NBA Playoffs Preview: Raptors vs. Pacers
The ultimate storyline from this series will inevitably come down to one thing: can the Toronto Raptors follow up on a successful regular season with success in the playoffs?
They came into the last two postseasons before this one having won the Atlantic Division, while setting a new franchise record for wins. Each time, they went into their opening-round series as the home team and odds-on favorite, and both times they were knocked out in heartbreaking fashion. The first loss -- a seven-game series that came down to the last shot against the Brooklyn Nets -- still gave the team's fanbase hope for the future, but all that optimism was obliterated after an embarrassing 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards last season.
So here the Raptors stand yet again: another new team record for wins (56), one more division banner to hang in their lonely rafters, and the monkey of never having won a seven-game series still planted firmly on their backs. The only time the team has ever even advanced past the first round in their seven previous playoff appearances over a 20-year existence remains when they won a five-game series against the New York Knicks in 2000-01, back when the playoffs followed a best of 5-7-7-7 format.
And Indiana stands as yet another underdog that seems perfectly capable of knocking off an inexperienced Toronto team, in the mold of Brooklyn and Washington before them. Only two years removed from a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers may have the look of an up-and-coming team, but their main guys actually benefit from having been there and done that.
Paul George just put up one of the best comeback seasons in recent memory and looks ready to be the player that has led his team within striking distance of the NBA Finals twice already in his still young career. Frank Vogel has had a very successful tenure as the Pacers head coach, winning in both the regular season and playoffs, and brings the kind of defensive tutelage that makes a difference in the postseason. Veterans George Hill and Monta Ellis are both seasoned and ready to make the big shots when needed.
Will all that be enough to make the Pacers the third straight lower-seeded team to knock the Raptors out in the first round, or are we all overthinking Toronto's past transgressions and giving too little credit to a team that has improved in several key ways this year, is very different from the team that got bounced the last two years, and is simply the better team in this matchup?
Let's find out.
Toronto Raptors (2)
Championship Odds: 6.4%
Indiana Pacers (7)
Championship Odds: 1.1%
Regular Season Series - Raptors 3, Pacers 1
The Raptors took three of four in the season series against the Pacers by an average of 9.0 points per win. Of course, the Raptors should know more than any team not to put too much stock in a regular season series because they swept the Wizards 3-0 during the 82-game campaign last year before dropping all four contests to them in the postseason.
Even so, the Raptors have looked like the better team overall in the games between the two squads this season, despite a large variance in their rotations. DeMarre Carroll only managed to play in the season opener between the two and missed the subsequent three matchups, Jonas Valanciunas missed two of the games due to a fractured hand, and Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Luis Scola were all rested in the series finale that took place less than a week ago (that the Raptors won by a final score of 111-98 anyway, behind up-and-comer Norman Powell's 27 points).
One thing that stands out from the series is that both Raptors centers, Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo, put up what could be their respective best games of the season against the Pacers. Valanciunas posted 21 points and 15 rebounds in the season opener, while Biyombo tagged Indy for 16 points, a whopping 25 rebounds, and 2 blocks in the third tilt on March 17th (a 101-94 Raptors victory).
The Pacers may have the league's third-best defense by our metrics (Defensive Rating of 102.9), but the small-ball mentality that they have tried to implement this season after trading Roy Hibbert has ceded some big-time performances from the Raptors' center position.
How the Raptors Can Win
The Raptors need to dictate their terms as to how these games will be played. Toronto plays at the second-slowest Pace in the Association at 92.9 possessions per 48 minutes, while the Pacers rank 11th at 96.6. The Raptors are second in the league in Free Throw Rate (freebies per field goal attempt) at .255, while the Pacers only allow .205 (better than league average). The Raptors have a top-five offense (110.0 Offensive Rating), and the Pacers have a top-three defense (102.9 Defensive Rating).
If Toronto can slow the game down to their preferred pace, get to the line as well as they have all season, and don't let the Pacers' defensive prowess disrupt their offensive attack of drives, threes, and buckets of free throws, then they should win this series.
