The Raptors have been the better team all year and will likely prove to be when it’s all said and done, given Toronto has Kawhi Leonard and the Pacers don’t.
But the Pacers have what the Raptors could desperately use – the kind of cohesion and rhythm on both sides of the ball that only time together can develop.
They showed it in the guts of the game against the visiting Raptors as they outlasted them for a hard-fought 110-106 win that was even more impressive given they lost star Victor Oladipo to a potentially season-ending knee injury four minutes before halftime.
Trailing since the midway point of the first quarter, the Raptors could never quite get over the hump even though they cut what was generally a double-digit Pacers second-half lead to a single point twice in the fourth quarter, most significantly on a triple off a broken play by Danny Green that made the score 105-104 with 1:11 to play.
But even without Oladipo, Indiana held steady. Thaddeus Young sealed it with a crafty turnaround on the next possession and the Pacers survived, playing to their defence-first identity and getting double-digit scoring from six different contributors, led by Young’s 23.
“They’re really good, they kind of pressured us at the beginning of the game, we didn’t come out with the energy that we needed to have,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam who need 16 shots to put up 16 points and was one of six Raptors in double figures, led by Serge Ibaka’s 23. “We had a better second half, but, starting the game, we didn’t come out with the energy that we needed to have. But then, they pressured us, they jumped on us and we really give them credit for that.”
It’s not like the Raptors are strangers to each other – nine of their 12 best players are returnees — but between adding two new starters this season, Nick Nurse’s first-year as head coach and a series of mainly minor injuries and roster management decisions they aren’t as far along in their continuity as they would like to be 50 games into the season.
Wednesday night was their 14th game without newcomer Leonard, while injuries to Kyle Lowry have limited the Raptors’ two all-stars to just 25 games together.
For the most part, it’s been hard to notice – Toronto’s been near or atop the league’s overall standings all season, making this a rich man’s problem. Even after losing to the Pacers, Toronto is 36-14 — tied for the best record in the NBA — and 11-3 without Leonard in the lineup.
The Raptors have never let their lineup challenges be an excuse for their performance – for the most part, there’s been no need.
It’s more a what-if thing: what could the Raptors be when playing at full strength and all parts moving in unison?
Maybe one day we’ll find out – Leonard is supposed to be back from his four-game respite on Friday against Houston – but, until then, it’s a talented team that for the most part does whatever it takes.
Last night, it took a strong second half, and the outcome might have been different if they had been able to convert more of their wide-open corner threes – the highest-value shot in basketball. According to Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, they averaged just .69 points per possession on 13 attempts – so nine points (on three makes) when even average shooting would have yielded 15.
But to their credit the Raptors kept knocking on the door all night. A three by Kyle Lowry and put-back by Ibaka finally brought them within a point with just over four minutes to play – a milestone given they had trailed by double-figures for most of the second half but they could never get over the hump.
Indiana did their thing, holding Toronto to 41 per cent shooting and just 30 per cent from three.
It was the Raptors’ third and final game against the Pacers – they won the series 2-1 — so there was clearly some familiarity at work, but part of that is because the Pacers are familiar to each other.
They are halfway through their second season under head coach Nate McMillan and returned largely intact the rotation they had last season while adding some useful rotation pieces in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott.
And while the Raptors have struggled to field the same starting lineup two games in a row, let alone their full rotation – no Raptor has played every game this season; six players in their top-11 had missed at least 10 games heading into last night and 12 different players have started at least one game. The Pacers have been a model of consistency.
Apart from Oladipo missing 12 games with some ankle problems and then a knee injury (prior to the one he suffered Wednesday), the Pacers’ top-eight minutes eaters have missed five games total and Indiana has only needed six different starters on the season.
As the Raptors know first-hand – last season’s 59 wins was built in part on remarkable health — these advantages are fleeting.
The Pacers’ good injury luck was dealt a heavy blow late in the second quarter as Oladipo was chasing Siakam down on a fast-break when his right knee inexplicably buckled, pitching him forward into Siakam’s legs. The Raptors forward was mad at first as it seemed like Oladipo had recklessly dove into his lower half, but it was quickly apparent something significant was wrong. Medical staff immediately covered Oladipo’s leg with a towel – never a good sign — and rushed a stretcher to the floor as Raptors athletic trainer Scott McCullough helped out and players from both teams gathered around.
“I think he knew right away, he pulled his knee sleeve down and the knee looked very abnormally out of place, it didn’t look normal,” said Raptors guard Danny Green who was one of the closest to the incident. “Guys were looking at it and looking away. … it did look kind of nasty, it looked like it was out of place.”
A breakout all-star a year ago, Oladipo is the engine that has driven the Pacers’ revival post-Paul George on both sides of the ball, so an extended loss will inevitably be felt, but in the short-term, his teammates were inspired.
“We just tried to stick together,” said Young. “That’s one of the biggest things. We always want to stick together through thick and thin. We know with Vic going down it was definitely going to be tough, but we want to keep fighting for him.”
In his absence, they will have to rely on the continuity they’ve grown the past season-and-a-half. The good news is the Pacers have as tightly-knit an identity as any team in the league. On this night, rather than step back, they were able to keep pushing.
“They were playing really well before that, during that, while he was out, when he was in, they’ve been playing really good basketball and it seems like they picked it up when he went down,” said Green. “… he’s a big, important piece to what they do, but even without him they play hard and do things the right way.”
Add it up – year-over-year continuity, good in-season health, and a clear identity – and you get the Pacers’ ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ formula for success.
“They keep clicking off wins, right?” Nurse said before the game. “They know who they are … they’re a defence-first team and they get out there and play it and that takes you a long way in this league: getting 10 guys, keeping them healthy and knowing who you are night after night is going to keep you clicking off wins.”
Both teams came out firing blanks early and the Raptors deserve credit for a stalwart defensive effort of their own even while playing without Leonard (rest) for the fourth straight game and playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Even while shooting just 6-of-24 for the first quarter, the Raptors trailed by only eight as they held the Pacers to 38 per cent.
The Raptors showed a spark in the second, putting up 31 points and getting the lead to five a number of times – once again with C.J. Miles providing a lift off the bench with six quick points in the quarter – but the Pacers found their offensive touch, too. They ended up taking a 12-point lead into the half – 59-47 – as former Raptor Cory Joseph hit a three just before the end of the second quarter.
The Pacers really showed how tightly-knit their team fabric is at that point. With it announced that Oladipo had suffered a “serious knee injury” and that he would be getting further tests Thursday, Indiana kept grinding. Meanwhile, on offence, they got just enough from everyone to make up for the absence of their star.
It’s a formula that has served them well throughout the season and likely will, even with Oladipo out.
It’s one the Raptors would like to get closer to emulating as the season wears on with the hope that with their own star healthy it will pay some rich dividends in the post-season.