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3 In The Key: Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Indiana Pacers

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It's game number 65 in the 2010-2011 Toronto Raptors season and the opponent? The Indiana Pacers, the losers of 5 straight.

It's a battle of titans.

I have to admit that I am sick of the losing this season, but at the same time I came away from the last Raptors game vs. the Jazz with an odd feeling of satisfaction.

This season is a lost one. Although many early questions about this team have been answered and with each passing day it becomes more and more clear where the issues reside, there is no denying that this squad took an enormous step back this year. Consequently, all you can do is look ahead to the off-season and to the opening tip of the 2011-2012 season.

That's what made the Jazz loss such an easy pill to swallow. We all know that for the Raptors to turn the corner they need some luck and some great personnel decisions. With each loss the odds at a high pick in this year's lottery continue to rise. It's not however, just the loss that matters here. It's how they lost.

Despite missing some key rotation players the Raps fought hard throughout the game and showed some good things on the hardwood. Despite having a tough shooting night DeMar DeRozan did not get down and made sure he was still effective down the stretch attacking the rim - a true sign of maturity. Other players like James Johnson and Ed Davis also played key minutes and are slowly gaining valuable experience.

To me it's all about close losses from this point out. If every game for the rest of the season could be like the Jazz game I couldn't be happier.

On the flip side of the coin you have the Pacers - a team stuck in no-man's land. Just holding on to the 8th spot in the East there are rumours that Danny Granger is just going though the motions (never a good sign). If the team manages to make the playoffs they will be slaughtered by the Celtics or Bulls  and if they don't make the playoffs they will be stuck with a late lottery pick in a weak draft.

In my opinion the Raps are in a much better spot than the Pacers when looking long term.

To get a sense of what is what with the Pacers we reached out to Tom at Indy Cornrows for this week's Blogging With The Enemy:  

RHQ: The Pacers seems to be a forgotten team in the NBA and seem to be lost in the netherworld of "Not good enough to be in the playoffs, not bad enough to win he lottery". What needs to be done to bring the Pacers back into contention?

The Pacers have several young players that need to continue developing into reliable NBA players. Paul George has the most upside, but Tyler Hansbrough, Darren Collison and Roy Hibbert need to produce consistently to provide a core to build around. The whole front office is in the last year of their contract, but whether Larry Bird returns or not, the  team will have over $30 million in cap space this summer. That gives them some flexibility to fill areas of need and/or take on some salary through trades to upgrade the talent. They still need a superstar, lead dog to emerge. Danny Granger is a talented player but not that leader to carry the team forward.

RHQ: In preparing for the draft we just did a piece of Jared Sullinger and he was compared to Tyler Hansbrough. Talk about Hansbrough since he entered the league. Has he been what most Pacers fans expected? Has he reached his ceiling already?

Hansbrough has really played well of late and throughout the season his development has been apparent. His rookie year was lost due to injury, but his ability to score around the rim and draw fouls or finish strong has really improved. He remains unorthodox with his array of jump hooks, but he’s relentless around the hoop. He’s also developed a pretty reliable mid-range shot from 15-18 feet. Considering the progress he’s made throughout this season, I can’t say he’s reached his ceiling, which is a common perception because of his age. But he plays hard and continues to learn how to produce in different ways. Bringing that production consistently every night will make him a strong contributor, not a superstar, on an NBA team.

RHQ: Keys to tonight's game.  What do the Pacers have to do to get the W?

Make some shots. Sorry, I know that sounds stupid, but the Pacers shot 29% in their last game and the bulk of those misses were pretty good looks at the bucket. It was a clankfest for the ages. There appears to be a collective lack of confidence throughout the roster. Both a lack of confidence by individual players in their own performance and a lack of confidence by players in their teammates. 
Two players to keep an eye on early are Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison. Both have struggled recently, so if they can get anything going early it may be a good sign for the Pacers.  Also, before the team’s recent slump, the Pacers succeeded by attacking the paint and winning the free throw and rebound differentials. Returning to that formula would help get it done for the Pacers.

That takes us to tonight's three keys:


1. More Young Guns: It's nice to see Reggie Evans back and all but let's be serious for a moment - he is not going to be a key part of the Raptors long term future. Guys like Ed Davis, Alexis Ajinca and even Joey Dorsey should be getting quality minutes in games like these. As much as I admit I think close loses is the best thing for this team long term the occassion win produced by the young guys on this squad would also be a nice thing to see.

2. Stop Hansbrough?: Although Darren Collison and Danny Granger have been playing below their usual standard one guy that has stepped up as of late is Tyler Hansbrough. Perhaps it's a "March" thing, but in any case the former UNC product has played his best ball as of late. The Raps absolutely have to keep him off the glass to keep the Pacers second chance points to a minimum.

3. Kick a Team When They Are Down: The Pacers are on a major slide right now and the Raps have a chance to jump on a team struggling to get its act together. The shoe is on the other foot. Neither team is overly confident right now so it will all come down to effort and execution. The Raps may be short handed again for this one but they could win this, or better yet lose a close one....