuk play 17 minutes and Chris Boucher 14. Both have their skillsets, but a healthy Raptors team would likely see both glued on the bench in the average game. Both are inattentive to defensive details, and in a game when the bench gave nothing back on offense (Mykhailiuk especially was spotty, missing a variety of solid looks from deep), Toronto ended up with nothing when its starters sat.

So the team was handicapped by its missing personnel. The offensive end, at least, had plenty of positives.

For the limitations that Barnes offered on the defensive end, he redeemed himself and then some on offense. He was aggressive with the ball, attacking the paint in the post and off the drive. When he had bigs on him like Sabonis, he drove with ease and finished through contact. When he had smalls in his workshop he posted up and drew crowds, then dished to teammates for layups and easy points. He attacked the offensive glass. He cut well and drew free throws. Barnes was one of Toronto’s most important offensive machines, churning out points when on the court, and he finished with 17, on top of plenty of other spending stats. The defensive mistakes — though frustrating given his incredible ability there — are far more survivable when he is so damn effective on the other end.

Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam started the game out hot, diming up teammates for easy dunks, hitting their triples, and attacking the rim for layups. At one point, VanVleet set a screen for Siakam, who rejected it, jetted into the paint, and dumped it off to Achiuwa, who was skulking along the baseline, for the dunk. They both hit relocation triples off of passes from the other. VanVleet and Siakam both are the type of offensive stars who can take over by themselves, but they are starting to unlock their teammates’ scoring this season. For VanVleet especially, it helps that he finished so effectively around the rim. He came into the game shooting 55 percent at the rim, a career high. He shot five of six in the paint against Indiana. VanVleet’s improved passing and midrange shooting has unlocked his finishing around the rim; his offense only continues to improve. All Star.

The team slowed down after the first quarter. The bench group basically asked Gary Trent jr. to simply score in isolation at will, and on nights when his jumper is off, as it was against Indiana, there’s not too many points to score when Toronto’s stars are on the bench. Nick Nurse went to a Siakam-plus-bench group later in the second half to compensate, but after a solid first minute or two, Siakam’s offense faltered. The Raptors would probably have been better served to offer 30 shots to VanVleet and live with the results, but they at least searched for a more reproducible process. They didn’t find it here after the first quarter, but there were still those positive elements, at least among the starters.

The bench combined for 15 points; that’s not enough. Once again: Having Anunoby as a star-level scorer and Birch and Watanabe as bench fixtures would push everyone back into a role more suited to his skills. Rosters that score by committee can only handle so many absences; “next man up” only works when there’s enough overlap of skills on the roster that absent players can be replaced. That’s not true on this Raptors’ roster that lacks size, shooting, rim protection, and self-creation.

Toronto’s defense remains ugly. That’s no individual’s fault, and it’s especially painful when there are so many individual defensive talents on the roster. Those defensive stars like Siakam or Anunoby need to either sharpen up or get back on the court, respectively. For now, the roster is trying to get a handle on the scheme and find consistency. Having both centers available, most of all, will help. Toronto’s offense remains streaky. Having functional bench groups and a few more shooters (VanVleet made over half of Toronto’s triples against Indiana!) will help.

So ugly losses are piling up. It was a long road trip, and the Raptors are on their way back to Toronto. Most importantly, Nurse said before the game that he expects Anunoby to be back “any day now.” Wins should follow.

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