Morning Coffee – Mon, Jan 25 - Raptors Republic

Morning Coffee – Mon, Jan 25 - Raptors Republic
Anunoby’s ability to continue to draw fouls helped the Raptors get into the bonus midway through the fourth quarter, which wound up being a major factor in closing out the win. He topped his career-high in free throw attempts in the fourth quarter alone, shooting 10 on the day, eight in the fourth and sealing the win at the line in the closing seconds.

“It’s just a funny dynamic where some of your best players are out and there’s just more opportunity for other guys,” VanVleet said. “Like an OG, the ball was finding him, he was in positions he probably wouldn’t be in if we had our full team.”

The Pacers and Anunoby were a perfect storm. Indiana has struggled mightily to slow down larger forwards. And though Anunoby isn’t always high on the defensive game plan for opponents, he’s been showing signs of real offensive growth for nearly a year now. The gains have been modest, but Anunoby is now up to 14.9 points-per-game on 63 percent true shooting and 16.4 percent usage, career highs across the board. All the while, he’s remained an All-Defense-level defender, which was on full display against Sabonis, Brogdon and whoever else he guarded Sunday.

And so it was Anunoby finishing the biggest and unlikeliest play of the season for the Raptors, helping them to their fifth win in six games.

All of a sudden, they’re in the top 10 in the league in net rating and, comically, only a half-game out of a playoff spot and two games out of third in the East at 7-9. The Raptors have been right to maintain that both qualitative and quantitative evaluation suggest they’d been on the wrong end of variance or fortune so far. It’s taken a run like this, including consecutive defence-first wins with significant absences, to reaffirm the team’s identity and reestablish a confidence that appeared to be cracking two weeks ago.

There’s still a ways to go before suggesting the Raptors are all the way back to being themselves. The schedule isn’t momentum-friendly with a Pacers rematch and the Milwaukee Bucks standing between the Raptors and .500. Still, they’re now up to eighth in defence and turned both of Indiana’s top scorers into low-efficiency playmakers. They were also able to rely on their defining next-man-up mentality, with big contributions from Johnson, Bembry, glue-guy Watanabe and more.

“We don’t have a choice to play hard with the guys we got out there right now,” VanVleet said. “Feels like we’re turning a corner a little bit and we’ve gotta be able to keep it up. … That type of defence we’ve played is gonna give us a chance most nights, and that’s all we need.”

10 things: OG Anunoby, Stanley Johnson lead shorthanded Raptors to victory vs. Pacers – Yahoo!

Two — Clamps: The Raptors have the capability to defend at an elite level, and it was on display both in limiting Miami to 81 points and again in this win where the Raptors collected two clutch stops to seal the victory. First, it was Fred VanVleet locking down Malcolm Brogdon to preserve the one-point lead, where the Raptors did a great job of denying all other options, which then forced Brodgon into an isolation, and VanVleet got all ball to force Brogdon into a shot-clock violation. On the next trip down, the Pacers tried to get a quick two through Domantas Sabonis, except Chris Boucher rotated over for an impressive block, then Stanley Johnson followed to deny Sabonis on the putback, before VanVleet corralled the miss to ice the game. That was the game in a nutshell: Indiana just had nowhere to go offensively.

The Raptors’ other advantage was having OG Anunoby in their lineup as the 23-year-old wing put together a dominant two-way performance that only a handful of players in the league are capable of at this stage. He finished with a game-high 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and five steals. He’s had moments like it the past – his 32-point, seven steal showing against Denver last year just before the season was put on hiatus is an example.

After struggling from the perimeter to start the season – he was shooting just 25 per cent from three after six games – Anunoby has caught fire from deep.

He was 22-of-37 coming into Sunday afternoon and then made his first three triples and finished 4-of-6 for the game, including calmly stepping into a three with 1:51 left that put the Raptors up four as the Pacers had cut Toronto’s eight-point fourth quarter lead to one.

