I started the week off by predicting a 3-1 week for the Raptors and a win over the Pacers tonight. Two hopefully minor knee injuries to two of the arguably most important Raptors later and I’m a little nervous about that pick. I stand by it, but seeing Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson in the layup lines would go an awfully long way towards assuaging my nerves about it.
On the bright side, the Indiana Pacers are in the midst of a complete mental breakdown. CJ Watson’s absence has been rough on a second unit that struggled mightily to score even with him. But the real problem has been the starters (not to be confused with The Starters, whose off-the-wall April Fools episode was genius). Paul George had to hit a last second 3 pointer that looked more like a QB throwing a 40 yard post bomb than a basketball shot just to sneak out a win the other night. Against Detroit.
David West has taken a small step back this season, and that’s been a big problem for an Indiana offence that secretly relied on him more than you’d think. West is down from 17 points and 8 rebounds to 13 points and 6 rebounds a game. It’s not just a case of playing less minutes on a veteran curve either, as his per 36 minutes stats have sagged comparably. Part of the Raptor’s occasional success against the Pacer’s has been Amir Johnson’s ability to contain David West. If Amir plays and controls David West, the Pacer’s offence should be easily corralled by the Raps. Amir Johnson makes David West cover more ground than he normally would guarding pick and rolls and running the court. In addition to his athleticism, Amir is strong enough to push back defensively against West’s high post bullying and battle him for offensive rebounds and put-backs. West has not had success against the strong and athletic power forwards in the league, rare though they be.
While David West is important to Indiana’s offense, Paul George is the key to it. His mid-range game, which was unsustainably hot to start the season, has crashed brutally back to Earth. But that’s not his only problem. George has struggled to drive to the basket. Between Hibbert battling for post position (which they will need him to be ready to do as a major cog of their offence if they hope to beat Miami in the conference finals, which suddenly feels like it’s putting the chicken before the egg) help defense doesn’t struggle to step into the lane when there is so little movement and effective off-ball screening and misdirection keep them busy. Evan Turner was been much better from 3-point range with the Pacers so far than the 28% he was shooting in Philly, but besides the fact that the 17 shots he’s taken are too small of a sample size to reach any meaningful conclusions, the rest of what he’s been in Indiana so far has been bad. He’s been a problem on defense, which is typical of a player in a new system, but especially so when it’s a system as quick and demanding as Indiana’s. It doesn’t help that Evan Turner has never been a plus defender and played the last year and a half for a Philadelphia team that could not possibly have given less ishes about defensive laziness.
If it seems like I’m really hammering the point here that the Pacer’s offence is vulnerable, it’s because it is. Like, it REALLY is. Since February 1st, the 76ers have been the only team in the league with a worse offence than Indiana. Which is to say, in a normal year wherein the most embarrassingly bad team in the history of the NBA was not currently playing, the Pacers would have had the worst offence in the league. So yeah, I like the Raptors tonight.
Things to look for:
Hansbrough owes a body slam to at least one Pacer to make up for trying to suplex Valanciunas a year ago.
The two Lance Stephensons. Lance was an all-star contender in the first half of the season. He now has 198 turnovers on the season, 18th most in the league.
Amir Johnson and Roy Hibbert are tied for the lead league in personal fouls coming in to tonight (260 apiece). Whoever picks up more harms is going to walk out of the ACC wearing the belt. If you think that neither one of these players knows nor cares about this title, well, you’re probably right. Let’s move on.
Valanciunas is closing in on Hibbert’s numbers. Not his defense, sure. But watch the matchup. Valanciunas is 15th in the league in total rebounding percentage. 20th in the league in rebounding, 17th in shooting percentage and he’s shooting 76% from the free throw line. That’s an awful lot of efficient contribution from a 21-year old whose still only playing 27 minutes a game.