Gameday: Raptors @ Pacers, March 15

Two of the best stories in the NBA this season are set to square off for a third time on Thursday as the Toronto Raptors visit the Indiana Pacers. The season series is tied at one apiece and both sides have come a long way since the earlier November meetings – the Raptors’ loss to Indiana came at a near low-point and they’re 39-10 since, while the Pacers’ loss to Toronto prefaced a 28-17 stretch (the turnaround point came a little later).

Both sides feature Coach of the Year and Most Improved Player candidates, and both come in boasting strong two-way play – the Raptors are the league’s lone team in the top five on offense and defense, and Indiana is one of three others in the top 10 on both ends. Indiana’s played so well, in fact, that while the Raptors are looking to lock up home court throughout the Eastern Conference bracket (they now hold a 4.5-game lead with a magic number of 11 for the top seed), the Pacers have a legitimate shot at home court in the first round themselves, currently sitting third in the conference.

It should be a fun one and a really nice test for two hot teams hoping to draw out their peak into mid-April.

The game tips off at 7 on Sportsnet One and TSN 1050.

To help set the stage, we reached out to Ben Gibson of 8 Points, 9 Seconds, who was kind enough to help us out.

Blake Murphy: So, I’m a little annoyed. I looked at the standings a while back, remembered how good Pacers writers were for doing collaborative content in the playoffs two years back, and thought hey, the Pacers would be a nice first-round matchup. Well, the Raptors don’t lost anymore and the Pacers win too much to fall into the eighth seed, so that’s out the window. What’s gone into Indiana’s 15-6 run over the last two months?

Ben Gibson: The team finally started to come together beyond “Watch Victor Oladipo go to work.” Before the All-Star break, we saw a few games where Indiana looked hopeless with Oladipo in street clothes. While he obviously is a huge part of the team’s success, they’ve shown the ability to win when he struggles.  He is still finding ways to score, but his shooting has declined. But as we saw in Indiana’s recent win against the 76ers, Indiana doesn’t need him to put the team on his back every night.

The reason Indiana is still winning is a mix of Bojan Bogdanovic and Myles Turner finding their strides. Since the end of January, Bojan is averaging 17.9 points a game on 50.8% shooting, and 46.6 from deep. That allowed flexibility in the offense while other players went through ups and downs. On top of that, Turner’s gotten more physical and is averaging 13.7 and 7.7 rebounds over the last 19 games. The rebounds are the bigger story as he started putting up double-doubles with some consistency. Indiana’s been one of the worst teams as far as rebounding and getting points off of them, but if Myles keeps this up they can get to average. Your old friend Cory Joseph is trending up too, but his contributions on defense are the reason why more than his hot shooting or 11 points a game.

Blake Murphy: Indiana may have the league’s toughest schedule from here, including two meetings with the Raptors and five games out west. Is the goal for the Pacers from here to secure home court? The third-seed? Is there any concern the schedule (and maybe some over-performance relative to point differential) sets in over the final 15?

Ben Gibson: The schedule is a big concern, but not the end of the world. Part of it depends on when they catch teams. Are the Warriors going to rest down the stretch? There is a chance they get lucky and some of these games out west, in particular, are easier than expected.

That said, the Pacers should aim for keeping in the top four. That’s no easy task with four of the remaining 13 games coming against Eastern playoff teams. The game today is pretty much a loss now as Trevor Booker and Domantas Sabonis are questionable and out for the game, leaving Indiana thin in the frontcourt. But homecourt advantage is key to a playoff run for Indiana. I honestly believe they have a chance to beat anyone in the East when healthy, but the odds are against you already if you are playing the series on the road more than home.

Indiana’s got to keep hot — Myles Turner especially — but we’ve seen how they grind out wins in close games. They have a top 10 defense and offense as of late, so no team should take them lightly.

Blake Murphy: What’s better: Cory Joseph’s fades, or Fred VanVleet’s waves?

Ben Gibson: I’m in love with the CoJo.

Blake Murphy: In seriousness, how has Joseph been for the Pacers? This all has the look of a major win-win. The Raptors are getting tremendous point guard play from VanVleet and Delon Wright, C.J. Miles has been a huge piece of very effective bench units, and Joseph has taken the Pacers’ starters to another level. High-five?

Ben Gibson: High fives all around! We miss C.J. Miles dearly, but Bogdanovic is filling his role well on offense. Defensively is where Miles holds an advantage over Bojan, but the scoring from the Croation is more than enough.

