Luis Scola has played in more must-win games, arguably, than all of his Toronto Raptors teammates combined.
Olympics, world championships, professional championships in Europe, not to mention 41 (and counting) NBA playoff games.
The 35-year-old from Argentina has been around.
And while the pivotal Game 5 in the Raptors’ first-round series against the Indiana Pacers isn’t all that big a game in the grand scheme of things, for a No. 2 seed expecting to play into the second round and beyond, it’s go time.
Tied 2-2 at the moment, heading back to Indianapolis down 3-2 and facing elimination is simply inviting disaster, an old friend the Raptors have been trying to keep at arm’s length for years now, with limited success.
So it’s worth noting that before the biggest game of the Raptors’ season, Scola expects to sleep well. He’s going into battle with all-stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. That’s enough for him.
"My confidence with those two guys is blind," he says after practice on Monday. "I go to [bed] tonight and before falling asleep I think ‘I have DeMar and Kyle on my team [so] everything is going to be OK’ and then I fall asleep. That’s how much I trust those two guys."
It’s probably a good thing that his faith is blind, because the pair has been tough to watch. Nightmarish even.
The duo is shooting 40-of-130 from the floor against the Pacers, or 30.7 per cent, and has been separated from what they do well. For example, DeRozan had the best season of his career by converting the second-most free throws in the NBA, but against the Pacers he’s made just 11 free throws all series as they have simply refused to fall for his regular-season tricks. Similarly, Lowry set a franchise record for three pointers made, connecting at a career-best 38.8 per cent. Against the Pacers he’s a miserable 5-of-27.
Worse? These are trends three years in the making. As a pair of foundation pieces, Lowry and DeRozan have yet to prove they can handle the weight of the post-season. Their regular-season player efficiency ratings the last three years have averaged 20.5 and 19.5, respectively. At this point their playoff ratings are 12.4 (Lowry) 12.5 (DeRozan) and trending down.
Scola’s not alone. The parallel to Lowry and DeRozan’s struggles has been the tendency of everyone else to keep saying that their faith in the pair remains unshaken.
"They’re our guys," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. "We’re going to ride or die with DeMar and Kyle."
Surely something needs to be shaken up. In their last 11 playoff games the Raptors are 2-9, and Lowry and DeRozan have led their club in shots taken and shots missed. The sample size keeps growing.
But with the series coming down to the crunch, the Raptors find themselves walking a tightrope. Do they try and do something different, something drastic in the hopes of cracking the code on the padlock the Pacers have their two stars locked up with?
Or do they figure that things will normalize to the regular-season mean eventually?
Do they choose blind faith? Or do they choose “adjustments,” the catchall post-season adjective that captures everything from lineup changes to tweaking how you defend an elbow pick-and-roll?
Scola’s opinions are germane to the matter because if Casey is going to shuffle the deck heading into Game 5 and beyond, the most obvious card to play involves the Argentinean big man. He’s stayed in the starting lineup all season, primarily on the strength of his career-best three-point shooting percentage (40.4), which led the team, and how perfectly Pat Patterson — the projected starter at power forward heading into training camp — has fit in on the second unit.
But Scola has yet to make an impact against the Pacers, his old team. He’s averaging just 13.8 minutes a game, despite starting, and has made just one three-pointer. In Game 4 in Indianapolis, he was 0-of-5 from the floor and missed four good looks from three when the Raptors were dying for a basket.
Still, Scola believes in math and himself.
"That’s the good thing about shots. You may have a slump, but eventually numbers play out," he says. "And eventually, everything goes back to what you do, what your averages are … over the period of a long time, with a larger sample, numbers tend to play out. Eventually, I think, things are going to go back to normal."
The key word there is “eventually.” The Raptors’ time is right now.
And for all the heat that Lowry and DeRozan have taken, it’s worth pointing out that the only reason that teams have gotten away with sending multiple defenders at both of them is because the rest of the lineup hasn’t made that strategy risky.
It’s a catch-22, really. The Raptors’ all-stars are required to produce, but if they force their offence they’re playing into the Pacers’ hands. But what’s the point of relinquishing their scoring responsibilities if their teammates aren’t going to make shots?
This may be even more difficult now that the Pacers have made a project of taking away opportunities from Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors’ most effective player through four games.
The ideal solution is for Toronto is to move the ball to those who are going to be effective with it. In the short term, the solution might be to take the 15 or so minutes Scola gets and distribute them among players who can take more pressure off Lowry and DeRozan.
That could take a number of forms. It could mean Patterson starting for the first time this season, or at the very least a bump in the 28 minutes he’s been averaging so far this series. It could mean more minutes for Terrence Ross (38.5 per cent from three in the series, same as during the regular season) and rookie Norman Powell (43 per cent from three in the series; 46 per cent in his previous 22 games).
It should involve Lowry and DeRozan taking fewer shots, but more open ones, and their teammates stepping in to share the load.
Regardless, the most obvious way for the Raptors to take pressure off their two all-stars is either to have Scola start shooting like he did in March (22-of-44 from three) as compared to how he shot in February and April (27-of-95, playoffs included) beginning Tuesday night, or find someone else who can make a shot from three when DeRozan or Lowry give up the ball.
Scola knows what’s up. He’s been in enough big games to know that sometimes it’s important to manage for the moment. Sometimes the most important sample size is what happens in the next game, even if it means he’s the odd man out.
"I’m sure coaches are going to make changes and that’s OK," he says. "They have to. They have to make changes. … I’m not scared of a coach making changes and I’m not scared of them making an adjustment. It’s the right thing to do."
"For us, winning the series is in our best interest," says Scola, with a closet full of experience to draw on. "If we win the series, we will all benefit more than any other equation, so let’s just win the series."
And then he paused and corrected himself.
"As a matter of fact, let me take that back. Let’s just win tomorrow, let’s win one basketball game. After we win one basketball game we can worry about the next one."
Win the next one — by any lineups deemed necessary — and Scola along with all of Raptors nation can rest a little more easily.