Analyzing a Loss to the Pacers w/ Caitlin Cooper

Caitlin Cooper and Samson Folk trade thoughts on the Raptors vs. Pacers game.

Caitlin Cooper is, in my opinion, the best analyst among basketball writers. I thought it would be great to lean on her expertise and analysis after the team I cover played the team she covers. This is our conversation:

Caitlin: heyyy, that’s pretty great

Me: Heyyyyy, that’s pretty badddd – Caitlin, the first thing on everyone’s mind after that loss/win is the Raptors 4th quarter performance. What did you see change on court to allow the Pacers to break off a win on the back of a 36-14 4th quarter?

Caitlin: That game was a tale of two halves, for sure. The Raptors shot 2-of-15 from three in the third and followed that up by going 1-of-8 in the fourth. The intent from the Pacers was clear after halftime: after battling foul trouble and getting abused from two, they were going to force Toronto to beat them from three. That was evident in how they were doubling on the bully drives and sending early help to the nail — especially when OG was the ball-handler. In essence, it was a math problem. Indiana thought they could win a shootout and they did, outscoring the Raptors by 24 points from three in the second half.

Me: What do you think made the Pacers embrace the math at that point? What I mean is why wouldn’t they embrace that aspect of defense from the jump — what were they hoping to accomplish in the first half?

Caitlin: Good question! In part, that’s why bully drives are difficult to defend. The other four defenders have to process being a help-side defender on a perimeter drive to suddenly going into post automatics. This is a young roster and Andrew Nembhard, for example, picked up one of his fouls just digging down from the wing. In other games, the Pacers have struggled to scramble out of double-teams (i.e. the Sixers made 19 threes against them when they showed help against Harden and Embiid). My guess is they might have wanted to play it by ear, while also wearing those guys out in isolation. That said, it was a strange decision — especially with the way Tyrese Haliburton and Bennedict Mathurin were struggling from the field. What did you make of how the Raptors defended Haliburton, in particular?

Me: Classic overload from the Raptors. He got a lot of looks at the POA, but with his use of screen help and his hyper-activity he shook loose into the middle of the floor and made a lot of the straightforward reads available to him (to shooters especially) against the Raptors rotations. What intrigued me most though, was when the Raptors would be trying to organize the back end of their defense to prepare for the digs, slips to the rim were available at times and Haliburton hardly missed any of those reads. It’s no wonder the Pacers positive minutes were tethered to him completely. He seems to be one of the guys, like Luka, who can digest the Raptors defense, then out-think it.

Caitlin: Nick Nurse definitely did his homework. Tyrese had a game very similar to this last season when the Pacers played the Kings last season. That night he was 4-of-14 from the field, but he had 15 assists. Tonight he was 3-of-14 from the field and had 15 assists. Both teams were aggressive in shading him to his left, which is the book on his handle. With the way he’s started the season, forcing the rest of the team to make shots was probably the right strategy — even at the risk of his reads. OG definitely bothered his rhythm. There was one possession where Tyrese had him on his left hip and still passed out to the corner. The discontinued dribble in the fourth was also a product of OG’s presence. A loss for the Raptors, but certainly a big game from Anunoby.

Me: Okay this brings us to the Anunoby conversation — who you’ve alluded to a couple times now — and I’m very excited to hear from you on this. Raptors fans and analysts (me) keep throwing out DPOY along with his name, but his season has also been defined by some positive offensive trends. After a game against your Pacers, what are your thoughts on OG Anunoby the player?

Caitlin: Look, it was definitely a group effort to hold Haliburton and Mathurin to 23 points on 29 percent shooting (Chris Boucher was everywhere!), but OG was impressive in how he defended their strength and attacked their weaknesses. Mathurin, for instance, likes to hit first around the rim and Anunoby wasn’t biting on that. He altered Mathurin’s stride lengths. Both of them played more syncopated when he was around or switching out. Offensively, the fact that the Pacers were sending a goalie to the nail against him in the second half, when he passed out to Malachi for three and made the step-back to his left, shows the respect they had for his performance as well as the strategy to spray the ball out the perimeter. Did you think he should’ve been more aggressive during crunch-time?

Me: Definitely. Sometimes it’s hard to say that because he’s not a domineering presence on offense and he doesn’t have the cache to wave everyone off and command possessions. It seemed to me that the Raptors wanted to work through Scottie and Thad late — learning opportunity for Scottie, dependability of Thad’s decision making — but it would have been really nice to see the Raptors ride or die with his decision making considering how much he was driving the offense in this one. On top of all that: Pacers legend Thad Young returns with his best game in a long time. Thoughts??

