With their three-game homestand behind them (of which they won all three and have now won 10-straight at home), the Toronto Raptors now embark on a mini road trip beginning with a visit to the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse tonight where they will look to improve upon their 15–9 road record (second-best in the league only to Golden State).
Toronto will be on the second night of a back-to-back, having defeated the Sacramento Kings last night in a fun back-and-forth contest that showcased the resiliency and high-paced affinities of both teams. But Sacramento was short on bodies, much like Toronto, and that won’t be the case with the Pacers, who are finally whole again and will be looking to crush the East’s top team on their hardwood for the first time this season.
This will be a tough one—Indiana currently maintains the third-best record in the East, and they’ve done it with gruelling defensive effort and contributions from some surprising places. The Raptors will have to bring the heat if they want to win without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup, even if they are 11–2 in his absence.
The game tips off at 7:00PM ET on TSN and TSN 1050.
Joshua Howe: We’re midway through the season now with a large enough sample size to begin to form a burgeoning picture of what teams will ultimately become. The Raptors, along with the Bucks, have established themselves as the East’s elite, with the Celtics and Sixers trailing just behind on the list of conference powers. Despite planting themselves firmly within that group by way of the second-best defence (105) in the league, the third-place Pacers constantly seem to be outside of the conversation of true title contenders. Does Indiana belong in that discussion, and should they therefore be considered an upper echelon team in the Eastern Conference?
Grant Afseth: I do not believe that the Pacers belong in the discussion of being just outside of title contention yet. Their defense has produced at an elite level, but their offense has failed to reach a level that would be likely needed to overcome not having a superstar. It certainly doesn’t help that Victor Oladipo has regressed compared to last season too. They are going to have to find a way to get him back on track and either acquire another dynamic offensive threat. Regardless, they should look to involve Myles Turner more and see if he can provide more dimensions to their half-court offense. He had an impressive month of December but they haven’t really allowed him to build off of that this month.
Joshua Howe: Part of the reason the Pacers have been so good this season has been their dominance in clutch time. They lead in the league in net rating (28.7) during such minutes, and they have a 14–6 record in games that have resulted in clutch play. What is it about the Pacers’ crunch time performances that stands out, and do you think these reps will serve the team well come the post-season?
Grant Afseth: The main thing that has helped the Pacers in clutch time has been Victor Oladipo repeatedly rising to the occasion and their team defense. There have been just a few games when putting all of their weight on Oladipo’s in the clutch has failed but it has remained largely successful overall. It is tough to say whether that is a recipe for success come playoff time, though. Opposing teams could do their best to make someone else beat them and they could be unprepared in that situation again like last year. Their defensive effectiveness could fail to sustain against the top teams over a seven game series that feature adjustments since they don’t necessarily have the most talented of individual perimeter defenders.
Joshua Howe: The Raptors have a strong candidate for the Most Improved Player award this year in Pascal Siakam, but the Pacers have their own in Domantas Sabonis, whose numbers are up across the board. He’s thriving in a bench role and, at age 22, appears nowhere near close to his ceiling. For those who may not have watched him much this season, what’s been the most exciting part about Sabonis’ improvement?
Grant Afseth: I would say the most exciting part of Sabonis’ development has been his interior scoring efficiency. He has shown significant growth in his ability to score in the post and to make plays off the dribble. He has continued to mature as a player by slowing down his internal clock and that has been intriguing to see. Another key has been his ablility to capitalize on the growing trend of bench units utilizing smaller big men. Having a talent like Sabonis for a bench unit has been the foundation of the one of the Pacers’ greatest strengths, depth.
Joshua Howe: Speaking of development, Myles Turner has finally taken the leap many were hoping to see from him defensively. He’s sitting on a personal defensive rating of 101.2 (up from 104.6 in 2017–18), has rocketed up to fifth in defensive real plus-minus amongst centers (25th in 2017–18), and is the anchor of the 11th-best lineup in the league by defensive rating of units that have logged at least 200 minutes. What have you noticed about Turner’s defensive game this season as opposed to last?
Grant Afseth: The top factor in the growth of Turner’s defensive impact has probably been the work that he put into his body over the summer. He did an extensive routine that featured everything from weight lifting, yoga, track work, swimming, and boxing and that has made him a more explosive athlete with greater stamina. He has also improved his timing as a defender, a more wise decision maker, and has become more disciplined in his approach as result.
Joshua Howe: What’s up with ‘Dipo? How concerned are those in Pacers circles?
Grant Afseth: There has recently been growing concern about Victor Oladipo’s struggles. He has looked increasingly worse as January has progressed and the Pacers can’t afford to have that carry over down the final stretch of the season. The most recent games that he has played have been the most perplexing because back in December when he returned from injury, the talk was all about how unselfish he has been and how he no longer needs to do it all himself. Lately, he has looked like he is trying to do it himself again and he is not executing well enough to be playing that type of style. Its definitely something to watch because it could become genuinely concerning if it continues.
The Raptors will be without both Leonard and OG Anunoby again tonight (word is they plan to play in Houston on Friday), and that should give way to more play-time from the depth-wings like C.J. Miles, Norman Powell, and Patrick McCaw. All three of them have been solid-to-very good recently: Miles appears to have finally found his shot, Powell has come back from injury confident and patient, and McCaw has shown some real guts on the defensive end of the floor. It should be fun to watch them try to continue to build on their growing rhythm.
With Jonas Valanciunas still out, Chris Boucher should be seeing more minutes tonight. He was a standout against the Kings, providing energy on the glass and a couple timely buckets, including a monster one-handed alley-oop finish off a Lowry lob late in the game. Slimm Duck’s stint proved a superior option to Greg Monroe, and one has to wonder if Nick Nurse will go to the former sooner tonight as the team awaits Valanciunas’ return.
PG: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Jordan Loyd
SG: Danny Green, Patrick McCaw, Malachi Richardson
SF: Norman Powell, C.J. Miles
PF: Pascal Siakam
C: Serge Ibaka Greg Monroe, Chris Boucher
OUT: Kawhi Leonard, Jonas Valanciunas, OG Anunoby
The Pacers had a bit of a slow start to January, but are finally healthy and have won three of their last four games, albeit against a pretty soft stretch of their schedule. During that time they’ve posted a net rating of 11.4, good for fourth-best in the league. Their defence has held firm while their offence has improved, shooting up to a rating of 113.6 compared to their season mark of 110.9 (15th-best in the NBA).
Toronto won its last matchup with Indiana, but the Pacers played that game without Turner, who was a difference-maker in their initial matchup (the Raps also won that game, but only by a mere three points). Turner had 10 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks, and at times manhandled Serge Ibaka in alarming fashion. Expect him to be a focus of Toronto’s game plan heading into tonight’s contest.
PG: Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Aaron Holiday
SG: Victor Oladipo, Tyreke Evans, Stephan Hicks
SF: Bojan Bogdanovic, Doug McDermott, Alize Johnson
PF: Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis, T.J. Leaf
C: Myles Turner, Kyle O’Quinn
Fort Wayne Mad Ants: Edmond Sumner, Davon Reed, Ike Anigbogu
The Raptors are six-point underdogs with a 219.5 over-under.