Toronto tailors its victories. In Nick Nurse’s short time as Raptors head coach, he’s proven to be quite the NBA couturier, making creative, precise modifications to his rotations for each opponent. If Joel Embiid and the Sixers call for more length and husk, he pulls Jonas Valanciunas off the bench and into the starting lineup. Some spark on the perimeter? He has Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright. More defensive stops? Try keeping the ball safe against Pascal Siakam, or Danny Green, or OG Anunoby, or this pretty spectacular wing named Kawhi Leonard. Actually, try facing the entire unit, one of the best defenses in the league.
One look at the final score against the Pacers on Wednesday, and it seems like more of the same for these new Raptors we’re so eager to believe in: a tight 99-96 win surely full of Kawhi heroics and crucial defensive stops. It was, on the surface. With the victory, the Raptors are now at 24-9, by far the best record in the NBA. If that isn’t enough of a highlight, witness Leonard destroying Domantas Sabonis’s family name on Papa Arvydas’s birthday:
Kawhi Leonard dunks on Domantas Sabonis (via @NBACanada) pic.twitter.com/pfVoZ6ofCt— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) December 20, 2018
Siakam, VanVleet, and Green ruled Indy’s last couple possessions a no-fly zone. But the final score masks the horrors on the stat sheet, and the box doesn’t show the run the Raptors had to go on to make up for their start. Toronto was missing Kyle Lowry (thigh contusion), Serge Ibaka (right knee), and Valanciunas (thumb injury), which might’ve explained the 17-point deficit in the second half—that, and the Pacers’ no. 2 defense allowing them very few open looks. At game’s end, the Raptors shot 23.3 percent from deep (7-for-30). VanVleet was the only player in the starting lineup to make more than one 3, and it took him 11 tries to get there.
It was an ugly win, by far the ugliest Toronto’s managed this season. They’ve thrived behind the perimeter and they’ve died behind it this season; usually when the aim is that off, it’s an L. Entering Wednesday’s contest, the Raptors averaged 29.5 percent from 3 in their losses as compared to 37.1 percent over their 23 wins. (Per this NBA.com report, only the Thunder and the Warriors shoot worse from the behind the arc in games they’ve lost.)
It could have just as easily been a close loss for Toronto (four of their nine losses were decided by a margin of six points or fewer). For the second night in a row, Indiana had legitimate gripes on a last-minute call: First against Cleveland on Tuesday, during which Victor Oladipo was robbed of a foul call against Larry Nance Jr., and then against Toronto, when the referees failed to call an egregious foul on Bojan Bogdanovic behind the 3-point line. Indiana was, you guessed it, down by three. Even the Raps bench knew they lucked out:
#raptors bench knew it was a clear foul #Pacers pic.twitter.com/fmcFUIGLyM— Chris Eakins (@chriseakins21) December 20, 2018
Indiana deserved that chance to force overtime at the line. But the Pacers had let the Raptors and Leonard wear away at the cushion Indiana had created, and based on the closing minutes, an extra period’s momentum would’ve swung north. What’s worth noting—other than what may be fate’s vendetta against the Pacers—is that the Raptors made it back.
In the end, it was yet another win for the team that seems to have it all, a team that managed to escape the bad optics of a potential three-game losing skid by coming up clutch in the final moments. But as the story usually goes for people who seem to have it all—“all” here meaning an MVP candidate, your favorite role player’s favorite role players, and the second-best offense in the league—pull back the curtain, and they really don’t have it all. (Watch an early-aughts popular-kid-loses-everything teen movie. Very helpful for 2018 NBA metaphors. You’ll love it!) Of course, we’ve known this all along; their regular-season glories over the past five seasons have been stomped out in increasingly embarrassing fashion, year after year. It’s the scarlet letter they wear on their sleeves.
The entire league is in wait-and-see mode with Toronto; the only thing it can prove in the regular season these days is its ability to fight through whatever adversity it has to face in the 82-game buffer that comes before the actual exam. So far, so good. It was an ugly-as-shit shooting night, but it’s another way Toronto has shown it can win. The Raptors have the range. Add Wednesday’s game to their ever-expanding portfolio.