When we started looking at the November schedule, tonight's game against the Indiana Pacers seemed to jump out a bit.
Well for starters, there weren't a lot of home games to choose from of course.
More importantly though, considering the tough schedule the Dinos had been involved with early on, this match seemed to mark the first of a somewhat easier stretch for Toronto.
Of course in the NBA, "easier" is a relative term.
But on paper, the Raps' next bunch doesn't have the same "oh no" factor as did their previous Western Conference road trip, or even games against the likes of Orlando. Yes, they still need to close out the month against Phoenix and Boston, but apart from those two, things finally start to ease up a bit.
And talk about perfect timing.
The Raps come in a banged up bunch, already minus Reggie Evans of course, but with a gaggle of swingmen suddenly suffering from various issues. Antoine Wright, Hedo Turkoglu and Marco Belinelli have each missed time recently, and now, Amir Johnson has a tweaked knee as well.
Yesterday's reports out of practice however made it sound like Belinelli was going to be good to go, with Wright and Johnson likely as well provided no flare-ups occured overnight. It would be great to have a full staff on board for an important one tonight vs. Indiana.
The Pacers come in with a 5 and 6 record, having lost three in a row. Among those losses, some disappointing ones to New York and Charlotte. Danny Granger has been his usual phenomenal self, but he's struggled to get consistent help from teammates, especially with Troy Murphy being on the DL. Toronto will have to lock in on Granger tonight, the Pacers' main weapon, and that kicks off the first of our three keys:
1) Keep Granger in check.
Longtime readers know my affinity for Granger. He was my favourite college player in 2005 and I prayed that the Raps would grab him with their top pick. We all know how that story turned out and now he's one of the most lethal all-around players in the league. On the season, he's averaging 24 points, nearly 7 rebounds and 3 assists. He's Indiana's unquestioned stud, and a player that can easily heat up and drop 50 on you if you're not careful.
This evening then I'm hoping that Toronto limit his opportunities. While the Pacers under coach Jim O'Brien have traditionally seemed like an "all-offense/no-defense" group, this year the inverse is true. The Pacers rank 24th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency. Put it this way, this club struggles to score if Granger is kept under control.
Easier said than done obviously but as a first key tonight, I'll be looking to see the Raps get the ball out of Danny's hands so as to force the likes of TJ Ford and Brandon Rush into scorers.
2) Rebound the ball.
This is an area Toronto has struggled with all year but so have their foes tonight. Indiana and Toronto are neck-and-neck in terms of many of the rebounding stats (including rebounding rate) so whoever does a better job cleaning the glass should be able to tip the ball in their favour. While the Pacers likely won't have Murphy or the services of the tenacious Jeff Foster, both Roy Hibbert and rookie Tyler Hansbrough do a great job getting second chance opportunities for their club and wingmen like Granger and Dahntay Jones can cause dificulties as well.
3) Transition Defence.
The Raptors' defence has of course been much-maligned so far this year so perhaps having "defence" as a third key is again no surprise. However with an Indiana team that loves to get up and down the floor (they play at the league's second-fastest pace behind only Golden State), I'm really going to be honed in tonight on Toronto's ability to stop Indiana from getting easy looks in transition. I felt that against the Magic on Sunday, the Raps did a better job defending the paint and the perimeter, but far too often still were getting either beat down the floor, or were unable to slow down the charging Magic attack.
The Pacers have the ability to blow things wide open early based on this style so Toronto's back-court, Jose Calderon in particular, need to ensure that they lock things down as best as they can. As well, this point links to the previous one as if Toronto can't control the boards, this will likely lead to quick outlets by Indiana's "bigs," leading to quick transition points.
This one isn't quite a must-win game, but I think it's safe to say that should Toronto lose, this is one the club could look back on come April and having some serious regrets about not getting. I actually think a healthy Pacers' club makes the playoffs this year so again, it's quite likely that this is one of those teams the Raps will be competing with for playoff seeding.
Tonight's match could therefore go a long way in deciding future outcomes.
As well, Howland and I have media access to tonight's game so we'll be live-blogging from the ACC. Be sure to send us any questions you'd like us to ask the Raps post-game, and we'll have a full recap along with game photos tomorrow morning.