Pre-Game

Game Day: Toronto at Indiana – Raptors Look To Regain Early Season Mojo

Last season Toronto started 2014 with a win over the 25-5 Pacers on route to their march into the playoffs. Could history repeat with tonight launching the return of the Raptors early season form.

Looking back at the miracle season of 2013-14 there were two key moments that solidified the chemistry and ascent of the current Raptor squad.

The first happened shortly after the trade when Toronto won consecutive road games: December 20 at Dallas and December 22 in Oklahoma City. The other occurred on a back to back series when Toronto had a come back win over the Bulls on New Years Eve in Chicago and then beat Indiana at home New Years Night. At the time the Pacers sat a top the Eastern Conference with a 25-5 record.

Flash forward to this season and in many ways the two teams have transposed positions with Toronto continuing their growth as an Eastern contender while Indiana are mired at the bottom of their division. January has been brutal for both teams with the Pacers’ record 4-9 and the Raptors’ record 5-7. Indiana has reeled in the absence of their All-Star Paul George, exit of enigmatic Lance Stephenson and injuries to various contributors. Toronto for their part sustained DeMar DeRozan’s injury initially, but then succumbed this month with his absence and subsequent re-integration.

There are positive indications for the Raptors who appear to be on the verge of resolution, winning 3 of their past 4 games. Sunday’s win over Detroit featured encouraging signs:

  • DeRozan appeared to find his rhythm, producing his most complete game since his return
  • Had only 8 turnovers
  • Notched 23 assists
  • The squad broke through their offensive slump scoring over 100 points for the first time in 7-games with 6 players scoring in double digits
  • We finally saw something besides a Lou Williams isolation play to end a quarter

Stats are a funny thing because you can take the view the Raptors are struggling or you can look at the last 5-games in which the Raptors defense has shown improvement. Specifically the Raptors have held their opponents to an average of 94.4 points. To put that in perspective the league leaders are the Hawks and Heat who hold their opposition to 96.2 points per game.

Tonight the Raptors begin a rough stretch of 4 games in 5 nights via two sets of back to back games. The final game in Washington on Saturday features the team directly ahead of them in the standings. Further, the Wizards will be on 2 days rest and seeking revenge for the blowout loss in Toronto.  With the Raptors seemingly on the precipice of regaining the form they had early in the season, this week offers them a perfect opportunity to reestablish their identity and send a message they are back. How fitting then that the first game of this week comes against the same Eastern foe who impacted their direction up the ladder last season.

We break down the match-up:

Starting 5 situation:

Normally I go through a bunch of statistics and edges each team has, however I’m shortening that section to touch on a situation regarding the Raptors line-up. In the comments section of Raptors Republic and on Twitter there is ample discussion surrounding the current starting five and queries why James Johnson isn’t getting time on the court. The following is my opinion regarding this situation:

  • As John Schuhmann points out the 3-guard starting line-up wasn’t blowing people away through the 4 games prior to Sunday and notched a negative -11 differential.
  • We can assume Vasquez was inserted to maintain another 3-point scorer to spread the court.
  • This in turn moves DeRozan to the small forward position which isn’t ideal as he now faces larger opponents on the defensive end
  • With the team intent on continuing the growth of Terrence Ross, he then becomes the first small forward off the bench which limits the available minutes for James Johnson unless Casey plays him at the power forward
  • The reason we can assume Johnson wasn’t inserted as a starter is the team needs a minimum of two 3-point shooters on the court.
  • There is a resolution to this issue, but it would require two changes: inserting James Johnson would mean Patrick Patterson would have to replace Amir Johnson to fulfill the 3-point scoring needs.
  • My supposition is the team felt this was too much alteration to both the starting and bench line-ups. As we’ve seen recently with DeRozan’s return, changing one player effects the rhythm and timing of everyone.
  • That said, there is the option of using James Johnson and Patterson given Amir Johnson’s health issues (and for my favorite fan who says I’m lying about these injuries I offer a credible source in Josh Lewenberg below as well as Amir himself who stated he hurt the shoulder initially versus Utah, November 15 and has been playing through the pain since.)

Moving forward, with DeRozan appearing to be closer to his pre-injury form and Ross being on court late Sunday I’m wondering if Casey will reinsert Ross tonight. Given the two sets of back to back games, logically, it’s hard to imagine the team wants to lose or limit James Johnson’s services this week.