“Just coming back from that road trip, just getting in the gym, working on form close to the basket and then stepping out and then just repeating the same shot,” was how Anunoby explained his extended hot streak.

But it was the rest of his game that makes the value Anunoby can deliver on the four-year, $72-million contract extension he signed on the eve of the regular season so exciting for the Raptors. He routinely was able to put the ball on the floor and bully his powerful six-foot-seven, 240-pound frame into the paint and all the way to the rim, using his quickness and length to force turnovers and steals while guarding everyone from point guards to power forwards.

He was more often than not the primary defender in a package along with Johnson that the Raptors used to neutralize Pacers big man Domantis Sabonis, who came into the game averaging 22 points, 12 rebounds and six assists but was held to 1-of-10 from the floor and just 13 points.

“I don’t really have a comparison player for him,” said Nurse. “He’s kind of a little bit unique that way because he guards all positions and we’re just seeing some expansion of his offence. But a lot of this — it’s like we talked about with Norm [Powell] the other night — comes with opportunity. … Take a couple of guys who take a good percentage of our offence out of [the lineup] and it has to shift somewhere.”

Pacers final score: Raptors clamp down on Pacers 107-102 – Indy Cornrows

Brogdon on the other hand, was hounded all game long, and responded poorly in the first half especially. He, and the Pacers as a whole, seemed to sleepwalk through the half, struggling to find their footing with the early tip. That led to 13 first half turnovers and 20 points off turnovers for Toronto, helping them build a double digit lead.

The second half trended back towards the Pacers after they treaded water for a bulk of the third, getting some nice energy plays from Justin Holiday and T.J. McConnell. As a team, they struggled to put it together until Turner took charge to finally put them in the lead early in the fourth.

Turner had 13 of his 25 points in the fourth, hitting a pair of threes and completing an and-one late to overcome an eight-point Toronto lead after the Pacers had briefly taken the lead on a Turner layup. Turner also had six blocks on the night, leading the Pacers with four made threes (Holiday had four as well).

Jeremy Lamb also played well again, scoring 13 points, hitting a three to open the fourth to put Indiana ahead, briefly. The briefly part of their leads is important to note because the Raptors put themselves in position to get buckets and stops at the exact moments they needed to, much like the Orlando game.

The Pacers, meanwhile, did a poor job getting that necessary stop. They quickly put the Raptors into the bonus in the fourth, sending Toronto the line five separate times in the back half of the quarter. The Raptors had four misses in that stretch, but one point per trip was more than they needed in helping them preserve their eight point lead.

This was not only the worst game of the year for Brogdon and Sabonis, but the worst overall team performance in field goal shooting (40.2%) and turnovers (19). The Raptors limited the Pacers to 40 points in the paint and outscored them 26-16 in points off turnovers. Indiana’s go-to successes were taken away and the three point shot didn’t fall at a rate high enough to make up for it.

The Raptors entered the half with a 58-47 cushion, but no lead is safe in the NBA nowadays. Nurse made some adjustments to start the second half, this time putting Anunoby on Sabonis. As per usual, OG made Sabonis work hard to get in position, forcing him into an uncomfortable 0-for-3 in the frame. However, the Raptors also had their own share of offensive struggles. The Pacers’ defense go the ball out of VanVleet’s hands and, combined with their interior defense, limited the Raptors to just six points in the last six minutes of the quarter. Going the other way, T.J. McConnell provided a spark, helping the Pacers to a 13-2 run to close the 3rd quarter, and cutting the Raptors lead down to 77-75.

Raptors killer Jeremy Lamb opened the final frame with a three-pointer which gave the Pacers the lead for the first time since midway through the second quarter. But with the game tied at 82, the Raptors went on an 8-0 run, largely thanks to back-to-back trifectas from VanVleet, good for six of his 21 points on the afternoon. The Raptors traded free throws with the Pacers, who were either hitting a three-pointer or drawing an and-1, which means things got hairy for the last five minutes of the game.

