The Raptors failed to sweep their mini-series against the Indiana Pacers despite Kyle Lowry’s return to action in the second game. Toronto was unable to match the defensive intensity that carried their team the previous night. They also did not have the same success behind the arc, giving them a much slimmer margin for error. And boy did they ever make some errors during Monday night’s game.
Still, as we recapped here and here, the Raptors managed to stay within striking distance of the Pacers. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, really those final 10 minutes, when things really fell apart for the Raptors. This time there was no Pascal Siakam around to help (or use as a scapegoat), and Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren, former assistant to coach Nick Nurse, knew how to exploit Toronto’s ongoing issues.
Before the collapse, the Raptors had a successful third quarter, outscoring the Pacers 37-28 behind an aggressive 1-2-2 zone defense that would shift into a 2-3 zone when the ball got lower than the above-the-break area. Meanwhile, Toronto capitalized on the Pacers’ defensive weakness in transition after every miss or live-ball turnover. At the end of the frame, it felt like the Raptors could pull out another shorthanded win in Indiana.
Fourth Quarter Woes
The final period saw the Raptors and the Pacers in a tight contest, with Toronto trailing 97-98. However, OG Anunoby was then taken out a minute into the quarter after taking Edward Sumner’s elbow to his mouth. Chris Boucher, who played most of the third, replaced Anunoby. The Raptors were down OG’s presence on the offensive end, but the Stanley Johnson-Boucher-Yuta Watanabe frontcourt was still solid enough defensively.
Let’s get into what happened over the next nine minutes. First, the Pacers’ starters Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon returned to the game, while DeAndre’ Bembry replaced Stanley Johnson for Toronto. Now, to break down the breakdown.
Q4 - 8:41 - What are you doing, Bembry?
As seen above, Watanabe has inside position on Turner already. Bembry, coming off a rotation from the baseline, directs Watanabe to rotate to the perimeter to take on T.J. McConnell, who’s not a threat even if he gets the ball there. Bembry now has to battle Turner down low, and ends up ceding the offensive rebound. As a result, Turner gets fouled for two more free throws.
Also part of the play: Boucher looked lost following the ball during the entire play, and the team had very little communication on defense. Fortunately, Turner made 1-of-2. Pacers now lead 103-102.
Q4 - 8:33 - Bad spacing
Here we see Norman Powell and Boucher set up for a pick-and-roll, but Norm refuses the screen to avoid the potential blitz. It was the right move, as the Pacers were overplaying the pick and Powell almost had a clean lane for a dunk. Unfortunately, Aaron Holiday was able to contest his shot, forcing a miss. Of course, Holiday was already roaming, as he did not have to respect Bembry as a threat behind the arc.
Q4 - 8:00 - Bembry breaking the glass in case of emergency
Lowry refused to attack the pick-and-roll set by Boucher, instead kicking out to Bembry, who was momentarily open in the perimeter. Bembry drove to the paint where three defenders were waiting for him. He found a wide-open Watanabe for a corner three (good!), but Yuta bricked it (bad!). Brogdon and Turner went on to run a well-executed pick-and-roll action the following play to open up Brogdon for a three-pointer. On defense, Powell didn’t put up much of a fight through screens, and Boucher, with a bad read, got caught in between the action, unable to defend either play. Pacers lead 106-102.
The Raptors’ next possession had Lowry second-guessing what to do. He was able to shed McConnell via Boucher’s pick in the backcourt, and he looked open for a perimeter shot. He took advantage of the opening, but it didn’t work out. (I blame Lowry’s toe infection, which had to still be bothering him.) Watanabe grabbed the rebound and attacked the basket, drawing a foul. The dead ball situation allowed Fred VanVleet to come in for Lowry.
Q4 - 7:21 - What makes Allen Iverson upset
The Raptors ran a SLOB play to get the ball to Powell, with him setting up on the weak side and Boucher waiting to give him an off-ball screen. Brogdon fights through the screen and snuffs the play, giving Watanabe two options: give the ball to Powell near half-court or give the ball to Bembry, who came up as another pass receiver.
