Ostensibly it was a matchup between the best team in the Eastern Conference and the team that might be playing the best as the Pacers arrived having won seven straight before letting one drop at the buzzer on Tuesday.
But look a little closer and the game was an example of how opportunity in the NBA is always looking for a place to happen.
With three key rotation pieces out, the Raptors were essentially holding open auditions: Who was going to step into the roughly 81 highly productive minutes vacated by Kyle Lowry (thigh), Serge Ibaka (knee) and Jonas Valanciunas (thumb)?
The hope was for someone to take advantage and make a statement. Instead, the Raptors had to rely on a vintage fourth quarter from Kawhi Leonard, some trademark high-energy hoops from Pascal Siakam – back after missing a game with a sore back – and some timely triples from Fred VanVleet (also back in the lineup after missing two games). Ultimately they were able to scratch out a much-needed 99-96 win that looked terribly unlikely as the undermanned club trailed by 13 with just over 10 minutes to play.
A huge three by VanVleet finally gave the Raptors the lead with 26 seconds left. The hard-nosed point guard, filling in admirably for Lowry, combined with Danny Green on the other end to stall Pacers star Victor Oladipo’s drive and force a jump ball. Green made a steal and ended up being fouled, sealing the game at the free-throw line with 2.5 seconds left. The Pacers were angry about a non-call on a buzzer-beating three-point attempt by Bojan Bogdanovic, but the referees didn’t agree and the score stood.
Exhale. The Raptors trailed by as many as 17 and won the game largely thanks to VanVleet shaking off a 1-of-12 shooting night through three quarters to hit three triples in the final eight minutes of the game. It was ugly and a bit crazy, but it counted.
“It takes a lot of energy to play that bad then that good at the end,” said VanVleet, who scored nine of his 11 points in the fourth quarter. “It was a roller-coaster of emotions and energy and effort. Those ones feel good, just walking back to the locker room knowing that you probably snuck out of there with one, you stole one.
“I thought the way we played the last 12 minutes of the game, we probably deserved to win,” he said. “We really dug ourselves a weird hole there. It got to 17 at one point, but it was only 10, 11, 12 for most of the game, but it felt like so much more the way they were scoring at will it seemed sometimes. So it felt good to get out of there with a win.”
It helped the Raptors avoid losing three straight for the second time this season and improved their record to an NBA-leading 24-9, even as the injuries mount and the schedule has been loaded with playoff-quality teams. The surging Pacers dropped to 20-12.
That the Raptors needed some help from somewhere was without question. There was some optimism it might come from elsewhere in their rotation but it never materialized. Being short on three key rotation pieces is a slice of heaven for depth players on a team with a rotation that can run 13-deep when all bodies are present and accounted for.
And head coach Nick Nurse tried everything as all 12 players who dressed saw at least four minutes of playing time.
All anyone can ask for is a chance, right?
“To be honest, I was really disappointed with how we were playing, we were just backing out of there, giving them the basket,” said Nurse. “We just weren’t making any multiple efforts on the defensive end, they were shooting everything at the rim or open corner threes and I was really disappointed. I have to say that, that’s true.”
With no one really jumping up – seven Raptors reserve players combined for 23 points compared to 30 from the Pacers bench that ran four deep – it necessitated the fourth-quarter comeback and the end-of-game fireworks from some of the Raptors’ proven role players – not to mention Leonard, who finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while scoring nine in the final frame. And VanVleet’s unshakeable confidence helped too.
“Steady Freddy. Steady Freddy. It doesn’t matter,” said Siakam. “It’s funny, last year I went 1-for-something, he’s one of the guys that always talks to me and always told me to keep shooting. He always gave me that confidence that it doesn’t matter. When you work on things and you’re a shooter, you just shoot it. Every time, I’mma pass him the ball 100 times, I don’t care if he misses 99 per cent of the time, I’mma still pass him the ball because I know he’s going to make the important ones.”
It was slim pickings elsewhere. Norman Powell (two points in 15 minutes) was predictably ineffective in his first game back after suffering a shoulder injury in early November and missing the next 21 games. Journeyman centre Greg Monroe had some nice moments early in his first start filling in for the injured Ibaka and Valanciunas, as he finished with 13 points and eight rebounds. Chris Boucher, the rail-thin Montrealer who has been tearing up the G-League, hit an open three and drove for a layup in his first-quarter stint, but struggled defensively against bigger, stronger NBA bodies.
Fortunately the Raptors have Leonard, because by the time the third quarter rolled around it was Indiana’s collection of opportunists who were seizing the moment. The Pacers might be the NBA’s least glamorous team. Oladipo (20 points) showed why he went from a struggling lottery pick to the featured piece on a team pushing for a home seed in the East as he used his speed to rip through the Raptors’ defence as easily as Domantas Sabonis bulled his way through the paint at will early on. The threat of his penetration opened up the floor for sharpshooter Bogdanovic (18 points).
But Leonard began putting his shoulder in the game. He kept the Raptors in it in the first half – Toronto only trailed by eight at the intermission because of a pair of open-court steals he turned to fastbreaks – and helped them pull ahead in the second. They also got a strong second half from Siakam playing the five, as he finished with 17 points and seven rebounds.
“We just needed to do it,” Leonard said of the Raptors’ fourth-quarter charge. “We were saying it after the first quarter. But it’s always tough to play at home when you’re coming off long road trips like that. Two days off in between, it’s like playing another away (game). We did a good job of sticking in there and keeping our heads up.”
It was a night that could have been made for role players, but the Raptors were fortunate that their more experienced horses were able to lead them through.