Oh (sigh) Canada!
How fitting that on Canadian Basketball Night, it was a rookie from a small town in Ontario who waved the proverbial flag with pride and conviction. Aurora native Andrew Nembhard, playing his first game in Toronto, led the Pacers with 25 points and 10 assists as Indiana would collect a crucial 118-114 victory over the Raptors. By sweeping the season series for the first time since the 2011-12 season, Indiana gained ground on the final play-in spot as Chicago (and Washington) also lost on Wednesday night.
While the Pacers were without their All-Star Tyrese Haliburton and somewhat-Canadian Chris Duarte, the Raptors were surprisingly short three players that were not on yesterday’s injury report. The wrist injury Scottie Barnes sustained in Sunday’s loss in Milwaukee is being viewed as a “day-to-day” injury, according to Nick Nurse. Joining Barnes on the sidelines was Gary Trent Jr., who hurt his elbow on a fall — also during the Bucks game. This type of “luck” normally happens in three, so it was almost unsurprising to learn of a third Raptors injury. Precious Achiuwa felt hamstring tightness over the last 24 hours and was forced to sit this one out.
Picking up the slack for the Raptors were their two All-Stars. Fred VanVleet had 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 steals, while Pascal Siakam finished with 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists. Freddy was as steady as he could have been in the first half. By keeping the Raptors afloat, VanVleet opened the door for Pascal to take over in the second half.
Siakam was unstoppable in the final two quarters. He had 7 points in the third quarter and 18(!) in the fourth. Whether he was drawing fouls (all 11 of his free throw attempts came after halftime) or driving with purpose, Indiana did not have an answer for Spicy P.
Nurse spoke pre-game about Toronto’s size advantage and the Raptors responded with consistent aggression. In the third quarter, the Raptors got into the bonus only 4 minutes into the frame. That same aggression led to Toronto getting into the bonus (again) in the first 4 minutes of the fourth quarter.
Fred was a constant source of offense in the first half. His 14 points and 4 assists in the first half don’t fully illustrate how much the team depended on him. With three rotation players missing, the offense struggled for much of the first half. VanVleet didn’t shoot the ball especially well (4-for-14 from the field, 2-for-7 from three) in the first two quarters, but he was able to get buckets when no one else could and, more importantly, worked the two-man game to perfection with Jakob Poeltl. The Austrian finished with 23 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals on 10-for-12 shooting.
with Bennedict Mathurin, Oshae Brissett and Andrew Nembhard in the starting lineup tonight, it marks the first time in @NBA history three players from Canada will start together on the same team. pic.twitter.com/a1X4AIAtHr— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 22, 2023
With Indiana’s plethora of Canadian basketball players, it only made sense that this game was also Canadian Basketball Night. The Pacers obliged by starting Nembhard, Bennedict Mathurin, and former Raptor Oshae Brissett. It’s not uncommon to see hometown players perform well when they play in front of family and friends at Scotiabank Arena. In the first half, it was Nembhard who answered the call, leading all scorers with 16 points to go along with 4 assists as he consistently found daylight against Toronto’s defense. If he wasn’t getting free from a Myles Turner screen, Nembhard used his speed to blow by Fred VanVleet or show off his range when he hit a pair of three-pointers.
His backup, TJ McConnell, was just as successful at picking apart Toronto’s defense. He snaked through the 2-3 zone with ease, “Nashed” through the paint to hit fadeaways, or simply blew by any defender that approached him. Nick Nurse spoke before the game about Toronto’s size advantage and the Raptors needing to stay home on Indiana’s many shooters. The Pacers must have been listening because they constantly drove into the paint knowing Toronto would not have the requisite rim protection. McConnell finished the first half with 6 points, 4 assists, and 2 steals.
With three rotation players missing, Nurse turned to Will Barton as Scottie’s replacement in the starting lineup. That.....didn’t go too well. Barton shot poorly from the field (2-for-8), missing all five of his three-point attempts. Jeff Dowtin came in for some spot minutes but between his workload with the 905 and lack of experience with the big boys, Nurse then turned to — gulp — Malachi Flynn.
As far as surprises go, Toronto going on a 12-2 run after Flynn checked in had to be one of the biggest. Give Indiana credit for withstanding Toronto’s run. After the Raptors reclaimed the lead 73-71, the Pacers ended the quarter on a 12-5 run.
The fourth quarter was much of the same: Toronto would make a run, Indiana would respond. Mathurin only had five field goal attempts, but he took them when it mattered. The Montreal native scored 7 of his 15 points in the final frame.
He may not have had as big of a night as his Canadian teammates, but Brissett made sure he made the highlight reels.
Oshae Brissett gets up a POSTER dunk on Jakob Poeltl pic.twitter.com/2u1EtlEXWA— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 23, 2023
Toronto’s depth was really put to the test. With Fred, Pascal, and Jakob all carrying the offensive load and O.G., even with a quiet game offensively, doing his thing on the defensive end, Nurse still needed one more body to close the game. At first, he went with Chris Boucher, but Indiana’s quicker squad ran him off the floor. With more shooting needed, Nurse then went back to his third-quarter sparkplug, Flynn. That seemed to work as the Raptors grew their fourth-quarter lead to 90-86.
As crunch time approached and the Pacers held the lead, Indiana answered every Raptor point with a score of their own. The crowd was loud and the Raptors had closed the gap to 104-102 when Myles Turner converted a crucial and-one with 3:28 to play. Later on, again after closing the gap to two, it was Turner again with a clutch bucket, this time pushing the lead to 111-107.
Fittingly, the dagger came from Nembhard.
Andrew Nembhard is CLUTCH!— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 23, 2023
he drills the three to extend the Pacers lead. pic.twitter.com/1Qayvrq182
All hope is not lost for Toronto. They still sit in the ninth spot but Atlanta, Chicago and Washington also lost tonight. With three more games in this home stand, including two winnable games against Detroit and Washington up next, the Raptors are still in the driver’s seat to get into the 7-8 position of the play-in tournament. Assuming none of the injuries to Barnes, Achiuwa, and/or Trent Jr. are too serious, the Raptors should get back to their winning ways shortly.
On this night, though, the Canadian team was outdone by a trio of Canadians.