As has been repeatedly acknowledged this season, the Raptors are a deep team. They’ve got so many usable players it can often be difficult to find them all minutes on any given night. In truth, it’s a nice problem to have — but there are limits. When Toronto takes to the court minus its lead guard (Kyle Lowry) and both centres (Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas), that depth is put to the test. Especially against a fully healthy and engaged Indiana Pacers team looking to best one of its major conference rivals.
All of this is to say, it would be easy to give the Raptors a break if they had lost on Wednesday night to the Pacers. That they somehow didn’t lose sounds impossible, especially considering their play through the game’s first three quarters, and the accumulated stats suggesting they should have gotten killed. Instead, powered by Kawhi Leonard’s 28 point-10 rebound-6 assist-4 steal performance, some late-game heroic shot-making from Fred VanVleet (after he started the game 1-for-12), and swarming second half defense, the Raptors rallied to beat the Pacers, 99-96.
“To be honest, I was really disappointed with how we were playing,” said coach Nick Nurse of Toronto’s performance through most of the first three quarters. “We were just backing out of there, giving them the basket.” This is a concise assessment of the Raptors’ play, and it felt like it would be the summary on the night.
The lone bright spots of that run were Kawhi (of course), some solid post-play from Greg Monroe in the first half, and a little burst from young Chris Boucher in his first shift. At this point, Leonard’s work should not surprise — he was a terror on defense, hounding Victor Oladipo, Tyreke Evans, and anyone else who was foolish enough to rove near him. At the same time down low, Monroe did what was expected of him: 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting, with eight rebounds. And Boucher, bless him, opened the game with a block and a three, finishing with five points, two rebounds, and three blocks in just under ten minutes. Sure, the Raptors couldn’t stop the Pacers from getting to the rim, or hitting threes, but if they could just start hitting shots...
For the game, the Raptors shot 41 percent from the field as a team. They managed an anemic 7-of-30 from three, good for 23 percent on the night. Even dead-eye shooters like Kawhi (0-for-3) and Danny Green (1-for-6) could not make it happen from range. VanVleet, meanwhile, went 4-for-17 on the night, including a subpar 3-for-11 from deep. If not for the three in the final minute to secure the Raptors’ first lead since the opening seconds, it would have been an out-and-out disaster for VanVleet (and Toronto). But he did hit that shot, collecting a pass from Green, after a long rebound bounced back to the Raptors. Sometimes luck can break the right way.
But luck had nothing to do with the Raptors’ decision to turn it up on the defensive end. For most of the first half, Toronto couldn’t stop Indiana at all. Domantas Sabonis was having his way in the post (12 and 10 on 5-of-10 shooting), Myles Turner was everywhere (14 rebounds, five blocks), Bojan Bogdanovic was making it rain (18 points on 3-of-6 shooting from three), and Oladipo was having himself a game (20 points, some incredible circus shots). And all the Raptors could do was search, and search, and search.
With Indiana’s lead ballooning to 17 in the third, coach Nick Nurse was trying every lineup combination he could to find what clicked for Toronto. Norman Powell got 15 minutes in his first game back from injury, C.J. Miles was given a few tries to get going, at one point Malachi Richardson and Boucher were in the game together, and then, somehow, Lorenzo Brown checked in for the first time midway into the final quarter (much to our chagrin). That 17-point lead somehow marked the turning point. The Raptors’ injuries had officially driven everyone mad. Then Kawhi got a monster hammer dunk, Toronto’s ultra-switch (and zone) defense got cooking — leading to 23 Indiana turnovers (and 23 points off those TOs) — and things started to turn.
“We just played with energy,” said Pascal Siakam of the Raptors’ second half flow, a time in which he played mostly at centre. “We’ve got a lot of guys with length that can do different things. We just used it, switching and just playing harder than we did in the first half.”
When Danny Green pulled up lame for a shift in the fourth it felt like a cosmic joke. Him too? But his quick return only made the story feel complete. At 92-92 after a driving lay-up from Siakam — who had 17 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists in a nice performance after hurting his back — it truly did feel like anything was possible. The Raptors had managed to patch together a ludicrous 24-11 fourth quarter. VanVleet hit his game-winning three, and then Green iced it with a pair of free throws. And then, just for good measure, the Raptors managed to bottle up Oladipo, win a jump ball, and knock the ball away from Bogdanovic in the final final seconds to keep the Pacers from even getting a shot at the win.
Despite Nurse’s belief in his 12 “interesting” healthy players, not all of them are exactly deserving of such optimism — at least not when all playing at the same time. Still, I don’t know, there is some weird motivating energy in watching this motley crew come together to beat the Pacers (or, if it happens, any NBA team). This isn’t the true Raptors squad, the one with all its proper moving parts, the one with Finals aspirations. We won’t often see Zo Brown recover a rebound and try to dunk it on Myles Turner with the game on the line, for example. Just like we won’t often see Kawhi out there trying to make a pick-and-roll work with Malachi Richardson.
But it is the kind of game that builds a team’s character, making them collectively deeper in practice instead of merely in principle. If Toronto had lost the game, we would have said ah well, what can they do? That they won suggests something else that’s a lot more fun to contemplate: what can’t they do?