With the Charlotte Hornets stinging the Raptors once again at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, Toronto looks to begin a new win streak tonight with Paul George and the Indiana Pacers in town.
The Raptors have been riding a high. They had won a season-tying six straight games before the loss to Charlotte, while playing their best defense of the season by far. Despite injuries, suspensions and younger players being forced into larger roles than they are probably ready for, things are seemingly coming to fruition at the perfect time.
Standings wise, it feels as though the Raptors have been trying to scale up a descending escalator, as gaining any ground on the top three seeds has been somewhat exasperating. We have preached the significance of seeding over previous weeks, but what it ultimately comes down to is how prepared and in tune the Raptors are come the playoffs. In reflecting over the past several weeks, they are in far better shape than most of the teams around them.
The Raptors took the first against Indiana just 12 days ago in a 116-91 wax job. The Pacers have gone just 2-5 over their last seven games. It seems apropos that as the Raptors have found their mojo, the Pacers are one of the teams who find themselves rapidly spiralling with their malcontent superstar, Paul George. The road has been murderous for the Pacers as well, losing six straight away from home coming into tonight’s contest and sporting the worst road record of any playoff team at 11-26.
Here are a few things to watch for tonight:
PG versus Double-D
As we learned in the post-season last year against the Pacers, when it comes to containing DeMar DeRozan, Paul George may just be his kryptonite. In the aforementioned thrashing of the Pacers earlier this month, DeRozan scored 22 on 9-of-19 shooting, but only went to the free throw line twice — a testament to George’s ability to neutralize him when driving through the paint.
Here are some clips from game one of last seasons playoff matchup with the Pacers, of George locking down DeRozan throughout the game. Notice his ability to smother the premier scorer, evade screens, maintain body position and force DeRozan into uncomfortable situations.
Though DeMar has had the more consistent season between the two offensively, George has had an incredible month of March, averaging a season high 26.7 points on 48.8% shooting and knocking down 3.1 three’s a night at a clip of 42%. DeRozan has made a clear effort to get his teammates more involved over the past several weeks, as his 2.5 assists per game throughout February has jumped to 4.5 per game in March.
Keep on Marching on
The month of March has been kind for the Raptors, who lost themselves for a while throughout January and February. With a 9-6 record in March and the second best record in the East at 12-6 since the All-Star break, the Raptors are ready for spring to come. Only the Spurs and Warriors have performed better defensively throughout the month as the Raptors decreased their opponents scoring per 100 possessions from 106.4 in February to 101.7 in March.
The Pacers on the other hand have struggled immensely as previously mentioned. They have posted an opposite record of 6-9 in the month of March and find themselves clinging onto the eighth seed, just a game up on the Chicago Bulls.
The Renaissance of Lance Stephenson
It is uncertain whether or not Stephenson will be available for the game tonight, but the Pacers inked a three year $12 million deal with the twenty-six-year-old on Thursday morning. Stephenson was an integral part of a Pacers team that from 2012-2014, shared alpha dog status along with LeBron’s Miami Heat teams in the Eastern Conference. Indiana lost back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals to the Heat (one went seven games), but were extremely close to cracking an NBA Finals.
Ever since the trade deadline, a disgruntled Paul George has been seemingly on edge about his team and their identity. “This season had been a reality check,” George told ESPN. “I’ve never been on a team without an identity — without a toughness identity.” Injecting the Pacers and George with some familiar energy in Stephenson, could be the small fix that creates big change within the dynamic of the team. Toughness is Stephenson’s middle name and pissing people off while getting buckets is his game.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet One, 7 pm EST