April tends to bring about plenty of hyperbole in sports, whether it is the importance of baseball’s Opening Day game that happens to carry the same value as the other 161 on the slate or the do-or-die arrival of the NBA and NHL playoffs. It even carries over to golf, where the pageantry of the Masters is described breathlessly as the game’s elite battle over an ugly green jacket. It’s easy, then, to get caught up in histrionics and swept up amidst a wave of over-statement. Heck, Kobe Bryant just ball-hogged his way to 60 points in a meaningless game and it has been talked about as an iconic NBA moment (okay, to be fair, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t agree with that sentiment).
What does all this have to do with the Raptors and this year’s first round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers? In terms of significance to the franchise, this one might actually be worth the hype. I’ve spoken at length of the disappointment of the last two postseason letdowns and the pressure on all involved parties to put those to bed with a strong run as the East’s No. 2 seed this year. Even as GM Masai Ujiri offered Dwane Casey a vote of confidence regardless of the first round result, there remains the looming challenge of a summer that brings the free agency of DeMar DeRozan and the near-certainty of an opt-out by Bismack Biyombo. Another first round exit, coupled with the sudden presence of young future building blocks in Norman Powell, Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and numerous draft picks, could bring about real questions of how heavily the club wants to invest in bringing back a core that can’t get it done in the biggest moments. Conversely, a successful playoff run is certainly achievable and could offer an interesting new horizon for a team playing in a conference that appears ripe for the picking.
Of course, before looking ahead to any second or third round dream scenarios, the Raptors have a dangerous first round opponent and a major monkey to get off their back. Despite finishing with 11 fewer wins than the Raps, the Pacers boast arguably the best player in the series in Paul George, a dangerous volume scorer who could take over a game in Monta Ellis and a significant home arena edge at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But coming off of a 56-win campaign and armed with an unexpected level of roster depth, the Raps aren’t exactly chopped liver either. Let’s break down a first round series that will – not to go too over the top here – speak volumes of where Toronto is headed moving forward.
Expect the Unexpected
One of the favorite topics of conversation lately among Raptor followers has been the unexpected rise of Powell, the 46th pick in last June’s draft. After piquing interest during Summer League, Powell essentially forced his way both onto the roster and up the small forward depth chart. Not only did he somehow wind up starting 24 games (seven more than the rest of the second round class combined), but he now looms large as a key factor in the first round series, perhaps even getting some time on George if DeMarre Carroll isn’t injury-free. Powell is the biggest rags to riches story on a club that will also be looking for key production out of free agent flyer turned elite rim protector Biyombo and possible even late season waiver wire pick-up Jason Thompson.
For a team with such turmoil at the small forward position in light of Carroll being sidelined for most of the season, they’ve certainly found a way to contain the Pacers superstar through four regular season meetings. George is averaging just 16.3 points against the Raptors this year, well shy of his 23.2 PPG average on the season, on 31% shooting from the floor. Without Carroll for three of the four head-to-head meetings (the Raps were 3-1 including an overtime win, by the way), Toronto has largely relied on depth and versatility. They have thrown DeRozan, Powell, James Johnson, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson at George at various times, so it’ll be interesting to see what Casey has cooked up on Saturday.
Third Scoring Option
Last spring, the Washington Wizards smothered DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (and, to a lesser extent, Lou Williams) and dared the Raptors to find another emerging scorer to make them pay. Obviously, that didn’t happen and while there may be a few viable candidates this year, there’s still no clear answer on who that other guy will be. Powell scored 30 against D-League level defense but still hasn’t established himself as a consistent scorer in the NBA, Jonas Valanciunas improved leaps and bounds this season but still over-uses that maddening head fake as an indication that he isn’t comfortable with his offensive game outside the paint and Carroll and Cory Joseph are both probably better suited focusing on the other side of the ball.
Home court advantage could prove significant in this series, with the ACC promising a loud, passionate and hungry atmosphere, albeit one that could fall silent in a hurry if things go south and the Fieldhouse offering an army of knowledgeable basketball fans in a building that can really enhance crowd noise. The Pacers finished with a losing record (19-22) on the road this season, but were bolstered by a solid 26-15 mark at home. The key, then, is to be ready at the outset of the series and doing what the Raps have failed to do in each of the past two seasons: take Game 1 at home. Interestingly, Casey has already vowed to use the perceived scheduling slight of another 12:30pm start time as motivation for his team, who evidently don’t feel that they are earning proper respect south of the border.
Draft Lottery Odds
On the other end of the NBA standings spectrum, the end of the regular season helped crystallize the NBA Draft lottery pecking order, which is of interest to the Raps due to their ownership of the lesser of the New York Knicks’ and Denver Nuggets draft selections (thank you, Andrea Bargnani!). As things currently stand and barring a tiebreaker with the Sacramento Kings, the Raptors would take the eighth-worst slot currently owned by the Nuggets (who would then move up one to the Knicks’ No. 7). That would provide them with the No. 8 pick in the 2016 draft if everything held to slot and, for those pie-in-the-sky hopefuls, a 1.9% chance at the No. 1 over-all. Even at No. 8, though, intriguing prospects such as California standouts Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb or even Utah big man Jakob Poeltl could be available. Of course, the pick, along with the Raptors’ own late round selection, could prove to be an interesting trade piece as well.
Okay, back to playoffs! And back to a Raps opponent that has mostly flown under the radar in the year of George’s return from a horrific leg injury. PG13 has been back in form, averaging 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists while shooting 42% from the floor and 37% from three-point range. He has been a steady, considtent presence on a team that doesn’t seen to change too dramatically from year to year, with Frank Vogel in his sixth year as head coach and a slew of supporting scorers (Ellis, George Hill and CJ Miles) that know their role along with an effective inside presence in Ian Mahinmi. It’s easy to forget that these Pacers were a trendy pick to rise towards the top of the open East with a returning George after being edged out of the No. 8 spot without their star one year ago. This isn’t a team that will out-talent the Raptors unless George is able to take over games, but they are a well-coached unit that knows how to play together. The focus will be on Casey finding the proper schemes to one-up Vogel and properly prepare his players, something he hasn’t exactly excelled at the past two years.
The Pick: Raps in 5
This year just feels different, with depth and defensive principles coming into sharper focus and turning the Raps into a more playoff-ready group. Their No. 2 seed has afforded them a significant match-up edge (as good as George is, I did not want to face Andre Drummond!) and the associated pressure, with the top two seeds owning a 36-4 first round record over the past 10 years of NBA playoffs. For his part, Ujiri is shying away from any bold-faced pre-playoff celebrations, declining to address the fans before Game 1 as he has in providing bulletin board fodder the past two seasons and even ordering the division title banner to be raised quietly with no ceremony so as not to celebrate something no longer viewed as a real accomplishment. Most importantly, though, will be the attitude of the players on a Raptors team that might be as good as anyone in the East but will need to move past prior playoff demons and know that they can stick with their game plan even in the NBA’s second season. Okay, hyperbole over.