Digging deep with their best defensive effort of the season, the Raptors clamped down Domantas Sabonis and the Indiana Pacers, 107-102, for a satisfying Sunday afternoon win. Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry’s absence made this feel like a sure-bet schedule loss, but coach Nick Nurse and the squad had other things in mind. In that collective effort, OG Anunoby shouldered the scoring load, pouring in 30 points (two shy of his career-high), eight rebounds, and five steals. But the Raptors relied on their aggressive swarming defense and effective team rebounding to secure the win.
For the Pacers, Sabonis had a rough afternoon despite notching another double-double (10 points, 19 rebounds). Anunoby and Stanley Johnson made life difficult for him, with their teammates’ help, limiting his touches and pushing him into a 1-for-10 shooting line. At the same time, Fred VanVleet locked in on Malcolm Brogdon, holding him to just 12 points on 5-for-22 shooting, along with four turnovers, including a costly one late in the game. If not Myles Turner, who led the Pacers with 25 points and six blocks, and some timely shooting from the likes of Jeremy Lamb, this could well have been a blowout for Toronto.
The game’s first bucket came from a streaking Aron Baynes, who caught the ball in traffic and made the layup despite pressure Sabonis. In an encouraging turn for Toronto, Baynes followed it up with a three-pointer and gave a decent passing outlet on the short-roll as the Pacers forced VanVleet to give up the ball. Still, despite providing some solid rim protection against the Pacers in the first quarter, Baynes didn’t see any minutes for the rest of the half.
To combat the Pacers on the afternoon, Nurse decided to lean on his team’s defensive versatility while pushing the ball at every opportunity. To support that effort, the Raptors’ perimeter shooting kept their heads above the water early, as they hit 6-of-8 behind the arc in the first quarter, with a flawless 3-for-3 from OG. The Pacers put a lot of on-ball pressure on VanVleet, knowing he was one of the only Raptors who could create with the ball in his hands, and their interior defense sucked the life out the Raptors’ offense inside the arc. The first intermission came with the game tied at 24.
The second quarter saw the teams alternate from the Pacers trying to collapse the Raptors’ defense through Sabonis while the Raptors raced off every Pacers miscue to get a bucket ahead of a set defense. In other words, it was a good situation for Yuta Watanabe to flex some of his stuff. Watanabe didn’t stuff the stat sheet (three points, six boards, two assists), but he provided excellent energy and activity, as well as the ability to push the ball to get things started for the Raptors.
At the quarters’ halfway mark, a 9-0 run behind Anunoby and Norman Powell’s back-to-back three-pointers, which helped him to 20 points on the day, and pulled the Raptors ahead 45-37. At the same time, Sabonis’ paint pressure forced the Raptors into the bonus, and he made several trips to the line. For the most part, the Raptors’ points in the paint all came from hustle plays until Anunoby went into beast mode, looking unstoppable in the post. OG was working so well in there he even made Sabonis look weak trying to defend him.
The Raptors entered the half with a 58-47 cushion, but no lead is safe in the NBA nowadays. Nurse made some adjustments to start the second half, this time putting Anunoby on Sabonis. As per usual, OG made Sabonis work hard to get in position, forcing him into an uncomfortable 0-for-3 in the frame. However, the Raptors also had their own share of offensive struggles. The Pacers’ defense go the ball out of VanVleet’s hands and, combined with their interior defense, limited the Raptors to just six points in the last six minutes of the quarter. Going the other way, T.J. McConnell provided a spark, helping the Pacers to a 13-2 run to close the 3rd quarter, and cutting the Raptors lead down to 77-75.
Raptors killer Jeremy Lamb opened the final frame with a three-pointer which gave the Pacers the lead for the first time since midway through the second quarter. But with the game tied at 82, the Raptors went on an 8-0 run, largely thanks to back-to-back trifectas from VanVleet, good for six of his 21 points on the afternoon. The Raptors traded free throws with the Pacers, who were either hitting a three-pointer or drawing an and-1, which means things got hairy for the last five minutes of the game.
Case in point: with three minutes to go and the Raptors clinging again to a narrow two-point lead, Stanley Johnson’s floater got Toronto some separation, but Turner responded with a three-point play to cut the lead to one again. Anunoby and Turner then exchanged three-pointers, while Brogdon finally found his touch with a layup really late to tie the game at 102 with one minute left. The Raptors’ hustle play did get rewarded though, as Anunoby was fouled by Brogdon as they both went up for an offensive rebound. But then OG split his free throws, putting the Raptors up by just one. All things considered, this was too much excitement for a Sunday afternoon.
With the game on the line, former Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren drew up a play to potentially steal the lead for Indiana, but VanVleet and the Raptors hunkered down and stopped Indiana from even getting a shot off. To add to the satisaction for Toronto, on the game’s final meaningful possession, the Pacers drew up another play to get the ball to Sabonis in the paint — a sure-fire option so far this season — but his attempts were blocked, first by Chris Boucher and then by Johnson for good measure. An unlikely but compelling way to see Toronto pull out the win.
There’s no time to get too excited though: the Raptors and Pacers are back at it again tomorrow at 7pm. And we still don’t know Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam’s status. Nurse and the Raptors may have to count on the same ragtag crew, as it were, to bring the same energy tomorrow.