He goes with the latter, which leads to Bembry and Watanabe executing a pick-and-roll. But the Pacers’ blitz pushes Bembry near the logo too with no concrete plan. To try and save the possession, Bembry tosses Powell a grenade with just four seconds to shoot, which means Norm has to put up a bad pull-up three-point attempt.
Q4 - 6:59 - Turner pick-and-roll, rinse and repeat
The Pacers came back running another pick-and-roll involving Turner, this time with the ball in McConnell’s hands. The blown coverage between Watanabe and Boucher has them both going after McConnell, which allows Turner to roll towards the basket. He’s fouled in the process, pushing the Pacers lead to 108-102. Fortunately, the Raptors came back with a nice set play, allowing Powell to quickly get up for the dunk, cutting the lead to 104-108.
Q4 - 6:20 - Defense in more trouble
The Raptors’ defense was late on closing out Brogdon’s drive to the basket, but Johnson stays with him the whole time. Boucher also comes over to offer additional rim protection — though Johnson maybe doesn’t need the help. It forces Brogdon to kick it out to McConnell in the weakside corner. VanVleet probably closes out too hard here — or perhaps he was just tired.
McConnell is a career 33 percent behind the arc, and even if he made one earlier that game, he hasn’t had made multiple three-pointers in a game since the last regular season game of 2018. So, of course, McConnell attacks the closeout and is able to get a layup on a slow-to-recover Boucher. Pacers push their lead to 110-104.
Bembry finally does something good the following play, forcing McConnell’s turnover, which spurs a Raptors attack in transition. Unfortunately, VanVleet tries to go into hero mode, attempting a difficult layup against multiple defenders. At the same time, Bembry and Powell are wide open on the perimeter for a kick-out. Bembry has the presence of mind to crash the boards and somehow tip in VanVleet’s miss, cutting the lead to 110-106.
The Raptors defended the Pacers’ next possession well for 20 seconds. Credit to Turner here, he hits tough hook shot over Boucher’s outstretched arms. Maybe Bembry could have done more with the double team, seeing that Turner was not in a position to kick-out with just a few second left on the shot clock. Presumably, if that was Lowry or VanVleet, they would have dug in to force an even tougher shot, or perhaps a miss (or maybe even a steal — but that’s wishful thinking after-the-fact). The Pacers bump up their lead to 112-106.
Q4 - 4:50 - Lucky Bounce
Bembry attacks the basket hard trying to dunk on people’s heads, but he misses. Fortunately for Toronto — and they needed all the help they could get by this point — the ball bounces all the way back out to Boucher on the perimeter. He wisely makes a quick swing pass to VanVleet for a deep three-pointer. Now it’s 112-109 for Indy. Unfortunately, on the next play, the breaks of the game go against Toronto. The Raptors almost get a stop, with Boucher diving in for a steal but then getting ruled out of bounds. You can see Nurse calling a timeout in the background.
Nurse said the refs missed him calling for a timeout here -- It's really close, but I'm not sure if Nurse has a case here. Either the refs couldn't hear him through the mask, or he blended in the background with his all-black attire. pic.twitter.com/9HxCpPa1N5— JD Q. ***Yuta Watanabe F-F-Fan Kurabbu*** (@jdkeyrants) January 27, 2021
The Pacers go back to another Brogdon-Turner pick-and-roll, but this time the Raptors are playing closer man-to-man defense. Johnson switches to Brogdon, but can’t quite stay in front of him on the drive. Johnson’s slight bump results in another foul, instead of Lowry’s anticipatory drawn charge call. Brogdon’s and-1 pushes the lead back up to 115-109, and maybe finally breaks Toronto’s will.
