The defensive stops that saved the Raptors' season
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It seemed inevitable, then, that the Raptors would make some kind of run when George took his rest at the start of the fourth quarter in Game 5 – particularly since Pacers coach Frank Vogel opted to fill that void with one of his team’s worst lineups. Indiana’s offense, which had subsisted on smart passing and sharp three-point shooting throughout the night, failed to produce a single point in the three and a half minutes George sat. He returned to the game with the Pacers still in front, 90-83, and every reason to believe his strong play (George had registered 37 points, seven assists, and six rebounds to that point) would continue in sealing a victory.
Somehow, Toronto rallied. The big shots the Raptors hit down the stretch will be remembered on their own in the way that big shots always are. Of even greater importance and lesser acclaim, however, was the defensive stand that allowed a hardworking team to pull its way back into a game that should have been lost. A night full of defensive oversight and miscommunication was redeemed by stout coverage of Indiana’s best, limiting the Pacers to just nine fourth-quarter points in total. Let’s review how exactly the Raps made their way back, one stop at a time:
Long before this signature possession took a highlight turn, Raptors rookie Norman Powell fought to keep in step with George. Desperation had removed all mystery from Indiana’s game plan; the ball badly needed to find George, which in turn called Powell to deny him. First Powell refused George any uncontested step below the free throw line. If he intended to post up, George would have to back Powell down from there. Should he look to cut instead, George would have to slink past a defender shuffling to stay in his way. This helped to negate Myles Turner’s baseline screen before it was ever properly set, which in turn allowed Raps reserve Bismack Biyombo to buy his pushed-off teammate time by parking in George’s path. Once back on his feet, Powell goes right back to work face-guarding George off the ball. Somehow he dodges Turner’s down screen attempt while in hot pursuit and jumps the pass with no Pacer the wiser. None could dream of catching up with Powell as he streaked down the floor and launched himself at the rim from the middle of the paint.
Draining the shot clock squeezes an offense by depriving it of a most precious resource. The best scoring teams in the game use actions upon actions to build toward continuity. Shorten the window in which an offense can create those layers and the work of the defense becomes simplified. Consider this sequence with that in mind. Pressuring the inbound forces George Hill to catch the ball at a standstill just a few feet from the baseline. Monta Ellis relieves Hill from Cory Joseph’s full-court pickup and clears the ball into the frontcourt. 17 seconds remain. After receiving a dribble hand-off, George throws an off-target pass – perhaps out of some newfound concern for Powell – to Turner at the top of the key. The Pacer big man scrambles to recover it, and resets the offense through George near midcourt. 8. Powell plays to the time crunch by giving George no operating room whatsoever. He bodies up his mark on the catch, sliding along as Indy’s star wing looks to make his move.
It’s ultimately a hesitation that does Powell in. 5. George sheds his shadow and, aware of the ticking clock, attacks the open lane with his head down. By the time he sees Kyle Lowry rotating over to take a charge, it’s far too late; George rolls over the smaller Lowry and turns over possession with the game tied.
George begins this possession as an inbounder, which is significant because Powell makes it a chore for Indiana’s go-to scorer to even step back into play. This alters the spacing and timing of what was supposed to be an off-ball screen for Hill; George instead has to push his way into workable screening position, which Joseph then fights through to track Hill. Toronto wisely opted for a switch on the ensuing screen, given that their efforts had stalled out this Pacer set to the point that just five seconds remained on the shot clock. Hill – in a manner not appropriately urgent – entered the ball into the high post with under two seconds remaining and earned his team a shot-clock violation.
The first three quarters seemed a breeze to George, who demonstrated the handle, the touch, and the vision necessary to carry an offense. Powell, despite this, played undaunted. Indiana dispensed with its table setting for this possession and went straight to George for a high pick-and-roll. It was Powell’s trailing that forced George to receive the ball (and thus initiate his pick-and-roll) well outside the three-point line. As a result of that initial effort, Powell was able to float under the screen without surrendering a quality look. He emerged to wall off George from the lane, all but forcing a deferential pass-out. That his solo effort took the ball out of George’s hands was a defensive victory in itself. That the play ultimately ended with Ellis hoisting up a contested three only confirmed the result.
Toronto could not have snuck away with a Game 5 win were it not for some good fortune. Powell handled most of his defensive responsibilities with poise and focus down the stretch, forcing George to make his every move uphill. Here the young Raptor does the same…right up until the moment when he believes that Ellis has committed to shooting. If not for the power of levitation, he may have been right. While Ellis floated past a vertically extended Biyombo, George darted to the weak-side corner and left Powell staring at the rim. A made shot here changes the game. A miss bailed out the Raptors on one of their few missteps down the stretch.
There was similar saving grace in the decision-making of Monta Ellis. Lowry locked in on Ellis for what looked to be the game’s final possession, picking up the spaciest of the Pacer ball handlers all the way out at the hash mark. For reasons that may never be clear, Ellis took this as an invitation to drive against a ticking clock in what was a three-point game. Even an Ellis layup (a contested two when down three) would have done little for Indiana’s chances. Lowry snuffed out even that possibility by recovering in front of Ellis and jumping into outstanding position to contest the shot without fouling. The ball would return to the Pacers after rolling off Biyombo’s arm, but the Raptors very nearly had the game in hand thanks to sharp defense on a befuddling play.
Ultimately, it took one more try and another lucky break:
All of the hard work it took for Toronto to claw back into this game was very nearly undone by a few minor errors in this final 2.7 seconds. Lowry opted to defend the inbound pass with his hands down, as if he might spring up from a half-crouch and snatch the ball out of mid-air. Powell played what was ultimately a desperation pass for a possible deflection, and in the process over-committed just a few steps to George’s right. It was that window that allowed George to step into open air and lull Joseph into a double team – leaving Solomon Hill completely unguarded in the process. Playoff teams have been punished for less. The chaotic sequence (lengthened slightly by Hill’s release), however, was just slow enough for the Raptors to ride out a 3-2 series lead upon video review. Hard work, renewed focus, and a precious tenth of a second gave Toronto a winning formula in a game it couldn't afford to lose.