Happy 2014, everyone.

The Raptors finished off 2013 with an encouraging 85-79 victory over the Bulls on Tuesday night, but things get much more difficult to start 2014.

Unfortunately for the players, they had to hop on a plane back to Toronto right after the game and likely spent the stroke of midnight sipping in-flight Gatorade together. At the very least, the Indiana Pacers had to do the same, travelling after a home drubbing of Cleveland, although they played at 3 p.m. and as such might be a bit more settled and rested.

The Raptors would be in tough against Indiana, the East’s top team at 25-5, in any scenario, but the second game of a travel back-to-back poses an extra challenge. But it’s a new year, so let’s try our best to be optimistic.

To help break down the game, I hit up Ian Levy, top cheese at Hickory High and contributor of excellent work at Hardwood Paroxysm.

1) So…the Pacers are pretty good. With Raptor fans seemingly split (if not evenly) on whether to tank or not tank, perhaps you could speak to the experience of Pacers fans over the past decade. The team doesn’t have a single player picked higher than 10th (Paul George), but is the “Pacers model” of smart drafting and unbelievable player development at all one that can be replicated? (Obviously not reliably, but what I’m asking is whether this is a lot of good fortune or a legitimate building strategy?)

I think the whole thing looks way more comprehensively strategic in hindsight than it actually was. Writer’s and fans spend a lot of time with the binary “tank or not to tank” question, but I think it’s always more complicated at the team level, and certainly was for the Pacers. My sense is that for most teams (at least the smart ones) every opportunity to change the make-up of their team is evaluated based on how much potential for improvement it offers, short-term and long-term. Some teams are obsessed with the short term (see Knicks, New York). For some, playing the long game means getting bad quickly. For the Pacers, I think they always saw the path to improvement paved with player development.

After the brawl the team began sliding towards irrelevance in large part because they felt forced to make some deals that would clear the roster of players who had been involved in that mess. Those moves were made outside the context of a win-loss dynamic. But as the roster turned over they found themselves with some young talent that felt worth developing – Danny Granger, Tyler Hansbrough, T.J. Ford, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush, Paul George, A.J. Price. Finding themselves in that situation I think Donny Walsh and Larry Bird saw that the quickest path to improvement was maximizing that talent and hoping they could convert it into something more with sweat equity. I think the Pacers journey is less a commentary on the viability (or lack thereof) of tanking and more a lesson on just trying to make the best of what you have.

2) Granny Danger is back and could add another element to the Pacers second unit, taking over Orlando Johnson’s minutes. How has he looked through a handful of games, and what do you see as his role come playoff time?

He’s clearly still figuring things out, especially on offense and it’s understandable considering how much has changed since he was last playing regular minutes for the Pacers. The biggest concern is staying healthy between now and the playoffs. Lance Stephenson’s contract situation and impending free agency is very complicated and Granger’s own impending free agency is one of the biggest variables. The clearest path is for the Pacers’ to get as much as they can out of Granger this season, hopefully pushing themselves over the top into championship contention. What they need from him is consistent defense, solid shooting and health. The health thing will always be a question but right now it looks like he’ll be able to provide the other two fairly soon.

3) The Raptors should probably just not bother attempting shots at the rim, right? The Pacers allow a below-average number of attempts within five feet and have the best rim protection in the entire league. They also somehow don’t allow any corner threes. Other than getting piping hot from mid-range, what can the Raptors do to score on this team?

It’s a risky proposition but attacking the rim does give the opportunity to get Hibbert in foul trouble. Taking and making open mid-range shots is important and so is forcing turnovers and attacking the Pacers in transition. But the biggest component of scoring enough to beat the Pacers is not wasting opportunities. Open shots have to be made and the ball has to be protected.

4) Rasual Butler – still completely useless?

I’d much rather see his minutes going to either Orlando Johnson or Solomon Hill, both young players with a lot of potential. But he doesn’t kill the Pacers when he’s on the floor and I suppose he’s not a bad insurance policy to have in case every other wing on the roster simultaneously rolls an ankle.

5) Following this game, the team’s meet again next Tuesday. Is Frank Vogel the kind of coach to make adjustments game-to-game, or will the Raptors likely see the same offensive sets and defensive looks in both games?

Defensively, I doubt you’ll see anything different. Offensively it seems like Vogel is still figuring out a balance on offense and tinkering to see what he can rely on in different situations when the playoffs arrive. The playbook is still pretty vanilla but you may see different players take on a more featured role at different points.

Vegas says: Pacers -6 with 72 percent of action landing on the road team, over/under of 192.5 with the under being taken 58 percent of the time.
Hollinger says: Pacers -2.5
Heisenberg says: Say my name

Blake says: It’s tough to be too optimistic given the opponent, but with a fresh new year, let’s give the Raptors some benefit of the doubt – they keep it close enough for the fourth quarter to matter, make yet another statement that they’re not a pushover and gain some valuable experience but just miss covering the spread. Pacers by seven.

Happy new year, everyone! Hope you all had a safe and happy December 31.