After Game 1 of the Toronto Raptors' playoff series against the Indiana Pacers—a disappointment or debacle or disaster or some other negatively tinged adjective starting with the letter 'd,'—Jonas Valanciunas was in a bind. The Raptors centre was trying to slide his feet into his loafers—it is spring, and when the leaves come out the socks stay bundled in a drawer—but he had no shoehorn. He canvassed some of the team's employees, but no luck. Someone offered a gigantic spoon. That would not do.
Valanciunas sauntered into the Raptors' dressing room 90 minutes before the tip off for Game 2, and greeted the media. One member of the gaggle of reporters asked Valanciunas if he had made the necessary in-series adjustment. He went into the bottom compartment of his stall, and showed off his weapon of choice. There would be no jamming his foot into an expensive shoe on Monday evening.
"I came prepared today," Valanciunas said.
So did the Raptors as a whole in their 98-87 win to even the series at a game apiece. It was a game of two very different halves. Valanciunas dominated the first half, with 19 points and 10 rebounds. He did what he did in Game 1, but avoided the catastrophic foul trouble that he had that afternoon. In the second half, after a brief moment when it looked like Paul George might crush their souls again, the Raptors' second unit took over. In the end, Delon Wright and Jason Thompson got to make their playoff debuts. Fun night—sphincters decidedly unclenched.
As expected, Dwane Casey opted to start DeMarre Carroll, replacing Norman Powell. The Raptors' designated stopper was not a cure-all, looking rusty on both ends. Crucially, it kept the Raptors' best lineup, that has Kyle Lowry play with the four reserves, together for the start of both the second and fourth quarters. That lineup (with Terrence Ross, who didn't play the second half after bumping heads with DeMar DeRozan) was plus-four in the first half and (with Powell in Ross's spot) plus-seven in the second half.
A man on a mission. –Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
As it happens, 11 points was the margin of victory. Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph were great. Lowry was doing Lowry things, minus hitting shots from the field. Powell, who is too tenacious of a defender to be excised from the rotation (which might have happened without Carroll's early foul trouble and Ross's injury), looked like a prototypical glue guy.
Indeed, things slid into place perfectly, without much friction or resistance.
George was hitting some impossible shots in the third quarter. Even on a play where Powell was right in his grill, George shook free and hit a silky jumper from the baseline. He looked like a superstar scorer, again.
It seemed like George, who had a terribly scary injury two summers ago, might play the entire half. Instead, Pacers coach Frank Vogel rested him to start the fourth quarter. Given George's injury history, it was defensible. Vogel's decision, however, to sit George Hill and Monta Ellis at the same time was not. By the time George checked back in fewer than three minutes later, the Raptors' lead had gone from eight points to 11, with Lowry at the line for two shots. It got worse from there, sure; but the hole was bigger than it needed to be when George got back in the game.
On paper, Valanciunas is the biggest advantage that the Raptors have over the Pacers. He is a large human, even by the NBA's large human standards. Indiana's large humans are not as large. Even if Valanciunas's passing remains unsophisticated, his ability to rebound and catch the ball in traffic makes him a huge weapon against Indiana.
Of course, the Raptors have not always leveraged Valanciunas's skills. He often gets lost in a sea of jumpers and isolation drives. It is a cause of frustration for a large subset of Raptors fans.
That has made the first two games of this series something of a joy. Both Lowry and Joseph have taken pains to involve Valanciunas in the pick-and-roll. Often, they just throw the ball high, even if Valanciunas is not open; they know if they throw it skyward, he will be the first to get his hands on the ball.
"Everybody wanted that kid to be a superstar when he first got here but he wasn't ready," Casey said. "Nobody comes into this league and sets it on fire—it's very rare when you do. He's grown, he's developed, he's worked his behind off and I'm really proud of him. It makes me feel good to see him develop like that."
George was a beast Saturday, with 33 points, four 3-pointers and four steals. He hit all kinds of shots, shedding every defender the Raptors threw it him. It was brilliant, and clinical. He also had six assists, slicing the Raptors open with dump off passes when they sensibly started collapsing on him.
On Monday, he had one assist. The Pacers had 13 assists on 29 field-goal attempts. The lack of ball movement was positively Raptor-esque.
DeMar DeRozan is expected to get to the free throw line about 10 times per night, but he is also expected to eschew tunnel vision when he enters into the paint, finding open shooters. Those responsibilities are not as easy as LeBron James makes them look. Trying to get to the line involves a fair bit of hope: get into the heart of the defence, elevate, and hope that the officials acknowledge the contact that you create. Sometimes you get the benefit of the whistle, and sometimes you do not.
It is a tough balance to strike, and DeRozan has done so awfully this series. He is 10-for-37 from the field in the series, with six assists, five turnovers and just six free throw attempts. He has been bad.
The Paul George vs. DeMar DeRozan matchup has been lopsided. –Photo by Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
He is so integral to the Raptors over the last half-decade that it was bizarre to see Casey keep him on the bench for the fourth quarter on Monday. It was the right thing to do, but strange, nonetheless. DeRozan said he understood and even supported the move, given how well Lowry and the reserves were playing. As for his own struggles, he seemed unconcerned.
"I'm not worried if I'm missing shots or making shots," DeRozan said. "That's going to come."
Throughout his career, this has always been DeRozan's refrain during slumps: He will shoot his way through to the other side. Is that the right approach against the Pacers? Like every other player in the NBA, he has not been eager to credit the man guarding him with slowing him down, but George has done a great job on DeRozan. George is a wonderful defender, with the quickness to limit DeRozan's forays to the rim and the length to contest his jumper. DeRozan could act as a decoy—as long as he is on the floor, George will be glued to him, meaning he cannot guard another player—but lacks the reliable 3-pointer to make defences pay when the ball is swung to him, as often happens in pick-and-roll-based attacks.
With how dominant Valanciunas has been, he and Lowry should be running countless pick-and-rolls. DeRozan could act as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll, but he is not as nifty of an interior passer as Lowry or Cory Joseph. And if DeRozan is not a big part of the primary offence, given his inconsistent defence, what is his role on the floor? That is a question the Raptors will have to ask not only in this series, but in the summer, when DeRozan enters free agency.
There is no need to decide on DeRozan's future two games into what could be a fairly long playoff run. Watching DeRozan try to fit into a series that works against his strengths will be instructive, though.