10 things: Raptors continue to slide after fourth-quarter collapse vs. Pacers

Here are 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors‘ 118-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers.

One — The Toronto Raptors responded positively from their sluggish showing against OKC, but could not sustain their momentum on the second night of a back-to-back. Toronto jumped out to a 13-point edge at halftime, but their transition defence was leaky the rest of the way, while their predictable offence of getting into the paint was snuffed out by the Pacers crowding the paint, and with a noticeably looser whistle. The Raptors were in decent position to win through three quarters, but the bottom fell off in the fourth as they were outscored 36-14. The end result is a pair of losses to two supposedly tanking teams — with the prospect of dropping a third against the Pistons on Monday, who have had their number for years.

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Two — Toronto’s energy was excellent in the first half. The Raptors lived in the paint and took every opportunity to attack off makes or misses. Toronto was in the bonus after just five minutes and buffed their advantage with a surplus of free throws and putbacks. Even when they couldn’t drive, the Raptors looked to post their big wings against a Pacers side that always had at least two guards on the floor, and generate their offence from there. Had it not been for an abysmal shooting performance, the Raptors easily could have stretched the lead further. This approach, however, demanded maximum effort from the Raptors, who naturally slowed down as the workload caught up to them. They were playing their fifth game in seven nights, each in a different city, and were severely shorthanded with four rotation players out.

Three — This was yet another prime opportunity for Scottie Barnes to step up. Fred VanVleet was ruled out with a non-COVID illness that also affected him in Oklahoma, and Pascal Siakam remains sidelined, leaving Barnes as the main playmaker for the starting unit. Barnes was more engaged than in previous games, where he floated in and out on both ends, but it still came so far short of what was needed. The positive is that Barnes pushed the pace and played a good floor game with lots of quality passes that weren’t recorded as assists due to poor finishing or fouls. The negative is that Barnes continues to lose focus on defence, including one play in the fourth where he was so lost in rotation that he had his back turned to the open shooter for three, and he shows little juice on offence. Aside from playing bullyball here or there, Barnes seems to be unable to beat the defence even when the team is begging for him to do so. He finished shooting 4-for-16 from the field in 39 minutes without a single free-throw attempt. His efficiency has tanked since Siakam went down, as Barnes has shifted from playing a primary role as compared to being a complement.

Four — The expectations are too high for what Barnes can do at the moment. Barnes shows promise in flashes, and he was more bright last season as compared to currently, but his reputation exceeds his current ability, especially with teams having scouted him better following his Rookie of the Year campaign. Barnes has yet to develop the skill set to score consistently away from the hoop, and his demeanor isn’t that of someone who is intent on forcing his way to the basket for the entire game. Fans are expecting something that isn’t quite there yet, and it’s quite possible that he is also feeling that pressure on himself. Thad Young gave an illuminating quote about Barnes’ sophomore slump after the game. “Barnes puts a lot of pressure and a lot of weight on his shoulders, and sometimes that can be your biggest killer,” Young said.

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Five — Speaking of Young, he continues to be a positive in every game no matter what role is asked of him. Young said he found out he was starting shortly before tip-off. He proceeded to log a quality 34-minute shift where he attacked and made plays out of the post while giving as much energy as he could on defence. His patented left-handed hook shot still catches defenders by surprise, and he even had a throwback play where he ripped down a defensive rebound before taking it coast-to-coast for a foul at the basket. The Pacers ultimately wore him down with their speedy guards, which is to be expected from a 16-year veteran being asked to double his usual workload. In truth, the Raptors shouldn’t need him this much except they are in a pinch and Young is doing whatever he can to step up.

Six — Elevating Young and Otto Porter Jr. put further pressure on the Raptors’ maligned second unit to deliver. Chris Boucher had another energetic showing with 18 points and five offensive rebounds, while also collecting one of his signature blocks on a corner three, but he wasn’t alone. Dalano Banton and Malachi Flynn played in a rare dual point guard role and were surprisingly decent. They collectively kept the pace of play high, and each contributed in their own ways, with Banton confidently knocking down open jumpers, and Flynn providing just enough shot creation on end-of-clock scenarios. The second unit was stronger in the first half than the second, but still, it was encouraging to see a positive development from the bench when usually it is the opposite.

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Seven — Despite Banton and Flynn taking steps in the right direction, it’s still quite clear the Raptors lack a dependable second unit creator, especially a guard who can get into the paint and set up others. T.J. McConnell led the comeback for the Pacers by weaving in and out of the paint to pick out open teammates on cuts, and he’s just the latest backup guard to impress against Toronto. The same pattern played out with Spencer Dinwiddie, Goran Dragic, and even Tre Mann from OKC. Not only does VanVleet need someone to cover for his absences, but the second unit in general is largely made up of play finishers rather than creators. Even Flynn and Banton fall into the finishing category, as they only score efficiently when others are finding them, rather than doing the creating as point guards.

Eight — It’s shocking how low Gary Trent Jr.’s floor has been this season. It’s understandable that a jump-shooter could go through hot and cold streaks, but Trent Jr. wasn’t able to contribute positively in any manner. His defence was a non-factor, and it’s not just that he doesn’t make plays, it’s that he often doesn’t even see anybody else as an option to score. There are occasional games where he racks up a couple of assists, which largely come in transition or off swinging the ball, but too often he suffers from tunnel vision. Even when he was struggling in the third quarter, when Trent Jr. had a 3-on-1 in the paint with Barnes to his left and Boucher to his right, he instead tried to overcome a strong shot blocker in Myles Turner, who easily swatted away his meek attempt at a runner. Trent Jr. can’t be this one-dimensional when that one dimension isn’t even consistent.

Nine — O.G. Anunoby was the Raptors’ most productive player, and he would be nearly perfect if it wasn’t for his failed drives. Anunoby has struggled off the dribble this season, shooting 36 per cent from the field while also committing a turnover on one in every six attempts, which simply doesn’t make sense for someone so strong and athletic. He was whistled for three travels in this game, all of which were on plays where he tried to put it on the deck. Anunoby would be so much more effective offensively if he ever manages to figure out this missing piece of his game.

Ten — The Pacers and Raptors are diametric opposites in terms of styles. Indiana plays with six guards in the rotation, while the Raptors play two at the most. Naturally, the Pacers prioritize three-point shooting and having multiple playmakers to rack up points over trying to string stops together, while the Raptors badly lack shooting but make up for it with energetic rebounding, post play, and using their length to jump every passing lane. In this contest, it was the guard skills that won out as the Pacers had 19 threes to just seven for the Raptors. No matter how hard they hustle, overcoming a 36-point gap in shooting is nearly impossible.

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