Previewing round two of Raptors-Pacers with Jared Wade of 8 points in 9 seconds.

Before I go on to do the actual recap, I’d like to share a quick personal story. I started blogging about the Raptors way back in…last summer and before the esteemed editors of Raptors Republic plucked me out of the blogging wilderness and thrust me into the spotlight, most of my poorly articulated thoughts on the Raptors were detailed in my personal blog.

I struggled mightily with naming the blog. Every title I came up with was either too generic (Jurassic Blog), too ironic (Blogging of Champions), too stupid (U No What Killed the Raptors? ICE) or too meme-worthy (PhilosoRaptors). I dwelled on this naming issue for quite some time until I stumbled upon my the perfect name — Both Teams Played Hard. Rasheed Wallace’s catch phrase had everything you’d want in a blog title. It’s catchy, it’s obviously basketball related, and it alluded to one of the most compelling characters in the history of the NBA.

With the name in hand, I proceeded to write extensively for the blog. I wrote a post-per-day throughout the summer. I even sent a couple of my posts to Zarar and Blake to be posted here on Raptors Republic, and it was then when Blake broke the news to me — it turns out that “Both Teams Played Hard” was already the name of former popular basketball blog.

Needless to say I was thoroughly embarrassed. I honestly had no idea that the name was already taken, although in retrospect it made total sense. Sheed’s other catch phrase had already been adopted for Yahoo’s NBA blog (Ball Don’t Lie, credit to former editor JE Skeets) and there was no way BTPH was just out there in the ether waiting to be christened. I immediately tried to rectify my blunder, but Blogger is silly and it wouldn’t let me change the URL, so I had to leave the title at “Both Teams Played Soft” as to minimize any confusion.

So without further ado, I present to you Jared Wade, former editor of Both Teams Played Hard (the real one), and founder of 8 points in 9 seconds. I caught up with Jared to preview the Raptors-Pacers game (thanks for doing this and apologies for jacking the name. I really didn’t know):

1. Paul George has been struggling with his shot of late (24/67 over his last four games), but he’s still a force to be reckoned with on offense. What’s the game-plan for stopping PG24?

A lot of his newfound scoring prowess can be credited to his improved midrange game. He has been creating high-quality jumpers for himself all season and, especially in the early going, he has made an otherworldly number of those shots. Lately, he has cooled off, and it has been a combination of teams game planning against him better as well as just the inevitable fall back from the unsustainable rate at which he was scorching the net. So that is what Toronto should do: try to get him to settle for pull ups. Or goad him into taking too many threes. He has developed a bit of a habit of launching from deep whenever he gets an inkling of daylight. The guy is prone to make them in bunches, so that could backfire, but if the Raptors can watch him go, say, 2-for-8 from the behind the arc then their chances to win rise markedly.

2. With the ascension of George, Hibbert and Stephenson, David West seems to be lost in the shuffle of late. Zach Lowe recently interviewed West about his new role as the 5th option on this stacked Pacers team, and he seems mostly content with it, but West’s numbers are down across the board (his TS% and per 36 scoring averages are near career lows). Is Vogel misusing the 17-foot assassin or is something else going on?

He is certainly still ahead of George Hill in the pecking order, and he gets more second-half touches than Roy Hibbert, who the offense often establishes early then goes away from for a long time. So I would say a lot of the usage drop can be attributed to the rise of George and Stephenson. Each has had the ball in their hands a ton more than last season. This has cut into West’s normal looks and has also pushed him out of the role of last-ditch creator when a possession falters. In the past, when the sets didn’t work and the shot clock was waning, the team would seemingly just throw West the ball in the midrange to say “Ummm … you do something with it.” Now, George is that guy. But another issue is just that West started off the year shooting poorly. He was just missing shots you expect him to make and became a bit reticent. He started looking for cutters and swing passes more. But he pushed his shooting up over 50% for the month of December while also taking more attempts. The last few games notwithstanding, he looks back to normal now, and by the time we get to the playoffs, I think Indiana will be relying on him to create as much as they have in the past.

3. I watched the Pacers-Hornets game last Saturday and Lance Stephenson simply took over in the third quarter by getting to the rim at-will against smaller defenders. The good news is that he gives the Pacers an added dimension on both sides of the floor and he’s enjoying career highs in almost every statistical category. The bad news is that he’s an unrestricted free-agent this offseason and is due for a significant raise. Do the Pacers bring him back, and will he give the money-conscious Pacers a discount?

I really think the best thing for his career would be to stay with the Pacers. The infrastructure around him here — namely Larry Bird, Frank Vogel, David West and George Hill — make this an ideal situation. Honestly, if the culture in place in Indiana wasn’t here to help nurture him in his early years, he very well might be playing in China by now. That said, I bet he gets a ludicrous offer (say, $11 million per year) from another team and ends up taking it. He has never made any money to speak of, and only fools pass up instant fortunes.

4. Speaking of transactions, will the Pacers make any moves to bolster the roster for yet another inevitable Eastern Conference Finals match-up with the Heat? If so, does Danny Granger’s expiring and Luis Scola for Pau Gasol make sense?

I don’t think they’ll make any big moves. Continuity is one of this team’s greatest strengths, and the reintegration of Danny Granger is enough of a shakeup for this season — not to mention something that that can put them over the top.

5. Your twitter account and says you’re in South America. Where are you exactly, what are you doing there and are you an undercover CIA agent?

Just got to Ecuador. I’ve always had an affinity for Latin America and finally got to the point where I could quit my full-time job to travel around down here. I’m about five months into a year-long stay with stretches in Colombia and Patagonia coming up soon. Everywhere has been wonderful so far, but I’m looking forward to those two spots the most. As for whether or not I’m in the CIA … classified.

