Here we go again – for the 3rd time in just over two weeks, the Toronto Raptors are set to play the Indiana Pacers, the regular season series moving to Indianapolis. Last April’s playoff bout notwithstanding, Toronto has taken 4 straight regular season games from Indiana, and 9 of the last 10. The Pacers will be hungry and desperate for a win, after having fallen out of the East’s top 8 (tied with Miami for the final playoff spot, the Heat own the tiebreaker).
Indiana picked the worst time possible to enter a poor run of form, having lost 4 in a row, and not won consecutive games since February 6. As a result, the Tuesday night contest is essentially a must-win for the home team, and should present a playoff-type atmosphere. They did however take Cleveland to two overtime periods on the road before ultimately falling to the NBA champions Sunday, and will be encouraged by their performance.
Alex: Indiana’s identity in the Frank Vogel years has always been defense first (finished 1st, 7th and 3rd in defensive rating in 2013/14, 14/15 and 15/16 respectively). This season’s club ranks 18th. Where did it go wrong? Is this McMillan’s different schemes/focus, motivation/personnel issue, or something else entirely?
Tom: The difference in defensive effectiveness is due largely to personnel changes over the past couple of years. The 2013/14 team with peak Roy Hibbert and a starting five with active defenders who all had massive wingspans allowed for active perimeter defense from Paul George, Lance Stephenson (6’11 wingspan) and George Hill (6’9 wingspan) knowing Hibbert had their back, able to protect the rim. Hibbert’s effectiveness waned as officials altered their approach to calling verticality and then Lance left via free agency. But last season Ian Mahinmi was a quality rim protector which allowed the team defensive approach to continue to thrive.
The key defensive assistant, Dan Burke remained after Frank Vogel’s departure but the team can’t execute after losing Mahinmi (to a monster free agent contract) and George Hill who was traded in an effort to boost the offense with a better offensive point guard in Jeff Teague. But Hill was better guarding the ball and fighting through pick n’ rolls so the defense took a hit in the swap. Rim protection has also been a problem with Myles Turner struggling as a complete post defender and rim protector. He has great shot blocking instincts and ability, but Turner is often drawn away from the rim and misses rotation assignments that make the Pacers vulnerable when he doesn’t get to the shot in the air.
Alex: From what you’ve seen and heard, what has to happen for Paul George to stay in Indiana past his current deal? How much does getting onto an All-NBA team and earning a $200 mil+ designated veteran extension play a role in this?
Tom: Paul George sounds like a guy who wants a reason to stay with the Pacers but has no interest in extending the current situation where his supporting cast is simply not good enough. The All-NBA distinction is huge and such an odd issue for the NBA with subjective voting determining what my be the near-term fate of a franchise, but the option for the monster designated veteran extension is the best hope for the Pacers. Bringing in Lance Stephenson was definitely a move made at placating Paul, but the moves to alter the roster over the summer will be equally important. If the Pacers hope to hang on to PG past next season, how they perform next season will be critical. A team that has not wanted to pay luxury tax should strongly consider the option if it means locking up their star for another contract.
Alex: Lance is back! What has the reaction in Pacer land been? Where do you stand on the signing?
Tom: As I mentioned above, Larry Bird and Paul George are both fans of Lance so his signing makes sense when you consider the opinion of the franchise’s two most important voices. Also, this team is real light on personality to the point where, win or lose, there is little emotion involved. Lance brings and edge and is almost all emotion, so he can shake things up since he’s not shy about expressing his opinion. We saw that early in his first game back when he immediately got on Myles Turner for passing up a point blank shot after a sweet pass from Lance which ended up with a kickout and missed three instead. The problem with Lance is that his skill set doesn’t fill a need the Pacers need for more perimeter shooting or a big guy to defend and rebound without clogging the lane. The structure of the deal will look pretty cap friendly next season and he instantly made a very boring team far more interesting.
On the Raptors side, a team that has taken a firm hold of third place in their conference without their floor general, the story that has everyone buzzing is Lowry’s participation in a partial practice Monday. Although no guaranteed date has been given, Toronto’s second All-Star’s return to action appears imminent (Blake’s take can be found here).
While the Raptors’ surge up the defensive rating ladder was to be expected with the addition of two defensive-impact players in Ibaka and Tucker, the extent to which the team improved has been remarkable. They’re now firmly in the top 10 in both offense and defense, a statistic often spoken of as a harbinger of legitimate title contention. Just as important is the club’s climb in the defensive rebounding percentage rankings. The Raptors spent much of the season at or near the bottom of the league in that crucially important category, but have been 6th post All-Star break, sitting at a respectable 16th for the year. The fire lit under them following the players meeting nudged the effort upwards, and closing out defensive possessions with rebounds has contributed to their rapid improvement on that side of the ball.
The game tips off at 7 PM ET on Sportsnet One.
PG: Cory Joseph, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell
SF: DeMarre Carroll, P.J. Tucker, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson, Pascal Siakam
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: Kyle Lowry
PG: Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks, Joe Young
SG: Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, Lance Stephenson
SF: Paul George, Georges Niang
PF: Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen, Rakeem Christmas
C: Myles Turner, Kevin Seraphin
OUT: Glenn Robinson III, Al Jefferson