Case in point: with three minutes to go and the Raptors clinging again to a narrow two-point lead, Stanley Johnson’s floater got Toronto some separation, but Turner responded with a three-point play to cut the lead to one again. Anunoby and Turner then exchanged three-pointers, while Brogdon finally found his touch with a layup really late to tie the game at 102 with one minute left. The Raptors’ hustle play did get rewarded though, as Anunoby was fouled by Brogdon as they both went up for an offensive rebound. But then OG split his free throws, putting the Raptors up by just one. All things considered, this was too much excitement for a Sunday afternoon.

With the game on the line, former Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren drew up a play to potentially steal the lead for Indiana, but VanVleet and the Raptors hunkered down and stopped Indiana from even getting a shot off. To add to the satisaction for Toronto, on the game’s final meaningful possession, the Pacers drew up another play to get the ball to Sabonis in the paint — a sure-fire option so far this season — but his attempts were blocked, first by Chris Boucher and then by Johnson for good measure. An unlikely but compelling way to see Toronto pull out the win.

There’s no time to get too excited though: the Raptors and Pacers are back at it again tomorrow at 7pm. And we still don’t know Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam’s status. Nurse and the Raptors may have to count on the same ragtag crew, as it were, to bring the same energy tomorrow.

Toronto Raptors respond to last week’s setback with a couple undermanned wins –

Appropriately, the biggest plays of Sunday’s contest came on defence. With less than 30 seconds remaining and Indiana trailing by one point, Fred VanVleet tied up Malcolm Brogdon and wrestled the ball from the Pacers point guard. After OG Anunoby hit a pair of free throws to put the Raptors up by three points, Chris Boucher and Stanley Johnson each blocked Domantas Sabonis at the rim to put the game away.

This wasn’t necessarily the Raptors at their best, but it was a far more familiar version than the unrecognizable group we saw through long stretches of their uncharacteristically turbulent 2-8 start to the season. Instead of finding ways to lose, they’re once again finding ways to win.

“I’ve been lucky to play for a lot of good coaches growing up, and one thing I always was taught was just to be in the right place at the right time and then you’ll be able to make a play,” said VanVleet, one of the league’s most underrated defenders, who had 21 points to go along with his three steals. “So just try to be in the right spot, and you let your instincts and your talent and your skill take over and just try to make a play on the ball. That’s all I was doing there was just reading the situation and trying to make a play to help us win.”

Although Toronto had hoped to have Lowry back, and he may return for Monday’s rematch against the Pacers, the veteran point guard missed his second straight contest with a toe infection. Meanwhile, Siakam was a late scratch with swelling in his left knee.

Even against a banged up Indiana team that was missing T.J. Warren and the newly acquired Caris LeVert, the Raptors had their work cut out for them without their two all-stars. The Pacers came in with a 9-6 record, and with former Toronto assistant and Nurse disciple Nate Bjorkgren at the helm, these teams know each other well.

However, the Raptors held Brogdon and Sabonis – who were averaging a combined 44.2 points on 51 per cent shooting and 40 per cent from three-point range this season – to just 22 points on 6-of-32 from the field and 1-for-13 from long distance, with VanVleet and Anunoby playing crucial roles in neutralizing Indiana’s dynamic duo.

Anunoby’s elite two-way potential was on full display – bodying up the bigger Sabonis on defence and overpowering him in the paint, while hitting four of his six threes, getting to the free throw line 10 times, and scoring a game-high 30 points. He also recorded five steals before halftime.

It was fitting that the Raptors were rewarded with a big road win because of the work they put in. Despite missing two key pieces in Lowry (foot) and Siakam (knee), and despite a series of runs by the Pacers that might have led the Raptors to fold, Toronto finished the game with three straight defensive stops and held Indiana scoreless for the last minute.

