“This season has been a reality check.” said Pacers star Paul George in a recent ESPN article “You think you are gonna be in those playoff battles, playing alongside those guys forever. You have to try and recapture that moment. And that moment for us was having a strong chemistry and identity. We don’t have one now. I’ve never been on a team without an identity — without a toughness identity.” The Pacers have been reeling back in the Eastern conference playoff picture the last few weeks. With a strong finish to the season, the Pacers could have saved their season and snuck into the fifth seed, instead they have lost four of their last five games coming into the ACC on Friday night, and have dropped all the way to bottom playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
This is the time of the year where every game against playoff teams, have major implications. The Raptors are still fighting their way into top spots in the Eastern Conference, and the Pacers are just trying to hang onto one. This was a must win for both teams.
The first half saw the Raptors get off to an ugly start, which is becoming an unfortunate trend these past few games. The Raptors would regain the lead momentarily in the second, until the all bench unit of Delon Wright, Norman Powell, P.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, and Jakob Poeltl underperformed. The all bench unit has proven to play great defensively, but tonight it just wasn’t there on both sides of the floor. Coach Casey opted to bring back a majority of the starters to cut the halftime deficit to two. For stretches, this was a really rough defensive half for the Raptors, but offensively it wasn’t great either, combining to shoot 37% from the field in the first half.
The third quarter is where the Raptors would really pull away. The Pacers have been riddled with injuries as of late, Rodney Stuckey was released after a strained left patellar tendon, Al Jefferson has a high ankle sprain, and newly acquired Lance Stephenson isn’t active until Sunday’s game. These injuries made the Pacers rotations thin, and the Raptors depth proved too much for them during the third quarter. The DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas pick and roll couldn’t be stopped. DeRozan seemed to score on nearly every possessions, while Valanciunas was taking advantage of the poor rebounding Pacer units, scoring 12 points in the third, along with a franchise high 13 rebounds in the quarter..
It was one of Valanciunas’ best quarter of the season, he looked very energized posting up, diving to the basket in the PnR, and finished the game with 16 points and 16 rebounds. Valanciunas has strung together some great games recently, while he’s had a very up and down season, his game is trending upwards at the perfect time of the year.
The Raptors would outscore the Pacers 34 to 20 in the third quarter, and would lead by 12 going into the fourth quarter. The Raptors would hold their lead for the entire fourth quarter. On the other hand the Pacers looked gassed down the stretch looking for options on their bench but coming up with no answers. They would trim the lead to eight briefly, but the impressive play of Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker, and DeRozan wouldn’t let that lead slip any further. DeRozan would finish the game with an amazing 40 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists, on 11-26 shooting, converting 15 of his 20 free throws.
Down the stretch, DeRozan was unstoppable and the Pacers didn’t have many options to stop him. Tonight’s 40 point game ties him for second with Chris Bosh for most 40 point games as a Raptor, trailing only Vince Carter by 5 games. These kinds of offensive outbursts from DeRozan have been more impressive without Lowry. Defenses are loading up hard on him, doubling him as high up as they possibly can, but his improved playmaking has made him a threat to pass out to open shooters or a cutting Valanciunas. DeRozan somehow still has the ability to find his way to spots and get off some of the most ridiculous shots we’ve ever seen. This season watching the heights DeRozan has take in his game has been such a fun ride, this night was just one of many jaw dropping performances from him.
The Raptors would take this game 111-100, and this game ended up being a pretty big one for the Raps. With a Wizards loss in Utah last night, the Raptors move into third place in the Eastern Conferece, owning the season series tie breaker over the Wizards. The Raptors will have very little control over who they play in each round of the playoffs, wether they get to face off against the Cleveland Cavilers in the second or third round, it doesn’t really matter, they will have to beat whomever they are matched up against no matter what round they’re in.
The good new is, the Raptors continue to trend upwards, the defense has been really impressive since the All-Star break. With a favorable schedule in the final six games, the Raptors have a shot at winning 50 games, and holding that third seed come postseason. Tonight’s game was a solid win, a lot of factors were working against the Pacers, the Raptors should absolutely win those kinds of game. The Raptors play next on Sunday, at home against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Follow – @Spenred