But back to Joseph. Most of the year he proved himself to be the defensive specialist among the guards. That we expected. But what’s impressed in the absence of Darren Collison was how he makes the starting unit better. As far as net rating goes, Indiana is better with him as a starter over Collison. Even if they return DC to the starting role, I won’t be surprised to see them trot CoJo back out when defense is needed. There are limits with him as he isn’t the creator Collison is, but he has shown that he is invaluable to Indiana’s backcourt.

Blake Murphy: Raptors fans have started to ask “why not one of our many improved players” for the MIP award. DeMar DeRozan, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and even some others would have legitimate cases. The conversation starts with Victor Oladipo, though. Does he take home the Most Improved Player award?

Ben Gibson: He has to. That’s no offense to any of the Raptors. The big difference to me is a player like DeRozan turned a corner vs Oladipo went from OK to All-Star. A guy like DeMar improved on his game for sure and eliminate a number of criticisms about his game. Oladipo went from a role player in OKC a season ago to one of the best players in the NBA. It’s about the size of the leap to me. It’s a compliment to DD to say his jump wasn’t as great because his jump didn’t need to be as big.

Oladipo almost single-handily justified the trade — anything from Domantas Sabonis does an added bonis… err, bonus. This team wouldn’t be in third place if it weren’t for Oladipo’s growth as a player. The Raptors are still in first or second even if DeRozan stays the same. That’s why Oladipo is the MIP.

Raptors updates
Adding to the OG Anunoby woes was the news Wednesday that Norman Powell has suffered a sprained ankle and is doubtful for this game, with further evaluation forthcoming. Anunoby is still listed as doubtful, too, so the Raptors could be looking at a rotation that doesn’t involve either for the first time all year. That would seem to open a spot for Malcolm Miller to draw another start – and a difficult Victor Oladipo assignment – but the Raptors could also try to get an extended look at C.J. Miles with the starters or even start an extra point guard, tasking Fred VanVleet or Delon Wright with handling Oladipo.

Interestingly, Oladipo only scored 21 in the Pacers’ defeat of the Raptors and went off for 36 in the Pacers’ loss. Anunoby started both of those games with Powell seeing significant time (and posting a strong plus-minus) off the bench. It will be interesting to see how Toronto approaches him in their third meeting.

One other thing to watch out for here is that this is the first game of a back-to-back and the first game of a five-in-seven stretch. The three-game road-trip has been pretty light in terms of travel, but there’s a big toll coming with Toronto going Indiana-Toronto-off-Toronto-off-Orlando-Cleveland. They’ve done a good enough job of managing minutes all year that it’s maybe not a large concern. They’ll probably be keeping a close eye on minutes and fatigue though, with games at home against Dallas or in Orlando standing as potential rest days if anyone is showing signs of wear. The Raptors have one more really tightly compressed five-in-seven stretch in early April, too, though it may be less worrisome if the East is already wrapped up.

PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Malcolm Miller, C.J. Miles
PF: Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Nigel Hayes
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, Lucas Nogueira
OUT: None
TBD: OG Anunoby, Norman Powell
905: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown, Alfonzo McKinnie

Pacers updates
The Pacers are just as banged up as the Raptors, though their problems come in the frontcourt rather than on the wing. Domantas Sabonis, who has essentially been manning the backup center position, is out with an ankle sprain, and buyout market acquisition Trevor Booker is questionable with an ankle sprain. The Pacers don’t have a great deal of frontcourt depth, and both of those players sitting could mean more time for Al Jefferson, still a nice offensive weapon but a favorable matchup for Toronto, or T.J. Leaf, who still hasn’t shown much. Alex Poythress could be recalled from Fort Wayne for depth, too.

Indiana is probably comfortable they can compete even down two backups. Some of their primary lineups have been so good and leaned on so heavily – they have three different groups that have played 300 minutes or more together (there are only 25 such lineups in the league) – that they can go a couple of different ways and still be successful. The projected starters have been a revelation, with a plus-13.2 net rating in 305 minutes, and the starters with Darren Collison in place of Cory Joseph were a slight positive before the change, too. Sabonis is a big part of some of Indiana’s best hybrid lineups and is a big loss, to be clear. They’re just probably confident in their top seven or so without him, too. Things get dicier if Booker can’t soak up some of those minutes in support.

PG: Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Joseph Young
SG: Victor Oladipo, Lance Stephenson
SF: Bojan Bogdanovic, Glenn Robinson
PF: Thaddeus Young, (Trevor Booker), T.J. Leaf
C: Myles Turner, Al Jefferson, Ike Anigbogu
OUT: Domantas Sabonis
TBD: Trevor Booker
Fort Wayne: Edmond Sumner, Ben Moore, Alex Poythress

The line
The Raptors are 4-point favorites with a 213.5 over-under.

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