“Got to really compliment the whole group there for putting in the effort,” coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s good to be rewarded for that effort. Took all 48 minutes of work.”

One of the best traits the Raptors have shown over the past few years is not getting flustered when key players miss games. “Next man up” is a cliche, but there has always been an enhanced collective awareness when they’ve had to make up for key absences.

“It’s just a funny dynamic where some of your best players are out and there’s just more opportunity for other guys,” VanVleet said. “Like an OG (Anunoby). The ball was finding him. He was in positions he probably wouldn’t be in if we had our full team. So it’s just a weird dynamic sometimes.

“Norman (Powell) usually plays well when we’ve got guys out. It’s just like more opportunity to go around, and there’s a focus. There’s much more focus. Like, it’s less stuff to juggle, it’s less egos, it’s less shots that have got to get distributed. So it’s just a different dynamic.”

To say this was a breakout game, even though it was a career high scoring night, would be incorrect because Anunoby has been racking up the steals and shooting from distance at a ridiculous clip for a few weeks now.

Over the five games coming into the Pacers’ mini-series, Anunoby was shooting the three-ball at 58% and was among the top five in the NBA in steals.

In a 1 p.m. start against the Pacers, he hit his first three attempts from beyond the arc and had five steals before the game was even half over.

He finished up with a fine afternoon’s work with 30 points, eight rebounds, those five steals and a key role in a team defensive effort that limited both Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis from doing anything close to what they normally manage offensively.

The team’s defensive effort was carried over from the win over Miami on Friday night, only this time the primary defenders turned out to be different guys.

Stanley Johnson, who a week ago did a monster tag-team job with Anunoby on Mavericks MVP candidate Luka Doncic, this time worked his magic from the opening tip as he got the start in place of Siakam.

With Anunoby carrying the scoring load, Johnson took primary defensive duties on Sabonis, though Anunoby did his share there too, and frustrated the Lithuanian big man holding him to just 10 points for the afternoon.

But the game might still not have gone Toronto’s way without Fred VanVleet’s defence on Brogdon, particularly on a potential go-ahead possession with 20 seconds left in the game.

VanVleet didn’t just blanket Brogdon, he very nearly picked his pocket eventually settling for hounding him into a shot clock violation.

The Pacers had no choice but to foul Anunoby on the inbound and the man of the game drained both to basically salt the game away.

One way Nurse has looked to improve Boucher’s utility to the team and avoid a potential strength disadvantage against bigger centres is by having him switch out to the perimeter and using the strength of OG Anunoby or Stanley Johnson on opposing centres. It has allowed the 28-year-old to use his length to his advantage and his mobility allows him to still recover to make those highlight blocks we see.

“Got to get him used to all this switching because he’s going to be out there guarding primary ball-handlers a lot because they’re going to go set with their five-man a lot and if we’re switching it, he’ll end up guarding those guys. And I think he’s got the speed and quickness and length to do it. Just gotta get some more reps at it.”

One thing Boucher has certainly proven over the course of his basketball journey is that he makes the most of his reps. While some may have been deterred by his age and ACL injury in his final year of college ball as far as his developmental curve was concerned—he went undrafted and was later cut by the Warriors after he initially signed a two-way contract—the Raptors haven’t been ones to shy away from something like that. They have a history of drafting players after a full four years of college—and selected OG Anunoby despite concerns about his right knee injury that required surgery—and have consistently worked to develop players on their roster, no matter the age.

Serge Ibaka is a great example of a player who blossomed both on and off the court after getting traded to the Raptors. Leadership and passing were considered weaknesses of his game, but as time wore on in Toronto, he became much more vocal, set the right example consistently, and improved his passing and three-point shooting significantly.

With several key departures from their team, the Raptors have focused on bigger roles for their future core in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and OG Anunoby. With each passing game, though, Boucher is staking his claim to be just as vital to Toronto’s future as he is to their present.
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