The Pacers’ offense is predicated on Paul George. He’s the key to the elaborate engine. Shut down Paul George (like Terrence Ross did in their last match-up) and the battle is halfway won. But how do you stop him? Kyle Grand of 8in9 broke down George’s offensive arsenal quite nicely in this article, and so I ask you: how do you stop a hyper-athletic 6’9 wing who can handle, shoot, finish at the rim and consistently find his teammates?

Aside from George, you have series of awkward match-ups all over the floor. Nobody on the Raptors — not even Jonas — can effectively body up against Roy Hibbert. As you’ll recall, Hibbert had a tidy 8 points in the first quarter the last time these two teams played, mixing a combination of bullying in the post and showing off a surprisingly effective mid-range jumper.

Speaking of mid-range jumpers, as Jared details, David West is still dangerous. Although he’s not as effective as he was in the past, he’s still money from midrange. Amir needs to make sure to not help out on any drives to the basket while also not leaving West too much room to operate.

There’s also Lance Stephenson and Danny Granger on the wings. They’re both productive in very different ways — Lance is strong as an ox and is very effective when driving to the hoop while Granger is deadly from outside — and the Raptors bench, notably Salmons and perhaps even Fields, will need to step up to match the Pacers’ depth on the wing.

But here’s the rub, at least with respect to the Pacers — they’ll have to match up with the Raptors on the other end. Amir and Jonas have been tremendous of late and Hibbert will be forced to move laterally to defend them in the pick and roll. Can Hibbert stay out of foul trouble? Can West keep Amir and Jonas off the offensive glass?

And what about Derozan and Ross? The Raptors are running a slew of pin-downs for their sharpshooters — will the Pacers wings be able to keep up? Lance is a dogged on-ball defender but will he be able to toe the line between alert and over-aggressive? These questions didn’t exist before “the streak”, but as the Pacers themselves will Ron attest, these questions about the Raptors are now legitimate and will require answering.

One quick thing to keep an eye on is how the Raptors ball-handlers attack coming off screens. Synergy Sports had the Raptors down for 13 “Pick and Roll Ball Handler” plays (out of a total of 78) in their last match-up against the Pacers, and they only scored once. The description is a bit misleading — they don’t necessarily have to be pick and rolls, the designation simply refers to when a ball-handler shoots after getting a ball-screen — but the Pacers’ defensive strategy on said plays is obvious: their bigs sit back while their wings chase hard over the top. This strategy is a calculated trade off — they’ll concede the open mid-range look in exchange for deterring and defending shots at the rim. Here’s an example:

Most of the other 13 plays aren’t as well defended, but you get my point. There’s almost always an semi-open mid-range shot made available by the Pacers and the Raptors would be best served if Derozan, Ross, Lowry and Salmons can avoid going shoot better than 1 for 13 this time around. The Raptors shoot ~40% from midrange so we should expect some more success in this area.

Player Matchups

Point Guard — George Hill is a very steady point guard. His numbers are down because he delegates so much of the ball-handling and shot creating duties to Lance and George, but he’s still a sure-handed ball-handler and dead-eye shooter from distance. Having said all of that, given the way Lowry has been playing of late, this one is easily in the Raptors’ favor. Vasquez’s malaise and Watson’s well-rounded mediocrity is a wash.

Advantage: Raptors

Shooting Guard — Lance Stephenson is an oddball. He can rebound, he can pass and he’s a straight up bully…but I have to give the edge to Derozan because the dude has been balling of late. He dropped 26 points on 11/19 shooting on Dwyane Wade and the Heat! However, Granger is such a huge upgrade over Lanjohn FishFields that it negates any marginal bonus Derozan has over Lance. Hopefully Derozan will continue to be aggressive and rack up the fouls on Hibbert like he did last time. Having the Hoya2aPacer out of the lane will open up the offense for him and his teammates.

Advantage: Even

Small Forward — George vs Ross? I mean Ross shut him down last time (holding George to 5/14 shooting and 6 TOs) but it’s Paul freaking George. Sorry Ross, you’ve been on fire of late, but Boy George has the advantage here.

Advantage: Pacers

Front Court — On one hand Jonas and Amir have been fantastic of late. On the other hand, Hibbert is the best defender in the league and David West ain’t no slouch. I hate to admit it, but an average game from West and Hibbert is better than a good game from our front-court. The bench — particularly 2Pat — can swing it into balance for the Raptors, but Scola and Mahinmi are very solid. The bigs need to be active, prevent offensive rebounds, protect the basket and stay out of foul trouble. That’s asking for a lot.

Advantage: Pacers

Bench — The Sacramento Kings vs Scola, Mahinmi, Granger and Watson? This one belongs to the Pacers. Expect both teams’ starters to log heavy minutes, but the Raptors bench is unpredictable at best. Having Hansbrough back will help, but the Salmons and Patrick Patterson will need to step up in order to even this one out.

Advantage: Pacers

Vegas Says: Pacers -7.5, -110. Total: 187. Can you tell that I don’t know how sports betting lines work yet? If you’re a degenerate gambler into this stuff, have a looksies here (but seriously don’t gamble on the NBA).

Prediction: Sorry boys. I love these guys but it looks like a loss for the Raptors. The schedule softens up for later on in the month so expect the team to climb back over 0.500 in no time, but this has all the makings of a let-down game. The Raptors have spent the last two days in Miami (where it isn’t -139704980 C like it is here in Toronto), so they’ll either be well-rested or “too-rested”, if you catch my drift. Hopefully I’m wrong, but brace yourselves people. Pacers win by 8.

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