I have a friend, Caitlin Cooper, who is one of the best basketball writers in the world – for my money anyway. She covers the Pacers, so we talked about what happened in the game. Enjoy!
Caitlin: heyyyy, that’s pretty great
Samson: Hahah, yes, very good. Okay, first question: 2 games of observing these Raptors vs. your Pacers, do you have broad stroke takeaways on the team from Toronto?
Caitlin: These two games were very different, right? The first game, after getting bullied by bully drives in the first half and racking up fouls, the Pacers forced the Raptors to spray the ball out to the perimeter and dared them to beat them from three — which they couldn’t. Tonight, the Raptors made more threes in the first half than they normally average per game, but they couldn’t slow the Pacers in transition and then ultimately ran out of gas. So, between these two games and what else I’ve seen from the Raptors this season, I guess I would say they remind me of the economic concept of stagflation. As soon as they correct one end of the floor, the other end of the floor becomes the problem. Is that fair?
Samson: Yes, that’s accurate. The Raptors continue to attempt to juggle a couple different high stakes playstyles at once, and are failing at roughly… everything. I have a couple Q’s regarding Pascal, now that you’ve seen him against the Pacers. The Pacers broadcast compared his form of offensive initiation to Paul George, who you just saw, so I’m curious what you think of that. Additionally, he had a really quiet second half that saw a few different looks from the Pacers defensively. What did you think of their plan of attack, and Pascal/the Raptors response?
Caitlin: So, if the Raptors had won, I think his start to the third quarter probably would’ve been the reason why. That stretch where he scored or assisted on back-to-back and-ones and then found O.G. for three keyed that big 26-9 run. He was reading every dig down during that stretch, whether attacking in isolation or when the Pacers were helping from the post entry passer. I’m sure this is a tired talking point among the Toronto-faithful, but I honestly thought a lot of the change for him had to do with the minutes load. He played almost 40 and all of the starters for the Pacers played under 35. The signs of fatigue were visible. Shots were short. He couldn’t stick with Buddy (of all drivers!) at the top of the key. Guys were grabbing their shorts at the free throw line. That said, I did think that the Raptors left some meat on the bone, particularly during the minutes when he was on the floor against the bench. Mathurin was defending him at the POA and one of his biggest weaknesses as a defender is switching off the pick-and-roll and impacting passes to the roller. I realize that Toronto doesn’t have a lot of options for roll-gravity, but it seemed like involving Siakam and Barnes in more two-man game might’ve touched a nerve. Before I answer about Paul George, is there a reason why you think Nick Nurse is reluctant to involve them more simultaneously?
Samson: I have no idea! I just had a column come out today suggesting more of that exact pairing in that exact action haha. The potential worries might be no tag from the weakside. Or, that Siakam hasn’t historically been great at playmaking to his rollers. However, Barnes has been drawing tags, operating well in the middle of the floor (as you would’ve noticed tonight) and Siakam has been playmaking to rollers more often lately. So, one just has to hope it happens more going forward.
Caitlin: One also could hope that it would’ve happened more tonight, but I digress. I did not hear what was said about Siakam in relation to Paul George, but I do have quite a bit of experience watching Paul George. Of course, he’s a very different player now than he was when he played in Indiana. His handle is tighter, and he’s trusted to make more plays for others with the Clippers than he ever was during his tenure with the Pacers. On Saturday, when he scored 40+ points, the Pacers started half-court trapping him at the start of the fourth quarter and ended up giving up some really easy scores at the rim in 4-on-3 situations out of his passes. Granted, their trapping can be rickety because of their lack of size, but that also speaks to how much the game has slowed down from him over the years. In that sense, the comparisons to Siakam are probably apt. But, I don’t know that I think they are that similar stylistically. The best description I can come up with off the top of my head is that Paul George rises up and floats, where Siakam slithers and squeezes through tight spaces, finding tiny advantages along the way of his path. That said, you’ve watched Pascal far more than I have, so maybe you disagree?
Samson: I agree with you in their differences. Although the broadcast didn’t elaborate fully, I’d imagine they meant the 45-extended touches etc. However! I didn’t see that game from two nights ago, and you didn’t hear tonight’s broadcast. A terrible question on my end considering the context we’re both missing. What we do have context for is the fantastical off-ball/on-ball dynamism of both Mathurin and Hield. Outside of O.G., I think everyone struggled containing them. Do you think a rotation heavy defense like the Raptors is more ill-equipped to deal with their stylings?
Caitlin: First of all, shoutout to Anunoby. That defensive possession he had against Hield in the second half where he completed blanketed him on the hand-off was very impressive, not to mention that he also fronted Myles Turner and started the game defending Haliburton at the point of attack. I can’t think of another defender this season who I’ve seen do all of those things in the same game against the Pacers. To answer your question though, Buddy doesn’t get enough credit for his continuous spacing as far as relocating and ghosting switches. I’m guessing that’s why the Raptors switched that match-up after halftime, with O.G. mainly defending Buddy. By the end of the game, Haliburton was just beating the first level of the defense and kicking to the corner. Again, signs of fatigue. Mathurin, meanwhile, made a few tough shots, but the Raptors really let him get loose in transition. Generally speaking, if I were advising a team how to defend him, the best strategy is to switch up the line when he explodes around pindowns into hand-offs, forcing him to create or pass with meetings of three. He’s at his best when he’s curling screens with his defender trailing, which I believe is how he scored his first points of the game. He’s also scored similarly out of horns-get, where he got a screen at the elbow with Malachi in rearview pursuit. Lastly, this is a shameless plug for the article I wrote today about the power of his jab-step, but he’s a very twitchy. So, it’s important not to overreact to his foot fakes. He often makes himself a weapon before he puts the ball on the floor. While we’re talking about defending exciting young players, I have to get your opinion on how the Pacers were guarding Barnes. Have any teams sagged off of him that much this season?
