After six games, 12 days and approximately 8,900 kilometres travelled, the Toronto Raptors’ long road trip has finally come to an end.
And the team is likely grateful for that.
The Raptors look to have a lot of work to do – especially on the defensive end – after falling to the Indiana Pacers, 114-97, to finish their roadie with a 2-4 record and return to Toronto sporting a 9-11 record overall.
Just a game after the Raptors appeared to have found their old defensive identity in the second half against the Grizzlies, allowing them to steal a victory in Memphis, Toronto reverted to what has been a more troubling trend of late – particularly seen during this road trip. The Raptors made life on the offensive end far too easy for the Pacers, who lived on the inside, racking up 60 points in the paint, as Domantas Sabonis went off for 23 points and 18 rebounds on 8-of-15 shooting from the floor.
It also didn’t help matters that that the Raptors conceded 17 offensive rebounds to the Pacers – seven alone to Sabonis – a major contributing factor to why the Pacers absolutely feasted on the inside Friday night.
“It was more at the other end where they were just out-working us. We gave up 17 offensive rebounds, that's a problem,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse after Friday’s game. “I just thought, at least in the first half, we were just a half-step slow either missing help or over-helping, not being able to get back by a half-step to get some closeouts. I think there were some players who we probably could've been able to control but they just got by us and got into the paint and when they missed they got a lot of offensive rebounds and took the ball a lot.”
But it wasn’t just the defence that let the Raptors down on Friday, and for most of the trip, in general.
While, once again, Toronto was without OG Anunoby and Khem Birch, some of their other starters played well enough to keep Toronto in it such as Fred VanVleet (26 points on 10-of-21 shooting), Pascal Siakam (17 points and 12 rebounds) and Scottie Barnes (who, late in the second quarter, appeared to re-aggravate the same right thumb he hurt the last time the Raptors saw the Pacers but, fortunately, was able to return for the start of the second half and had another strong game with 17 points of his own).
“He was aggressive,” Nurse said of Barnes. “I think he came over to me and said, 'Coach, I think I can get to the front of the rim.' So I was like, 'Go, keep going, keep getting big and try to finish them' and he did a good job. He's got angles on them, he made some shots and he got to the free-throw line, some, got an and-one one time so pretty good night for him, offensively.”
Additionally, on the injury front, Gary Trent Jr. left the game with 6:14 left to play in the fourth quarter and didn’t return with tightness in his right calf that he first appeared to injure back in the second quarter.
Trent Jr. didn’t have the best of games, with 13 points on just 4-of-11 shooting. But it was better than nothing, particularly because Toronto’s bench proved thoroughly unhelpful.
The contributions made by the Raptors’ starters were made moot because Toronto’s bench, which is among the worst in the NBA this season, was once again thoroughly outplayed – as evidenced by the fact Pacers reserve guard Kelan Martin matched Toronto’s bench productivity himself, 15-15.
That’s bad, obviously, but Nurse believes that the guys the team was missing Friday were a major factor in why his second unit couldn’t get anything going – and why Sabonis ate his team up on the inside.
“Tonight, as soon as Precious needs to come out of the game, they’ve got two big, strong bigs, so one of them’s going to be out there all the time, there’s just not a lot of size to sub in tonight,” said Nurse.
The fact that the bench didn’t produce very much wasn’t so much surprising – it was more so just plain frustrating. In the third and fourth quarters, with much of their second unit out there, the Raptors had opportunities to get back into the game but constantly saw opportunities squandered.
One such moment came early in the fourth when Siakam, playing alongside a lineup of mostly bench players, completed an and-one play to cut the lead down to six, only to then see Pacers go on a 10-0 run. That put Indiana up 101-86 with 7:24 to play and, essentially, ended any chances the Raptors had of stealing another one to cap the trip.
The road trip is over at long last and, thankfully, what follows is the longest homestand of the season for the Raptors at seven games.
However, given the issues this team has illustrated with its defence – particularly on the inside – and the lack of productivity it’s getting from its bench, it’s unclear if even a little home cooking will correct what ails them.
This is a team that’s both still trying to gel and come together, and to do so, it must be healthy.
“We know when we are playing defence together as a team and moving the ball and doing those things like that the game comes easy,” said Siakam. “We get stops, we run. We just, we got to be that team. We got to be a team that plays hard every night and the more we don't do that, I think that’s kind of the main thing.”
Added Nurse: “I think, again, we've had a lot of bodies in and out – which, we've gotta solve that. I don't know how we solve it, but we've just gotta hope the ball bounces a little better our way on that front. And, again, I think if we get into a situation where we're looking people eye-to-eye, our defence is much better. So we've shown we can play some really good defence and we've shown if we're not engaged fully that we can not be so good defensively as well.”