The Raptors come back with another tired legs play with not much working on offense. In the process, VanVleet fumbles the ball a bit trying to get in the paint, Powell has to create a drive-and-kick opportunity for VanVleet. And when the ball gets out to Fred... he air-balls the three-pointer.
Q4 - 3:29 - Snowballed from here
Indiana gets yet another successful Brogdon-Turner pick-and-roll — it’s this kind of offensive reliability the Raptors are missing when Siakam is out — which nets them two more free throws. In their efforts, the Raptors are again late on their help defense and recovery and the game is now fully slipping away, with Toronto down 117-109. Anunoby returns after getting stitches in his mouth, but he’s non-factor the rest of the way. Lowry, meanwhile, draws a foul on a dribble-hand-off play, stopping the clock and getting him two free throws. But by this time, it’s too little to late. After a foul on Lowry, and more free throws, it’s 118-111 with three minutes to go.
From there we see a contested floater from Lowry, more Turner free throws, and Norm getting blocked by Turner too. Not even Anunoby, who’s been playing great could help, as his drive-and-kick to Boucher in the corner for three was a brick. Meanwhile, Brogdon, like Turner, just continued to have his way with Toronto’s defense. Unlike Sunday’s game, the Raptors could do little to stop him or Turner, and that was that on Monday night.
Ultimately, the Raptors failed to adjust to the whistle. But more importantly, they were unable to counter the Pacers’ adjustments in the fourth. After outfoxing Indy on Sunday, the Pacers game-planned Monday night’s game really well. To start with, they made life difficult for Toronto’s primary ball handlers, picking them up fullcourt and funneling them into other Pacers defenders.
By doing this, the Pacers got Lowry and VanVleet to give up the ball by blitzing their screen actions. With Siakam to also help with the ball, Toronto was stuck and Nurse failed to come up with any other counter that worked, which allowed the Pacers to dictate who would run Toronto’s scrambled offense.
The Pacers also showed no respect to the Raptors’ ancillary players’ perimeter shooting, repeatedly leaving Watanabe, Johnson, Bembry, and even Lowry open on the perimeter. The Raptors didn’t help matters by often failing to recognize when and where open teammates were from moment to moment. On the flip side, Toronto made terrible decisions by closing out on poor shooters like Aaron Holiday and T.J. McConnell, which often led to free throws, if not easy layups.
With all of these happening, Nurse was then dealt an even worse hand when Anunoby had to leave the game to get medical attention. Anunoby’s absence led to a massive drop off on the Raptors’ defensive effectiveness. Pressed into extended minutes, Bembry’s presence was odd in this game — he could force a turnover, sure, but other than that, he was not a factor defensively and was not in sync with his teammates’ defensive rotations. He was also treated with the same disrespect as Aron Baynes on the perimeter.
Not to put it all on him, but VanVleet outlined Toronto’s defensive issues in the fourth quarter — they were not guarding and containing the ball, which allowed easy penetration from the Pacers’ playmakers. In all, Toronto just wasn’t making those extra needed rotations, and part of that comes from making the right ones on time.
During his post-game interview, Nurse said the Raptors were not allowed to be physical given how the game was officiated. He has a case here, as the Pacers were allowed to bump, grab, and hold without getting those ticky-tack fouls the Raptors were whistled for throughout the game. However, the whistle was at least consistently unfavourable to the Raptors from the opening tip onward. It’s easy to say this, but nevertheless: the team should have adjusted better to how the game was being called. In this, tired legs led to obvious grabbing, reach-ins, and late rotations that only made things worse.
Toronto just did not do themselves any favours in any facet of Monday’s game down the stretch. Lowry did not look right, VanVleet looked gassed, there was no Siakam to draw attention, the defense got overly scrambled, and the offense was left entirely lifeless by the final buzzer. Could the Raptors have done something differently — maybe playing more of Matt Thomas or giving Paul Watson a look? It’s possible, but given how many things were working against them internally against the Pacers, it doesn’t seem likely they alone would have turned it around for the Raptors.