A better writer could probably phrase this more poetically, but whatever: holy crap, that was a damn impressive win by the Toronto Raptors.
Missing the team's best player, Kyle Lowry, for the second straight game, and Amir Johnson -- more or less the team's best defender -- the Raps were able to lean on their rapidly maturing sophomores, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, for the 102-94 win.
Ross poured in 24 points -- shooting 5-8 from the 3-point line -- showcasing an ever-improving off-the-bounce game that should have every Raps fan excited. Jonas was awesome at both ends of the floor -- 22 points and 9 rebounds last night for the young Lithuanian. He scored off post-ups, faced up Roy Hibbert and drained the mid-range jumper, and snared crucial offensive rebounds down the stretch. On defense he refused to be backed-down in the post, and more than held his own against a player who probably has a good 50 pounds on him.
Dwane Casey stuck to a tight rotation last night, partly because of the injuries, and partly because it was too risky to play the likes of Steve Novak as a small-ball 4 against the huge Pacers front-line. Those that did feature off the pine -- with the exception of...ugh...John Salmons -- contributed nicely. Chuck Hayes did some Chuck Hayes things, subbing in for Jonas and keeping the pressure on Hibbert defensively, and even draining 6 bonus points at the other end. Tyler Hansbrough battled hard at both ends, and threw down a massive, and key, put-back slam down the stretch.
The real spark off the bench, however, was former Spurs DNP-fodder, Nando de Colo. With Lowry out, and Greivis Vasquez starting, de Colo saw time as the secondary ball-handler, as well as stints playing in Casey's much-loved double point-guard line-up. The frenchman looked steady all night bringing the ball up the court. He played some crafty defense, and exhibited some great court vision -- he made one bullet pass underneath to Hansbrough that, if you squinted hard enough, looked Ginobli-esque. Most importantly, de Colo contributed 10 vital points.
Austin Daye is useless, de Colo much less so. He won't be lighting the box-score on fire too often, but that was a sneaky-decent trade by Mr. Ujiri.
On to some of the key moments...
The first quarter was...cliche-alert...a back-and-forth affair. Both teams shot well over 50% -- the Raps were 57% from the field, in fact. Terrence Ross was lighting-fast out of the blocks, scoring 10 points in the quarter, on 4-4 shooting. David West kept the Pacers together with his usual, brutally hard to cover, offensive game. The Pacers closed the quarter with a 28-27 lead, but they would soon regress to their very underwhelming mean.
In the opening 12 minutes the Raps had trouble containing dribble penetration from Paul George and Lance Stephenson, and later Donald Sloan (Greivis!!), but they cleaned things up in the second quarter. Hayes got a couple scores inside, and the Raptors really began moving the ball well. Against a team that defends in the half-court as well as the Pacers do -- for all their offensive woes, they're still a great defensive team -- constant movement off the ball is key. The Raps were playing smart.
With the Raps trailing 41-39, DeMar DeRozan penetrated and made a beautiful drop-off pass to the trailing Valanciunas who slammed it home to tie the game up. Shortly thereafter, Patrick Patterson, who struggled with West at the defensive end, nailed a 3 to put the Raps up by 5; and a couple possessions later Ross went coast-to-coast in transition to extend the lead to 8, capping off a 13-3 run.
The Raps closed the half with a 54-46 lead, having shot 53% through 24 minutes of basketball, racking up 15 assists on 23 made field-goals. All very impressive considering the fact that the Pacers have restricted teams to an average of 41% shooting on the season.
Like the Pacers' first quarter percentages, the Raps' offense was bound to come down to earth at some point. And it came down to earth with a thump in the 3rd quarter. The Pacers have restricted teams to 95.9 points per 100 possessions this season, and they clamped down on the Raps after the break.
After Patterson had put the Raps up by 10 (61-51) with a put-back slam, Indiana went to work. David West was key. Every time the Pacers needed a bucket they went to their power-forward who routinely obliged. West cut the lead to 5, before Paul George, who exploded in the second-half after a rough first (he finished with 26 points and 6 rebounds) further cut into the lead from the line. George seemed to gain some life from a brief scuffle with Salmons, who received a tech. He drained a 3 soon after, and the game was tied, 75-75, heading into the fourth.
After shooting just 36% in the third, the Raps composed themselves, and got back to work in the fourth. George drilled a 3 to put the Pacers up 80-77, but de Colo came right back down the other end with a trifecta of his own. A few possessions later Psycho T had his aforementioned put-back dunk, before a 3 by Ross gave the Raps an 85-82 lead.
George hit back with an another basket, followed by a 3-point play to put the Pacers up 91-88 -- he was really heating up by this point -- before DeRozan, who'd been shackled offensively for most of the night, made two big buckets to tie the game, 92-92.
Then, a crucial play. After West put the Pacers back up by 2, first Ross, and then Jonas, snared offensive boards to keep the possession alive, before Vasquez tied it 94-94 with a runner off the glass. The Pacers wouldn't regain the lead after that.
Jonas played some fine defense on Hibbert, before scoring off a Vasquez miss to give the Raps the 96-94 lead. That lead was extended with a 16-footer from Jonas after another offensive board from Ross; and after a couple bizarre Lance Stephenson plays -- 1-on-4 type garbage -- Ross and DeRozan sealed the deal at the line.
After that tough 3rd quarter the Raps bounced back to hold the Pacers to 36% shooting in the 4th, and beat them on the glass, 15-9.
With the win the Raps maintain their lead over Brooklyn as they inch closer to an Atlantic Division title, and home-court advantage in the first-round of the playoffs. The Raps have also navigated the toughest remaining segment of their schedule -- going a solid 2-1 against Miami, Houston, and Indiana. Four of the remaining six games on the schedule are against Eastern Conference roadkill, and the other two games are against the desperate, but less-than-impressive New York Knicks.
A win against the Milwaukee Bucks tonight -- a borderline-NBA team -- should be a mere formality.
Additional Game Notes
- As mentioned, DeMar DeRozan struggled getting his points tonight -- Paul George did a stellar job keeping him out of the paint. But, as I've said a gazillion times this season, DeRozan is now contributing when he isn't scoring. He court-vision is so much better now and it's awesome to see.
- Really impressed with Jonas' decision-making when he's deep in the post. He showed real patience there last night, and didn't look at all panicky or rushed. A very composed performance.
- Ross did a fantastic job losing Pacer defenders off screens. The Pacers did a less-than-fantastic job fighting through said screens.
- Patterson got out-muscled by David West, but his versatility on offense is a major plus for the Raps. Having a power-forward who can step out and shot the 3-ball, as well as score around the rim, is a nightmare for opposing defenses.
- I hate to get on John Salmons again, but after a really solid game against Houston, he was back to his zero-contributing self last night. Credit to Casey pulling him when he did.
- Roy Hibbert went from looking awful offensively in the regular season last year, to being Shaq-like in the playoffs. He's back to looking awful. He does so many great things on defense, but to only be shooting 45% from the field is unforgivable. Last night his offensive game consisted of posting-up 16 feet from the basket, and bricking ugly hook shots off non-existant footwork.
- Free-agency dollars are literally spilling from Lance Stephenson's pockets with every one of those out-of-control drives to the basket. I'm not so sure I'd give that guy big money in the off-season.
- Hindsight's 20-20, but the Pacers traded Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, and a first-round pick, for a washed-up Luis Scola. Yuck.
- If I end up being wrong, I end up being wrong, but the Pacers aren't good enough offensively to win 16 playoff games. I just can't see it happening.
- Overall, just a really impressive win from the Raps. What a great time to be a fan of this team.