Missing three key guys against a red-hot Indiana Pacers team coming off a tough loss, you knew the Toronto Raptors were in tough in this one. You knew it was gonna be a fight, and probably ugly, and that you’d probably see some things you hadn’t seen before this season.
You got it all last night.
When You’re Out to Dinner and You See Greg Monroe is the Leading Scorer
It’s the holidays, which means many a social gathering, which means fewer games watched in real time — and scores relayed intermittently throughout the evening.
Last night, shortly after arriving at a restaurant with some out of town family, my phone buzzed with the score at the end of first quarter. ESPN told me that the Raptors were trailing, and that Greg Monroe was leading all scorers with 10 points.
Obviously I knew Monroe was getting the start with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka on the shelf, but I didn’t think he’d be the focal point of the offence!
Upon watching the game when I got home, I was certainly relieved to find that his points came from two dump-offs from Kawhi Leonard, two putbacks and one beauty pick-and-roll pass from Leonard. Monroe was hardly the offensive centrepiece, he was just the right guy in the right place — which is exactly what you want Greg Monroe to be.
Chris Boucher Gave Us Some Fun Minutes
With the front court depleted you knew Chris Boucher was finally gonna get some real NBA run, and he looked...fine! Well, at one end. He canned a three, made a driving layup and had two blocks in the first quarter.
But, predictably, Damontas Sabonis repeatedly took advantage of the undersized Boucher on the other end. In fact you can’t even really say it was just the size — it was more taking advantage of Boucher’s inexperience, as Boucher got caught out of position multiple times, and Sabonis and the Pacers found multiple avenues to the rim on any simple screen action.
Greg Monroe was just about as guilty of this as well, and as a result, the two bigs only played a combined seven minutes in the second half.
As Michael Grange of Sportsnet covered recently, the Raptors haven’t had much practice time this season. That’s not uncommon, and generally speaking isn’t an issue, until you force little-used players into the rotation, because they haven’t had enough court time to learn the system. As the schedule slows — the Raptors are tied for most games played in the league — more practice time should emerge which will hopefully get everybody on the right page.
Good, Centre-less Minutes and Incredibly Weird Rotations
The Raptors went small with about 6:40 to go in the third quarter, bringing Anunoby in to replace Greg Monroe with the starters, and then Delon Wright and Norm Powell in for Fred VanVleet and Danny Green. It didn’t look good at first — the Pacers went on a 9-0 run — but the unit settled in, went into a zone and got a 16-point deficit down to 10 at the end of the third.
Then things got weird.
Boucher started the fourth, as did... Malachi Richardson? After less than two minutes, now down 13, Nick Nurse switched it up again, bringing Siakam back to close out the game at centre. It took the Raptors 3:15 to score, and then... Lorenzo Brown came in? A Siakam-VanVleet-Leonard-Green-Brown lineup!?! And then C.J. Miles had to spell Green for a bit when Green was banged up?!
And Brown, shockingly, was good! He played seven straight minutes, didn’t score, but grabbed three boards and played solid perimeter D, bottling up noted Raptor-killer Doug McDermott.
I honestly don’t know how that lineup did it, but they held Indiana to a mere nine points in Brown’s seven minutes, and only 11 in the entire quarter. The defense consistently got their hands on passes and rebounds, forced one 24-second violation, a jump ball with less than 10 seconds to go (that they won) and even an 8-second violation.
It was a hell of a defensive effort, and a hell of an exciting quarter.
Is the Kawhi Leonard Strip-Steal-Dunk the Best Play?
He did it to Tyreke Evans and Victor Oladipo both in the first half; the offensive player has the ball at the top, on the dribble, and attempts a simple change of pace or crossover... and Leonard gets his impossible hands on the ball, knocks it free, uses his strength to hold off the opposing player, picks it up and takes it the other way.
Sometimes it leads to a Raptors team fast break, but it’s most exciting when Leonard takes it himself, as he did last night, first leaving Evans in the dust, then later euro-stepping around Oladipo and dunking on top of the trailing Domantas Sabonis.
I don’t know if you can call it Leonard’s signature play but it’s one of the most exciting things to see in a Raptors game this year.
It’s Hard to Say Anything Negative about Kawhi After That One, But...
Kawhi Leonard was MVP-like again for the Raptors, despite the Pacers throwing everything at him — and manhandling him most of the night. Apparently Nick Nurse’s $15,000 worth of critical comments weren’t enough, because even though Leonard shot nine free throws, on multiple occasions he absorbed a ton of contact that went unnoticed by the officials.
That led to a lot of frustration from Leonard, which in turn led to this, with about 10 minutes to go in the game:
Regardless of how frustrated Kawhi is with not getting the calls, you can’t quit on the play like this pic.twitter.com/GVXKQ5lKee— Brian Swane (@BrianSwane) December 20, 2018
That’s not even a foul, but regardless — you can’t be loafing in transition D like that. Leonard isn’t the only superstar to do it; LeBron James is a regular practitioner, and Dwyane Wade may have perfected it. And Leonard, generally speaking, doesn’t seem to let missed calls affect his play. But he did on that occasion, and that Tyreke Evans layup could have been the difference maker as the game got close down the stretch.
Phew. I knew the result before I watched the game, and now it’s the next morning and I’m still buzzing about that fourth quarter. 11 points! Such great D from Danny Green and Fred VanVleet. Huge shot-making from VanVleet! Kawhi Leonard carrying the load! It was awesome.
And sure — OG Anunoby whacked Bojan Bogdanovic’s hand on the final play. But I’ll take it as karmic justice for the whack that robbed us of Jonas Valanciunas, thank you very much.