With the 2016 edition of the NBA playoffs seemingly taking forever to arrive, Raptors fans starved for postseason action should keep a keen eye on Friday's home clash with the Indiana Pacers.
If the playoffs started today, these teams would be squaring off in the first round. The second-seeded Raptors (52-26) are playing in the second half of a back-to-back after falling to the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday, while the Pacers (42-36) are coming off a big victory over the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Raptors have enjoyed a considerable amount of success in this series. Toronto has taken six of the last seven meetings between the clubs, with the latest triumph coming in the form of a 101-94 overtime win on March 17. Indy is riding a three-game winning streak heading into the tilt after topping the Cavs, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, but they haven't won at the Air Canada Centre since March of 2013.
The big storyline from here on out for fans of Canada's lone NBA team is going to be the re-insertion of small forward DeMarre Carroll into the lineup. Carroll returned from knee surgery on Thursday and looked just fine, notching five points and five steals in 14 minutes of action. Masai Ujiri's major offseason acquisition had missed Toronto's previous 41 games prior to the matchup.
Having a healthy Carroll back in the mix is huge, and it could prove to be the difference between a deep postseason run and another disappointing first-round exit if the 29-year-old can resemble his former self.
DeMar DeRozan needs just 22 points to pass Raps legend Vince Carter for second on the all-time franchise scoring list. Please don't leave us, DeMar.
Here are three things to watch out for in tonight's game:
Who's in and who's out?
With many bench bosses around the league opting to rest their top players in the home stretch of the regular season, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has stated he's not opposed to giving his big guns some extra rest with the playoffs on the horizon. We've seen Kyle Lowry and DeRozan in and out of the lineup in recent weeks, and with the Raptors playing for the second time in as many nights, the time may seem right for Casey to keep them sidelined.
But things are different now that Carroll is back. Unlike fellow newcomer Bismack Biyombo, Carroll has had minimal time to gel and create chemistry with his teammates. I wouldn't be surprised to see Casey ditch that plan in order to roll out some rotations that will receive heavy minutes in the not so distant future. Casey has also been courteous to the hometown fans, resting his starters in mostly road games as of late.
The resurgent Paul George
The sole reason Indiana is competitive again is due to the phenomenal play of superstar Paul George. George, who participated in only six games last season after suffering a horrific leg injury in the summer of 2014, is cruising along at a sizzling clip this season. The small forward is averaging a career-high 23.4 points per game in 2015-16 while consistently giving opposing defences headaches night in and night out.
That means standout rookie Norman Powell will have his hands full, and Carroll is going to be thrown into the fire immediately. The final outcome in this game won't matter much, but if George lights up the Dinos with ease, it's going to create cause for concern if these clubs do end up colliding in the first round.
A big edge for Toronto's big men
Bismack Biyombo straight up dominated the Pacers in their last matchup, and it wouldn't surprise anyone to see the Congo native have another huge night. Biyombo grabbed a franchise-record 25 rebounds while scoring a career-high 16 points against Frank Vogel's club last month.
Indiana has ditched its old system that featured a reliance on traditional big men in favor of more small ball lineups - a move that's worked so far - but a Ian Mahinmi-Jordan Hill pairing against a Jonas Valanciunas-Bismack duo presents a massive advantage for the Raptors.
Where to watch: Sportsnet One, 7:30 p.m. ET.