Samson: Yes! He’s seen quite a bit of this, this season. What was new, or new-ish, was how purposeful he was as a screener in this game. And then, eventually, how we crab dribbled in the lane and successfully navigated the middle for his own scoring. How lucky for you, Caitlin, that you happened to catch one of the best games of Scottie’s season! I’m very curious to hear what you thought of how he played in that space on offense, and additionally, tried to shrink space on defense.
Caitlin: It’s interesting because Myles Turner has been used more in one-man zone and as a weak-side rim protector than in past seasons, where he mainly would swallow up pick-and-roll actions. The Pacers really want to keep him low around the basket, so there’s actually games where Buddy Hield will defend the opposing team’s center so they can switch with Turner roaming off the least threatening shooter or lowest usage wing. This is going to sound like a strange comparison because they really aren’t very similar players, but Scottie reminded me a little bit of watching Sabonis with regard to spacing the floor with playmaking. He wasn’t always looking at the rim, but he was immediately flowing into hand-offs and screening (as you pointed out), which was creating open shots, particularly for GTJ. I thought there were a few spots in the second half where he could’ve been more aggressive to take the space first instead of allowing his momentum to be broken, but that crab-dribble against Myles, where he was patient in keeping the stunt from Mathurin at bay and then squared himself to the rim like a drone was special. Defensively, after watching the win over Phoenix, I thought he might draw the assignment against Haliburton and then switch onto Turner, given how successful that was against Chris Paul and Ayton. Why do you think that Nurse went with O.G. and then turned to VanVleet in the second half?
Samson: My best guess is that he felt better about the Raptors containing Haliburton with lesser defenders, and Hield — with his unbelievably underrated game, please god let him play with Pascal — got the O.G. look, as you mentioned. This year, the Raptors aren’t a top tier defense, and they feel the drop off between certain matchups more than they used to. They picked their poison, as it were. As far as Scottie taking the Haliburton check? I think that would go poorly. You and I have talked about how great Haliburton is at moving off-ball, and with how high Scottie likes to ride ball handlers? I think death by back cuts would’ve been the case, and they could’ve made this kind of stuff happen prior to engaging a screen for a switch, for example. Who knows, though? What I need to know, is what you thought of the absolutely mind melting chaos of the Precious Achiuwa minutes??
Caitlin: When Haliburton plays off-ball, which isn’t often, he mainly spots-up, ghosts screens, or explodes out of the corner back to the ball — unless he’s cutting in front of a switch. He doesn’t quite have the same off-ball activity and instincts as Mathurin, but I see your point. As for the Precious chaos, it’s possible that both teams were in some sort of fugue state, at least during the second quarter. Shots were being blocked, dunks were being missed, and the ball was being flung everywhere as though it was the first time that either team had played against a zone. At long last, I breathed a sigh of relief when Nurse held up five fingers signaling for the Raptors to switch back to man, with the Pacers following closely behind. It was truly a breathtaking, four-minute stretch of basketball, during which I wondered how many minutes, if any, that group had played together for the Raptors, especially since Achiuwa has been on the shelf since early November. I think shortly thereafter was when the bench for the Pacers stayed in against the Raptors starters, which in addition to the huge discrepancy in bench scoring probably paid dividends in the fourth quarter with regard to how fresh Indiana’s starters still were. Is there something else I should take away from Achiuwa’s first game back in action?
Samson: No no, I think that was a perfect description. I’m excited that he’s back, but it was insanity of the good and bad kind tonight. Last question, and it’s about Fred VanVleet. If you didn’t know, a large swath of the Raptors fanbase wants him gone. Traded for a perceived upgrade, or for assets in the looming rebuild. I have to know your thoughts on how he played.
Caitlin: The catch-and-shoot drop-off from three is a bit stymying to me. I know he’s missed the last few games, but it’s not as if the slump was exclusive to only tonight. I don’t want to give you false hope about Buddy, and I try to judge by process rather than results, but if Buddy is the screener for Pascal on that possession with under five minutes to play when the Raptors were trailing 106-103, let’s just say I would’ve been a lot more confident in that shot going down. On the flip side (and I’m not at all suggesting that a Buddy-FVV swap would be feasible), I also couldn’t imagine Buddy defending Tyrese. As you can probably tell from my responses, I tend to see things through a Pacers-lens, so the overall situation reminds me a bit of what happened with Malcolm Brogdon last season. VanVleet is being asked to play more away from the ball in the games I’ve watched this season, whereas Brogdon was being overburdened at point, but it seems as though both players get rundown. From Indiana’s perspective, you can also now see how an upgrade at that spot, with Haliburton in place of Brogdon, has made a major difference — even though Brogdon is clearly a quality player in his own right. Overall, I don’t know what changes the Raptors should make, but I think I fall strongly on the side that says they need to make some. Who knows, maybe you and I will be doing this again before or after the trade deadline? After all, the Raptors have a lot of medium-sized players, and the Pacers have a slew of guards and centers. Just saying.
Samson: Let’s dance! Thank you very much for doing this, Caitlin
Have a blessed day.