The Toronto Raptors aren’t used to losing at home. Other than during their lost season in Tampa, that is.
But when the Indiana Pacers arrived at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday, the Raptors were without a win at Scotiabank Arena since Feb. 23, 2020.
“Is that what we are?” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse when advised of his club’s home record, doing a wonderful job seeming legitimately surprised at the notion. “Now that you brought it up it does [seem weird]. We'll get used to being back home here pretty soon. We will.”
Coach’s intuition, call it. Toronto improved to 1-3 and home and 2-3 on the season with an impressive 118-100 win over the visiting Indiana Pacers, a victory with the fingerprints of many on it, which is the Raptors' preferred method -- and truthfully their only path forward this season.
The key cogs were present and accounted for, which helps. The Raptors were sparked by 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists from Fred VanVleet in his most complete outing of the season while OG Anunoby showed signs of shaking off his early-season cobwebs as he finished with 25 points and snatched five steals.
Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes continued to impress, running his streak of double-digit scoring games to start his career to five with 18 points, seven assists and seven rebounds to go with two blocks.
Also welcome were contributions from elsewhere. The Raptors bench chipped in 27 points on 55 per cent shooting, led by 10 from rookie Dalano Banton in a career-best 16 minutes. He was +11 and added three assists and a block. The Toronto native was one of three Canadians who took the floor as a unit -- Montrealers Khem Birch and Chris Boucher being the others.
The swarming defence was back as the Raptors forced the Pacers into 23 turnovers, which they converted into 31 points. They also hustled their way to 16 offensive rebounds (Indiana had nine) as they finished the game with 21 more field-goal attempts (100) than the Pacers (79). The Raptors started the fourth quarter with a 16-point lead and never allowed Indiana to get closer than 10.
Banton has shown a knack for pushing the ball and getting some early. Easy offence and his length perfectly complements what Toronto is hoping to get done on defence, and Nurse has said his mistake early this season was not playing him more and sooner. Banton didn’t disappoint on Wednesday.
“With Coach Nurse and also (assistant) coach Earl [Watson], they put me in positions to be successful, and they know that going up and down is one of my strengths, and playing with pace is just better for the whole team, me getting up the court, getting guys in their spots,” said Banton. “I feel like just being able to run, we'll play at our best. We have a lot of athletic guys with a lot of length, and a lot of guys who can hit shots as well. So if we just continue to play with pace, the sky is going to be the limit for us. Whenever I come in, I'm going to try and do that and do whatever I can to help win.”
Like the Raptors, the Pacers were 1-3 under new head coach Rick Carlisle, though they were winless on the road. But they still represented a slightly different puzzle than Toronto has faced. In Domantas Sabonis, the Pacers have one of the better big men in the league. An all-star last season, the six-foot-11 Sabonis carried averages of 24.8 points, 12.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists into Wednesday night. He’s joined in the Pacers frontcourt by Myles Turner, also 6-11 and one of the league’s best shot blockers, though he tends to spot up behind the three-point line on offence. But Sabonis does damage in the paint.
It’s an area of vulnerability for the Raptors who rely on an undersized tandem of Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch, and hope that their overall team size can otherwise make up for any issues.
“I think that a lot of it is can we limit [Sabonis'] touches down there, can we get him a little less comfortable in the spaces that he's catching it initially?” said Nurse before the game, in another bit of prescience.
“First of all, keep it out of there, and fight for some space. He's really good at kinda using his power to get the space right back even if you do force the catch off. He'll power dribble you down, … when he hits an object, he's good at spinning off that, using that contact to get himself an angle to the rim … tricky, because you've gotta put your body on him to keep him from backing ya all the way down and if you do it at the wrong time, he can spin and give him an angle for a layup. So there's a little bit of sheer toughness, and then there's a little bit of nuance there that all kinda goes in there. I would imagine we'll have at least three or four different guys guard him, as well, so we'll see who can do that stuff the best.”
The answer? Everyone. The Raptors held Sabonis to just nine points on four shots -- by far season lows. He also had four turnovers. And Turner was 3-of-7.
That’s not how things started. In the early going it looked like the Pacers were going to be living in the paint, as feared. Sabonis got three quick baskets, all bully-ball style, and all in the early moments of the first quarter. Turner chipped in with a couple of makes as well. The Raptors' season-long shooting woes continued but they were able to coax enough turnovers and enough offensive rebounds (the cure for all those missed shots) to stay even with the Pacers early thanks to a quick start from Anunoby, whose 16 first-quarter points allowed Toronto to take a 29-24 lead into the second quarter.
The Raptors built on that by following their game plan to the letter. Not only did Sabonis not score after his initial first-quarter burst, he didn’t take another shot before the half. And while the Raptors don’t have the kind of big men that can punch back, who says it has to be a traditional big taking swings?
Barnes has exceeded expectations already this season, but his cameo as some kind of cross between Moses Malone and Giannis Antetokounmpo is yet another new twist.
After a scoreless first, Barnes popped off for 10 points in the second, all but one of them in the paint and at the rim. He even went chest-to-chest with Sabonis on a couple of occasions -- despite giving up four inches and likely 30 pounds to the Pacers centre. The Raptors were down one when Barnes’ flurry began and ended up taking a 57-48 lead into the half, their largest lead of the game at that point.
And if the Raptors aren’t big at one position, they compensate by being long and lanky everywhere else. For most of the game, the only players under six-foot-seven to see floor time were the six-foot VanVleet and six-foot-five Gary Trent Jr.
The Raptors' best moments came in the third quarter when VanVleet was joined in the backcourt by their other lanky rooky, Banton. Where Barnes flashed his ability to manage himself in the paint, Banton did his best work in the open floor, going coast-to-coast more than once and even spacing the floor for a pair of triples, an element of his game that’s a work in progress but looked convincing against Indiana.
Banton’s showing was part of a positive overall contribution from the bench, with Svi Mykhailiuk having his best game in a Toronto uniform, finishing with seven points on four shots with two steals. Birch soaked 20 minutes at centre after coming in to relieve Achiuwa and veteran Goran Dragic didn’t play, with Banton getting his minutes.
For the first time this season, the Raptors sent a sellout crowd home happy for something other than simply being back in the arena with basketball to watch.
“I think it’s good to build a foundation for a young team,” said VanVleet. “This team certainly looks different than a lot of teams we’ve had since I’ve been here, but it’s good to just to build that foundation because when we’re playing well, when we’re winning this is one of the most special places in the NBA, if not the most special, with the fans and the way the energy is here, so we got to continue to build on that.”
The Raptors get their chance to start their first home -- as in Toronto -- winning streak in two seasons when they host the Orlando Magic on Friday.