7:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Toronto -7, Over/Under: 194
Saturday’s kickoff to the Playoffs provided an early surprise as the Indiana Pacers pulled the only upset of the day, knocking off the Toronto Raptors in Game One of their First Round series. After an injury ravaged 2014-2015 campaign which saw them miss the postseason altogether for the first time since 2010, the Pacers (45-37, 2nd in Central Division) underwent a dramatic makeover to help them advance to this point. And if their 100-90 victory at Air Canada Centre was any indication, then Frank Vogel and his charges aren’t simply happy to back in the Playoffs, for they have designs of advancing much further. Once the poster child for the bigger, slower, plodding teams that are gradually being phased out of today’s game, Indiana said goodbye to longtime Bigs such as Roy Hibbert and David West in an effort to transition to a smaller, quicker unit placing an emphasis on pace. Two years ago when they were the No. One Seed in the Eastern Conference, these guys operated at one of the slower paces in the league, averaging 92.5 possessions per 48 minutes (20th Overall), but have now significantly increased that figure to 96.6 possessions on average, representing a jump to eleventh in the NBA. Personnel has had a lot to do with that, particularly with the acquisition of Monta Ellis, a 6′-3″ Combo Guard who has been characterized throughout his career as instant offense. In Game One, the sparkplug scored fifteen points on 5-of-12 shooting from the field (41.7%), including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc (75.0%), along with three rebounds, five assists, and three steals, helping keep the Raptors’ aggressive Backcourt off balance and disjointed throughout the contest. However, the biggest takeaway from the victory was the triumphant return of one Paul George to the postseason landscape. The All-Star missed all but six games of the 2014-2015 campaign after suffering a horrific broken leg during an exhibition with the Men’s National Team, returning to a completely different cast in terms of personnel and philosophy. We’d say he’s acclimated himself quite nicely, playing multiple positions in Vogel’s lineup, en route to posting career-highs in scoring (23.1), three-point field goals (210), free-throws (454), assists (4.1), and steals (1.9), along with a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 20.9. And any doubts in regards to his health were emphatically put to rest with his performance Saturday in Toronto; in a game that quickly turned into a defensive slugfest, the 25-yearr old proved to be the deciding factor, scoring a game-high thirty-three points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field (54.5%), including a stellar 4-of-5 from beyond the arc (80.0%), along with four rebounds, six assists, four steals and a pair of blocks. He started off slow, making only 2-of-9 attempts in the First Half (22.2%), but caught fire in the Second, netting 10-of-13 shots from the field (76.9%). Apart form George’s heroics, the Pacers had to earn everything they got, shooting only 43.0% from the field overall and getting bludgeoned on the glass by fourteen rebounds. Yet the difference in the game was the three-point arc, where they nailed 11-of-21 attempts (52.4%), outscoring the hosts by a decisive twenty-one points. That shooting performance came to the surprise of many, for Indiana has not been a prolific three-point shooting team this season, only attempting 23.0 treys per game (20th Overall) and making 35.1% of them (14th Overall). However, this could bear watching as this series progresses, for as good as the Raptors have been defensively this season, they have curiously been one of the worst teams in the league at defending the arc, allowing 37.3% shooting from long-range, the second-highest figure in the league. Much of what they do defensively is due to being able to slow opponents down, and limiting the volume of attempts. If Vogel and Co. can manage to speed things up then they can really inflict some damage. And while their opponent lives at the Charity Stripe, trading three for one is pretty favorable math, right?
Meanwhile, the faithful north of the border must be getting restless after their Raptors (56-26, 1st in Atlantic Division) laid an egg (pun intended) in Saturday’s disappointing defeat at the hands of the Pacers. Nothing went right for the home side, as they looked lethargic, mistake-prone, and downright prehistoric (again, pun intended) throughout forty-eight minutes of play. Dwayne Casey’s charges typically thrive in an ugly game, but the only thing that thrived at Air Canada Centre were the groans from the crowd. Simply put, Toronto was dismal offensively, shooting just 38.0% from the field, including a miserable 4-of-19 from beyond the arc (21.1%), and despite securing a ridiculous twenty offensive rebounds, couldn’t make the most of their second chance opportunities. And speaking of blown opportunities, despite shooting a whopping thirty-eight free-throws, they only managed to make twenty-six of them (68.4%). As we highlighted earlier, Indiana was able to put quite a bit of distance between them via the money ball, and since they don’t really shoot many themselves (23.4, 19th Overall), then they’re going to need to establish an advantage at the Charity Stripe. On the season, the Raptors attempted the third-most freebies in the league (26.7), netting 20.8 per game, the second-most in the NBA. Hell, All-Star Guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry attempted a staggering 1,144 free-throws themselves, with both shooting well over 80.0%. To pile on, they didn’t help themselves at all by fouling the visitors twenty-seven times, which led to twenty-nine attempts, with twenty-one going through the net (72.4%). Again, this was very uncharacteristic of a team that committed the ninth-fewest fouls overall, and saw their opponents attempt just 23.1 per game (6th-fewest). Furthermore they were utterly careless with the basketball, committing twenty turnovers, which allowed George and Ellis and Co. to speed the tempo up for short stretches, leading to twenty-five points off said miscues. Oh, and in case you were wondering, these guys only committed 13.1 turnovers a night, fifth-fewest in the game. Needless to say, this team hardly resembled the one that set a franchise record with fifty-six victories, and was the clear-cut No. Two behind the Cavaliers throughout the campaign. With the memory of consecutive First Round exits fresh in the collective minds of their fan base, the Raptors must get back to what they do well, and that means their Backcourt must remember who they are. Together, DeRozan and Lowry comprise one of the top tandems in the game today, accounting for 44.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 3.1 steals, playing an aggressive, attacking style on both ends of the court. DeRozan is more of a throwback Shooting Guard, eschewing the money ball (47 three-pointers on the season) for mid-range jumpers and furious drives to the rim, while Lowry is a bulldog at Point Guard, providing spacing with his shooting (38.8% 3FG) and playing relentless on-ball defense. With that said, fairly or unfairly, these guys have earned a rather dubious reputation of coming up short in the Playoffs; in last year’s series sweep at the hands of the Wizards, the pair shot a dismal 36.5% from the field, including 25.8% from beyond the arc, while committing twenty-two turnovers. Believe it or not, Saturday was actually worse, as DeRozan and Lowry combined for just twenty-five points on 8-of-32 shooting from the field (25.0%), including 1-of-10 from three (10.0%), with nine turnovers compared to eleven assists.