Also, getting the All-Star version of Kyle Lowry -- as opposed to the one who scored 12.3 points on 31.6% shooting from the floor and 21.7% from deep during last season's loss to the Wizards -- would help.
Raptors Player to Watch - DeMarre Carroll / Norman Powell
DeMarre Carroll missed 42 straight games because of a January knee surgery and only managed to play in 26 games this whole season. His averages of 11.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.0 assist, 1.7 steals were pretty much on par with what he was doing in Atlanta, but the 38.9% shooting from the field was a far cry from his 47.9% mark in 143 games with the Hawks. Even so, the Raptors' prized offseason acquisition wasn't brought in to fill up the box score with scoring and rebounds; he was signed to hit open threes and defend the crap out of opposing wings.
He's not quite back up to speed with only 50 minutes of game time logged since his return, but Carroll can still be a pest on defense against the Pacers' go-to guy, George, while managing to hit open treys as Indiana focuses their defense on the drives of Lowry and DeRozan and the post presence of Valanciunas.
And if Carroll can't contribute at a high enough level, the Raptors just so happen to have found another 3-and-D wing in rookie Norman Powell that they somehow unearthed with the 46th pick in last year's draft. Powell has come on strong in his last dozen games (all starts), averaging 14.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.2 steals per contest over that span, while shooting a blistering 51.7% from the field and 52.0% from long range.
One way or another, the way Carroll and/or Powell manage to match up with Paul George will dictate just how this series will go, particularly when the teams go small.
How the Pacers Can Win
The Pacers' best path to winning is by taking the first game of the series in Toronto. The Raptors finished fourth in the league in attendance this year and are well known for their nationwide #WeTheNorth branding and raucous "Jurassic Park" outside the Air Canada Center, but boy do they have trouble getting over the jitters and winning that first home game. They've dropped it in both of the last two years and have yet to win an opening-round Game 1 in seven postseason appearances, regardless of whether they've played at home or away.
We have yet to see this iteration of the Raptors fully regain confidence after being knocked down a peg or two, so the Pacers gaining a series lead at any point and taking homecourt advantage away could give them the mental edge.
Otherwise, the 2 versus 7 matchup isn't meant to be that close, so it might take a monster star performance from Paul George to bridge the gap between these two teams.
Speaking of which...
Pacers Player to Watch - Paul George
Paul George horrifically broke his leg just two summers ago but has come back this season to put up career numbers. Over a career-high 81 games, he averaged a career-best 23.1 points, added 7.0 rebounds, and tied personal bests with 4.1 assists and 1.9 steals per contest.
That said, his splits against the Raptors this season weren't all that great. He averaged only 16.3 points (his second-lowest average against an Eastern Conference opponent), while shooting a putrid 30.8% from the field and 26.9% from deep (compared to a 41.8% and 37.2% split, respectively, on the season).
As mentioned above, the Pacers' chances of winning this series rest largely on PG-13's shoulders, and for the Raptors to live up to their excellent regular season, they'll have to find ways to shut him down. Monta Ellis, George Hill, and the emerging rookie, Myles Turner, will obviously make a big impact on this series as well, but there's no denying that the Pacers' potential success will begin and end with Paul George.
The Raptors made some key offseason moves this year while mostly keeping their core in tact, staying the course with coach Dwane Casey and the team's two main stars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The additions of DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, and Luis Scola were meant to give the team a new identity, one tougher and more defensive-minded. While that has seemed to work for most intents and purposes during the regular season, no one seems to think they can trust the Raptors to win a playoff series until proven otherwise.
That said, our algorithms don't hold the bias of having seen last year's Raptors completely melt down against the Wizards. Instead, our prediction is based on the performance of the two teams this season, and what we've seen favors one team clearly enough.
According to our algorithms: Raptors are 65.97% favorites.
My final prediction: Raptors in 5.