The Toronto Raptors first Sunday afternoon game of the season on a cold day in January promised absolutely nothing of entertainment value for fans of either side. Sure, some hoped to see a coaching chess battle between the Nate Bjorkgren and Nick Nurse – formerly both members of the Raptors coaching staff whose relationship with one another extends far beyond the basketball court – but without Kyle Lowry or Pascal Siakam in action, many were chalking this one up to be the Raptors tenth loss of the young season.
Compounded by the fact that the game was pushed forward a couple of hours from its originally scheduled start time, and the Raptors were arriving in Indianapolis from Tampa just a day earlier, things weren’t looking too good for the dinos. Nonetheless, they had some basketball to play.
With Siakam out of the lineup, Stanley Johnson was due to start for the first time in two years. Norman Powell – whom when he is called upon to provide a punch offensively, usually delivers – was also earning his second consecutive start at the two slot.
Right from the tip, the Raptors looked like the more aggressive team. In the first three minutes of the game, Aron Baynes transformed from a guy who played like he had some sort of allegiance to his opponent, to the guy that Raptors executives thought they were getting when they signed him back in November. He opened the scoring with a layup through traffic, immediately took a charge on the other end, and walked back down to calmly knock down a three with the outstretched arm of Myles Turner in his face.
From there, OG Anunoby decided to hop in on the fun. He knocked down each of his first three looks from deep, and had 11 of the Raptors’ first 19 points in the game. The offence was far from fluid, but guys were making their shots, and hustling out to shooters on defense. At the end of the first, Toronto was all tied up with Indy, and it looked like they could have a fighting chance if they were to keep up their defensive intensity for another 36 minutes.
And for about 20 more, they did. Anunoby put on a two-way clinic, finishing the first half with 17 points, 5 steals, and 3 rebounds, glaring at an outside chance of becoming the first player in NBA history to record a thirty-point triple double using steals, instead of assists.
Unfortunately for Nick Nurse, the same issues which have been haunting the Raptors all season came back to bite them. They struggled offensively, and allowed the Pacers to close the third quarter on an 8-0 run. By leaving a lineup featuring Malachi Flynn, Terence Davis, DeAndre’ Bembry, Yuta Watanabe, and Chris Boucher for an elongated period of time, Nurse knew what he was giving up. Those five would knowingly struggle to score, but optimistically, they could have locked in defensively and gotten some points in transition. Sadly, it went the former of the two ways, but it was what allowed Nurse to play Fred VanVleet, Powell, and Anunoby for the entire fourth quarter – a tradeoff that proved to be fruitful.
The Raptors closed the game with Anunoby and Stanley Johnson at the four and five. Against the biggest frontcourt in the NBA, the Raptors were giving up a considerable amount of size, but the immaculate help from guards poking at the ball every time that Sabonis caught it in the low post, and their quick rotations closing out to shooters made the whole defensive scheme look seamless.
The Raptors would pull away from the Pacers once and grasp onto an eight point lead with about five minutes remaining, thanks to a couple of deep three-point bombs from Fred VanVleet, but Myles Turner would quickly answer with a couple of long-range shots of his own. It was all tied up at 102 with just over a minute to go.
Against Indiana’s man-to-man defense, VanVleet and Powell ran a simple pick-and-pop at the top of the arc. Myles Turner dropped well into the paint to defend VanVleet’s drive, as Doug McDermott chased from behind, leaving Powell wide open from the three-point line. As soon as VanVleet kicked the ball out to him, Powell took one step sideways to veer away from the incoming body of Turner, hoisted a three, and it came off left.
It would have been Indiana’s ball with 47 seconds left on the game clock. They could convert a quick two-for-one, and mathematically, they would have had a better chance of winning. Math can’t knock the hustle though – especially not the hustle of OG Anunoby.
As Anunoby battled for position under the rim against Malcolm Brogdon, he drew a foul away from the ball. Brogdon grappled with OG too aggressively, and the referees saw it clear as a black bird in the blue sky. Anunoby was heading to the line for two to give the Raptors the advantage both on the score board, and statistically. “Take that for data,” as former Knicks head coach, David Fizdale would say.
After making good on his first free throw, he was short on his second. The Pacers had the ball with 44.4 seconds left (shoutout Jay-Z), and hoped to take the lead. After some stifling Raptors defense batted the ball out of bounds on the baseline with 28 seconds left on the game clock, Indiana had to get to work quick.
Malcolm Brogdon inbounded the ball to Turner at the halfcourt line, and immediately came to retrieve it from him to go one-on-one against Fred VanVleet. Heads up: that’s a bad idea.
As the clock ticked down, Brogdon drove to his left, and tried to step back at the left elbow – a shot that typically would have been automatic for him – but Freddy must have read the scouting report. In anticipation of Brogdon’s stepback, VanVleet pounced on the ball before Brogdon could even get it up into his shooting pocket, and ripped it away. Shot clock violation, 18.7 seconds left, Raptors ball.
From there, it was all downhill. There was a lackluster of drama, just as Raptors fans would have wanted. Anunoby caught the ball off the inbound, knocked down a couple shots from the charity stripe, came back to get a block on Sabonis at the other end, and that was about it. Raptors win. On a cold Sunday afternoon in Indiana, against Nate Bjorkgren’s Pacers featuring a couple borderline All-Stars, without their two best players, the Raptors won. It was almost reminiscent of early in the 2019-2020 season, when an undermanned Raptors squad defeated LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the Staples Center led by Chris Boucher, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
The most impressive part of this afternoon’s game was the clamps that Nurse’s team was able to apply to Indiana’s stars. It’s been a recurring theme throughout Nurse’s tenure with the Raptors that their gameplan often relies on shutting down the opponents most prolific offensive players, and forcing secondary guys to beat them. That’s exactly what they did again today, limiting Brogdon and Sabonis to a combined 22 points on 6/32 shooting. That’s Toronto Raptors defense, and this game epitomized Toronto Raptors basketball.
The squad will be back at it again tomorrow night against the exact same team. Bjorkgren will hope to find a way to counterscheme against his best friend in the basketball world, while Nurse will pray that Siakam and Lowry will be ready to go and give their team a boost.