Caitlin: One last note on Anunoby before delving into everyone’s favorite glue guy. When he had command of the ball during some of those late-game situations, it seemed like there was a few spots where he was just too deferential (i.e. passing out of a closeout to a frigid version of Gary Trent Jr. in the corner, and giving up possession when he had T.J. McConnell on a switch). Some of this is probably a two-way street for the reasons you laid out, but given the night that he had there were some prime opportunities to assert himself. As for Thad, my memories of him from tonight are unfortunately tied to whatever the minutes were supposed to be when the Pacers were playing McConnell, Nembhard, Nesmith, Brissett, and Jackson at the same time. Thad dominated during that stretch, but wow that was some awful basketball from Indiana’s side. If you had told me that the Pacers would play that lineup for almost six minutes, attempting six shots against eight turnovers, while also getting so little scoring from Haliburton and Mathurin, I would’ve assumed this was a lopsided loss.

Me: Opposite of the young stars of the Pacers, stood Scottie Barnes. I have to know what you thought of his performance.

Caitlin: This is going to be a shameless plug for our episode of your “Outside, Looking In” series, but my favorite play of his was from the beginning of the second quarter when he got the ball in the post against Nembhard out of a sidelines out of bounds play. Thad ducked in against McConnell around the dunker’s spot, allowing Scottie to throw a no-look dart to Boucher in the opposite corner. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seems like his sweet spot as a playmaker. Make the post a vehicle for assists! Otherwise, not a very efficient night from him. He played 39 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back (which is a lot!), but he showed some signs of fatigue and there were some rough spots where it seemed like he struggled to read the help while on the move. Has that been somewhat of a trend for him this season?

Me: Yes, absolutely. Scottie has only ever really thrived at reading the lanes in transition consistenly, where he’s phenomenal. There’s been pockets of genius in the halfcourt, truly, but it isn’t a consistent feature of his game and not something you can tether a halfcourt offense to. When teams start showing more attention it seems like his pupils dilate and the processing slows a bit. He likes to put a dribble down before he let’s a pass fly – I’m sure you know what I mean. That, plus teams pinching in has moved him into more of the undesirable pull-up shots since Siakam’s injury. It’s been tough, but if a player wants to eventually transcend to the next level they have to confront their limitations – if this is the best case scenario, that’s what he’s doing now.

Caitlin: He looked exhausted in the fourth quarter, particularly during the stretch when the Raptors tried to go zone. The Pacers flat-lined against Miami’s 2-3 a few games ago before they strangely went out of it, so Nurse’s strategy to change defenses was probably sound. But, Scottie looked really labored to move with the flight of the ball. After Mathurin made the three with him being late to contest, Nurse went back to man. That said, since I’m talking to my favorite Canadian, I must know what you thought of the Canadian Pacers. Chris Duarte is injured, but Oshae Brissett actually played tonight and made an impact. Also, what were your first impressions of Nembhard and Mathurin?

Me: I don’t think Nembhard is supposed to blow my mind, just slide in as a positive in a bunch of places and he did that. Quiet, but made a couple really incredible reads as a connector (the lob especially). Getting a guy who you know will be a positive in the NBA from his rookie szn onward is really impressive for a second rounder. Brissett was on the positive end of one of the Raptors worst defensive breakdowns of the year, and he had a really great corey cut (I think) for a layup. Mathurin though, really impressed me despite it not being his biggest night. If you hit pull-up threes, I think I’m in. Not to mention a super heady cut against the weak-side (and Scottie’s utter collapse off ball for his made triple). None of his assists came on impressive reads or anything like that, so no comment there, but it’s just great to see how he mixes his shooting and movement to bring immediate offense to the Pacers. The Canadian Pacers didn’t disappoint in the slightest.

Caitlin: You are easy to please. The fact that Nembhard was matched-up against Barnes from the tip says a lot about Nembhard as well as the lack of wings on the roster. He got into foul trouble early (obviously), but he’s typically who the Pacers assign to the opposing team’s top option — so, at least you got a peek at that, even if not the full “Mathurin is god-like, scoring 20 points in a quarter and getting to the line 10X in a half” experience. I will say, I was very bummed that Pascal Siakam wasn’t available for this one. Because Indiana and Toronto have played very similar schedules, I have not had the chance to watch much of his early-season dominance aside from his late-game masterclass against Miami. How much would he have changed the complexion of this game in the fourth quarter?

Me: Not to do the “my guy is the best, he’s the best guy” thing, but Siakam radically changes every offensive drought for the Raptors. The very attention the Pacers threw toward those bully drives, that’s what Siakam feasts on. The attention comes and he won’t surrender his dribble until it opens a gap or they leave him back in isolation. If he was left in isolation, he more than likely would have had his way. The ball touches his hands and the pressure is immediately applied from the middle of the floor. He’s a superstar and his eventual return is more than likely the largest sense of hope for Raptors fans who are watching their team struggle. I know you like his game a lot, so I know you agree, but he’s just fantastic at basketball. Also, any parting shots before we get out of here?

Caitlin: These two teams don’t play again until the day after the New Year, so hopefully he will be able to make the trip, wowing me once again with his languid finishes and ability to find tiny advantages along the way of his twisty path. What a fun player! Plus, if we’re being honest, competitive losing is probably more ideal for the current trajectory of the Pacers. I’m already circling January 2 on my calendar.

Hope everyone enjoyed the read.

Have a blessed day.

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