Gameday: Raptors @ Pacers, March 17

The third of four games in five nights, this one against a likely playoff opponent.

The Toronto Raptors play their third of four games in five nights on Thursday as they visit the Indiana Pacers for a 7 p.m. tip-off on Sportsnet One.

Not only will Thursday split the current 1-1 draw in the season series – the two sides play again April 8 to close things out – it could also stand as a preview of the first round of the playoffs. Plenty can still happen in the standings, but as of this writing, both teams have at least two games on either side of them at the two and seven seeds. Toronto is two back of Cleveland and seven up on Boston, while Indiana is two back of Charlotte and 2.5 up on Chicago.

Luckily for Raptors fans, or at least those who read this site, that isn’t a terrible draw. Polls earlier in the week determined that of the five likely first-round opponents (Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte, Detroit, and Indiana), only 3.6 percent of voters feared Indiana most (the lowest number), while 32.6 percent of voters preferred Indiana over all other options (second to only Detroit). In other words, while there isn’t a large gap between teams in the East, the Pacers aren’t instilling fear in the readership.

Thursday may not be all that telling, either. There’s something to be said for keeping some cards close to the chest and not showing a full hand ahead of a potential playoff matchup, so I’d imagine both teams will stick to their normal, 82-game gameplan rather than making major adjustments for one or two late-season meetings.

The key strategic element could be the willingness of each side to go smaller. The Pacers opened the season playing Paul George and C.J. Miles as interchangeable forwards with just Ian Mahinmi as a big, a look the current Raptors’ starters would struggle with. Luis Scola would be tasked with Miles in those scenarios while DeMarre Carroll draws George, and Scola’s proven incapable of sticking to stretchy fours, let alone wings masquerading as such. Jonas Valanciunas would be fine opposite Mahinmi, and Myles Turner can space things out off the bench but not quite as far as the 3-point line (reliably) yet. Were the Pacers to stay smaller, the Raptors would have to give a long thought to starting Patrick Patterson or Jason Thompson at the four to improve defensive versatility, and head coach Dwane Casey would likely commit to a lot of Carroll at the four.

The Pacers have shifted gears and gone back to a more traditional frontcourt of late, with Turner starting 21 games (and Lavoy Allen starting 21 prior). Turner is awesome – I was a huge fan heading into the draft – and improving rapidly, so from an organizational standpoint, it definitely makes sense. It does mean, though, that the Pacers’ best shot at goosing the offense around George, who’s shooting less than 40 percent since Dec. 1, is being holstered. (It’s worth noting that George has still been awesome and his overall offensive efficiency is still good thanks to threes, free throws, passing off the bounce, and so on, but it feels necessary to mention the effect the heavy load has had on his raw shooting percentage, and he’s only finishing at the rim on 59.5 percent of attempts.)

The additional spacing provided by an extra wing helps in theory, but the initial starting lineup – George Hill, Monta Ellis, George, Miles, and Mahinmi – has only scoring 1.1 more points per-100 possessions than the new one with Turner in place of Miles, while the Allen-Mahinmi starting frontcourt was an offensive disaster. The issue Frank Vogel ran into with the first group was that they couldn’t defend, bleeding 106.9 points per-100 possessions, far worse than either of the other two looks. The Allen-Mahinmi-based starting lineup has performed slightly better overall, but with Turner surging and a better balance deemed necessary, the Turner-Mahinmi frontcourt seems here to stay.

That’s probably best for the Raptors, at least on Thursday. It’s still going to be a challenge for Scola (and Valanciunas, if he plays), but you trust him more against a more natural four than you do against a wing. The Pacers will gum up Toronto’s spacing with that lineup – Turner and Mahinmi are both decent-to-good shot-blockers – keeping space on the drive tight for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who are already drawing the tough assignment of scoring on Hill and George.

But the Pacers also employ a lot of exploitable defensive players off the bench, and the Raptors’ killer bench unit stands to be a big difference, in this game or a playoff series. Ellis is fine between Hill and George since he can hide on James Johnson, but if Hill hits, there’s nobody to really pick up Lowry, with Rodney Stuckey and Ty Lawson incapable of such off the bench. When George sits, too, the job of checking DeRozan falls to Miles, who is fine but isn’t George, and you’re rarely slowing DeRozan this season without an elite defender on him, or an aggressive blitzing scheme he can pick apart with his improved playmaking.

Casey and Vogel will probably both opt to play the game straight-up, rolling with their usual gameplans. That’s not to say they won’t prepare for the opponent, but if Indiana has a specific plan in mind for DeRozan, for example, I’m not sure they reveal it Thursday. Likewise, if Casey has designs on starting anyone but Scola against them, I doubt he shows his hand here. Either side will be able to anticipate what the other might do in a series, but there’s no sense giving the other side a look at it early with actual game footage with which to prepare.

There’s also the matter of the Raptors getting some names rest. DeRozan sat Tuesday and Valanciunas remains day-to-day, and the team’s been clear they’d like to get Lowry some more rest, too. Even though Lowry was only tasked with 28 minutes on Tuesday, playing him four times in five nights when wins aren’t really at a premiums right now seems a little reckless. Lowry will probably sit one of Thursday or Friday, and Thursday makes a little more sense to me. That’s particularly true if the Raptors fear a Bulls matchup in round one, because while they’ll try to win the game, a loss wouldn’t be too depressing if it improved Indiana’s hold on seventh and made Chicago reaching that spot less likely. (Note that when choosing between Monday and Tuesday for DeRozan, they opted for Tuesday, thereby improving their chances of knocking Chicago down further and increasing the likelihood of a loss to Milwaukee, which would have helped the value of the Knicks/Nuggets pick. yes, I’m overthinking things.)

Raptors updates
We know DeMarre Carroll will be out, but the Raptors will likely keep the status of Valanciunas quiet until about 90 minutes before gametime. They’ll also keep any rest quiet until the final minutes, because that’s how they roll, for whatever reason. The rotation is going to look something like this, subject to major changes:

PG: (Lowry), Cory Joseph, Delon Wright
SG: DeRozan, T.J. Ross, Norman Powell
SF: James Johnson, Bruno Caboclo
PF: Scola, Patterson
C: (Valanciunas), Bismack Biyombo, Jason Thompson, Lucas Nogueira

The guess here is that Johnson starts despite the strong play of Powell, as Casey still seems more comfortable with Johnson opposite larger wing scorers like George. The one strategic element I’d be OK tipping my hand with in this one if I’m Casey? Seeing how Patterson handles George for spot minutes. Patterson’s done a nice job on power threes when tasked with it for short minutes this year, and seeing how he holds up against a tough, quick player like George could be instructive for Casey’s playoff gameplanning.

Pacers updates
C.J. Miles (illness) is probable
Ty Lawson (foot) is questionable

UPDATE: The Pacers added Ian Mahinmi (doubtful, back) to their injury report, removed Miles from it, and listed Lawson as questionable. It will be interesting to see if they slide Turner over to the five or insert Allen or Jordan Hill at center instead.

With a full squad – Shayne Whittington has been recalled from the D-League, the Pacers will have a rotation that looks something like this:

PG: Hill, Lawson, Joseph Young
SG: Ellis, Stuckey, Glenn Robinson III
SF: George, Miles, Solomon Hill
PF: Turner, Allen
C: Jordan Hill, Whittington

The line
The line is off the board as of this writing.