The Raptors have never been in firm control of a playoff series. They've had leads, no doubt, but never a solid hold. Tonight, as the Raps' opening round series against the Pacers shifts to Indiana, the team will look to take its first step in that particular direction. For does 3-1 not follow 2-1, and so on and so forth, forever and ever, amen? Well, OK, maybe.
I'm an anxious Raptors fan -- which is to say, a Raptors fan -- so I'm more willing to believe the worst before I believe the best. I didn't want the team to lose Game 1, but deep down was not entirely shocked when it happened. Game 2 suggested a few things though, some ideas we already knew and others that coalesced very quickly into concrete ways forward.
Starting at the top, we knew Kyle Lowry would figure out some way to affect the series. Despite all the hand-wringing after Game 1 (I see you, Cathal), Lowry is just too good a player to be kept on the sidelines. Unlike last year, when it was clear his body was falling apart, this year Lowry is fired up and running full speed (for better or worse) towards his goal. Did you see that play where he checked Paul George and knocked the ball away from him twice? The Pacers retained possession, but that was peak Lowry. And that's good.
Likewise, the Lowry plus the bench group can and will dictate the terms of this series. The Pacers bench, god love them, are just not as good or complete. In fact, when you subtract George and Monta Ellis, it becomes glaringly obvious that there just isn't a whole lot of offense there. Ty Lawson? Rodney Stuckey? These guys are no match for Lowry and Cory Joseph going full bore -- not to mention the absolutely superlative work of Patrick Patterson, asked to check the rotating cast of Indiana bigs. With news that Terrence Ross will be back in the lineup for Game 3, this combo will be just as potent as ever.
An aside into what we did not know: Norman Powell. Wait, let me back up. We did know the Raptors had something special with Powell as he gradually played himself into the rotation over the last two months of the regular season. He's not a lights out shooter as of yet (which explains Ross' continued importance on the wing), but his defensive presence is hard to deny. It's unlikely George is particularly afraid of anybody checking him in this series, but Powell is at least going to be a hassle. That's something new -- especially with DeMarre Carroll not looking like himself yet.
Now, back to known quantities -- one that's finally getting some burn and another that, well, remains the biggest question heading into Game 3.
If you've watched Raptors basketball over the past couple of years, you've probably noticed Lowry or DeMar DeRozan miss Jonas Valanciunas on approximately 300 million pick-and-roll opportunities. (This is a rough estimate.) Sometimes there have been reasons for this -- Jonas isn't as open as he thinks, Lowry or DeRozan see some other shot developing, or JV just isn't quite fleet of foot enough to stay in the play. Often however, it has felt that JV's offense will continue to solely depend on the first half post touches he gets, and then whatever rebounding cleanup points he can scrounge up. It's worked well for him so far, but man, what if he got more looks on the move? Answer: you get Game 2.
With no one practically available to check him (Myles Turner and Ian Mahinmi are dealing with sore backs), Valanciunas has looked monstrously dominate. He's getting his hands on a lot of caroms around the rim, he's expressing a true sense of verticality on the defensive end, and most importantly (and surprisingly!), he's getting those pick-and-roll looks we've long pleaded with Raptors guards to see. Indiana is a very good defensive team that is getting torn asunder by this new-ish wrinkle in Toronto. It's been something to see.
Finally, DeRozan. Oh, the questions around DeRozan. Is he right in saying its just two games of bad shooting? Is there a fundamental problem in the equation that involves George's terrifying length and DeRozan's slow-paced probing game? Is it even possible for him to bounce back or would the team be better served relying on Lowry and the bench unit, plus an increase in Valanciunas' usage? What look will we get in Game 3? Here comes the anxiety.
But first, to the most important and biggest unknown of the night. See the poll.