Raptors' defensive progress undone in frustrating follow-up vs. Pacers

The Indiana Pacers outscored the Toronto Raptors 31-17 in the fourth quarter as they won 129-114.

TORONTO -- The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “frustrated” as “feeling discouragement, anger, and annoyance because of unresolved problems or unfulfilled goals, desires, or needs.”

An alternate definition may also be this quote from Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse after his team fell to the Indiana Pacers Monday night, 129-114.

“It was hard to play anything, all they did was parade to the free-throw line. … You can't play defence when every time they touch the ball it's a foul.”

Just a day after coming away with one of their best victories of the season, beating this same Pacers team 107-102 thanks largely to a complete defensive effort, the Raptors came out on the second night of their back-to-back set with Indiana looking like a shadow of the team from Sunday afternoon.

Heading into Monday’s contest there was optimism that the Raptors might be able to build off their win from Sunday to take it to the Pacers once again. A notion that grew when word came that Kyle Lowry would be returning to the lineup after a two-game absence.

Instead, however, Toronto got jumped on by Indiana as the Pacers enjoyed a 51.3-per cent shooting night and even managed to score 70 by the end of the first half, when they shot 59.1 per cent from the floor.

“I would say I don't think we were sliding our feet enough or guarding or containing the ball as good as we did last night,” said VanVleet of the defensive difficulties the Raptors encountered in the first half. “We didn't make the extra rotation and we kicked their butts yesterday and they played like it tonight.”

As Nurse saw it, however, it was more of an issue of the Raptors’ offensive process -- or lack thereof -- that was the true culprit of the team’s issues.

“Our shot selection choices in the first half put us in a bind on defence,” said Nurse. “I think we were surprising ourselves with some of those shots and early drives into nothing and that hurt us in transition defensively.”

Added Norman Powell, who was responsible for some of those head-scratching early shots that Nurse was talking about: “We were taking quick shots early in the shot clock. Even turnovers, before we could even set up a play. Fueled their offence, they didn't get back not expecting a shot. I took one or two of those in the first half. We've just got to do a better job of staying composed and running through our sets and getting good looks so we can set up our defence.”

The poor offence leading to even worse defence was only one-half of the story, however -- literally.

In the second half Toronto played much better defensively, using an effective zone for many stretches. Or at least it would’ve been effective had it not been for what appeared to be the true source of Nurse and the Raptors’ frustration Monday evening: The whistle.

In total in the game, the Pacers took 45 free-throw attempts to just 27 the Raptors took, with the Pacers taking 17 alone in the fourth quarter.

It was a noticeably tight whistle for the Raptors Monday and it allowed Indiana to weather the loss of all-star forward Domantas Sabonis -- who exited the game with a knee injury just before the end of the first quarter -- thanks to a big night from Malcolm Brogdon -- who scored a career-best 36 points -- and Myles Turner.

Both Brogdon and Turner took 12 free-throw attempts each in the second half of Monday’s game and, essentially, all of the work the Raptors were doing was being erased by these two guys constantly stopping the game and earning points at the charity stripe.

By the end of the game, frustration with the officials spilled over and Lowry, who was largely ineffective in his return, scoring 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting, got ejected and Nurse was seen verbally lambasting the officials.

“There were some critical ones,” Nurse said of missed calls from the officials. “There were a couple missed goaltends, there was a time when it was about an even game or two-point game and Chris [Boucher] dove on the floor for a ball and I called timeout while he had it and the referee just completely ignored it and then they ended up getting the ball back, getting free throws, then getting a rebounding foul, then getting more free throws on that one.

“...They called the foul every time they drove in the second half. So it wasn't very physical at all, they weren't letting us play very much.”

To add to this point, VanVleet, doing his best to be as diplomatic as possible so as not to get fined, mentioned how tough it was, in general, for the Raptors to play with the whistle being as tight as it was.

“I don't know the rules on what it takes to get fined and I'm certainly learning that I don't know the rules of the game as well as I thought I did,” said VanVleet. “So, it's tough. It's very tough. There are nights when the whistle goes your way and there's nights when it doesn't. But I think for me, personally -- I can't speak for any of the other guys -- tonight I was just disappointed in the relationship and the back and forth that was going on between the players and the officials.

“So I can't speak to any calls or things that I would like to go in different ways, but I will say that getting a warning seven, eight minutes left in the first quarter that we were talking too much and complaining too much, that sets a hard precedent for the rest of the two hours that we've gotta spend in the arena. So, I don't want to single those guys out, I don't want to single any plays out but it is very, very difficult to play that way.

“...You've gotta take it in stride, the referees certainly weren't the reason why we lost but it definitely adds a different element to the game in that sometimes it's kinda hard to overcome -- especially on a back-to-back like that.”

As VanVleet pointed out, the officials weren’t the reason why the Raptors weren’t able to come away with a victory Monday, but the frustration with them is understandable as the free-throw disparity between Toronto and Indiana was glaring. And given the fact that a win would’ve pulled the Raptors within just one victory from being .500 again for the first time since they were 0-0, the feeling of discouragement, anger, and annoyance makes a lot of sense.

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