Comparing the Teams:

Advantages:

Raptors:

  • Points per game: score 105.8 per 100 possessions (Indy: 95 per 100 possessions)
  • Point differential: +5.0 ppg (Indy: -2.2)
  • Average 2 fewer turnovers
  • Average almost 2 additional 3-point makes per game
  • Get to line 3.8 additional times, make 3.5 additional free throws
  •  4th best offensive rank (Indy: 29th)

Pacers:

  • Rank 9th  defensively (Toronto: 21st, but as noted have seen improvements past 5 games)
  • 6th best rebounding team (of note while Toronto rank 20th, they out rebounded the Pacers 52-39 and 16-6 in offensive boards last game)

Stats via NBA.com

Pacer Post Match Up Hill vs Lowry

Positional Breakdown:

Guards: Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez – George Hill, Rodney Stuckey

Based on the picture the Pacers have on their site (see above) I think coach Frank Vogel is likely to start Hill after bringing him off the bench versus Orlando. Like Toronto went through a re-acclimation of their rhythm when DeRozan returned, Hills return could have the same effect on the Pacers. For a team ranked 29th in offense that’s not ideal.

Edge: Raptors- Look for Lowry to take the recent defensive struggles versus opponent guards personally. Knowing the Raptors have 4 games in 5 nights I suspect he’ll sense the urgency of getting out to a quick start.

Front Court: DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas – Solomon Hill, David West, Roy Hibbert (note: C.J. Miles is listed as day to day with a groin strain)

We often joke about Valanciunas getting up to face European centers, but like the Pistons he tends to bring his A game when he faces Hibbert.

Slight Edge: Raptors: I anticipate West and Hibbert will be looking for revenge from the December 14th loss, but I still expect Valanciunas will be primed for the challenge. As noted above, Amir Johnson’s health remains a concern, but with the recent improvement in Patterson’s game there is a reliable fill in.

Note: great article by Eric Koreen of the National Post  regarding Valanciunas’ growth and why there are still team struggles on defense. (For those that wonder why Casey doesn’t play Valanciunas late in the fourth quarters it may provide some insight).

Patterson:

“With JV, it’s a little different. He’s a true big man,” Patterson said. “It’s more so staying with my man, impacting the ball but realizing I have to get back to my man. JV, when he’s in screen-and-rolls, [I have to] help quickly and recover out to my [man], because he pretty much [stays closer to the rim] all of the time. So it’s an adjustment.

“Of course, it’s easier with Tyler or Amir or Chuck because we’re all doing the same thing on defence. It’s more challenging with JV. As the season progresses, as we have more time together, it gradually gets easier.”

Bench: Lou Williams, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes/C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, Damjan Rudez, Ian Mahinmi, Donald Sloan, Chris Copeland

The reserves will play a vital role in determining tonight’s winner. Indiana boasts 2nd best point differential (+12.9) and 4th most points (40.8) to Toronto’s 3rd ranked differential (+10.8) and 5th most points (39.7). Coming into the season I thought Sloan and  Copeland would be major factors in the Pacer’s success. I’m not sure if they have fallen out of Vogel’s good graces or he was utilizing different players given their losing streak, but their minutes have been miniscule.

The one rookie not named Whiteside that garnered attention on Sunday is Damjan Rudez. The 28 year old busted out in the win over Orlando with 18 points hitting on 7 of 10 from the field.

Slight Edge: Pacers. Though Toronto should be able to counter any attack the Pacers hold the statistical advantage

Bench stats via hoopsstats.com

TTOTambz Tips:

  • Raptors have won 3 of last 4 meetings and are on a 2-game win streak versus Pacers
  • The East Coast blizzard and cancellation of Monday’s New York games harkens memories of last season when Raptors were delayed leaving Miami  arriving at the Fieldhouse with less than an hour to spare.
  • Raptors are only NBA team who haven’t lost a game to their divisional foes
  • Only 5 Eastern teams have a road record above-.500 (Raptors, Atlanta, Washington, Chicago Miami)
  • The Pacers aren’t a typical 16-30 team. They’ve beat Miami twice and lost the third game by 2 points. The beat Dallas and Chicago (lost 2nd game to Bulls by 2 points) and lost to the Clippers and Wizards by 2 points.

The Pick:

The odds makers have Toronto favored by 3.5 points. The typical sentiment of you can’t take any team for granted is applicable and Indy have always been a team who gets up to play us.

It’s just a gut feeling, but based on interviews I sense the team is recognizing they are once again being over looked by the NBA pundits as not necessarily a top team. While NBA TV continues to say Cleveland and Chicago are in an adjustment period, they repeatedly refer to the struggles of Toronto. I think the players will use this as motivation.

Catch our Quick React following the game and join the conversation.

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