As much as I like to dream, the 7th seeded Indiana Pacers (45-37) need half a miracle to overcome the 2nd seeded Toronto Raptors (56-26) in their first round NBA playoffs match-up commencing Saturday afternoon. Granted, the odds are better than they would have been had the Pacers fallen to the 8th seed and played against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the gap between the two squads is wide.
The two teams faced off three times in the regular season, with the Raptors coming out on top, 3-1. Their first match-up was the regular season opener, which the Raptors took fairly easily, 106-99. Game 2 was in Indy, and the Pacers returned the favor, 106-90. The last two meetings were in March and April, and Raptors won both 101-94 and 111-98 (the last one while resting both Lowry and DeRozan).
Does it mean it’s impossible for the Pacers to upset the Raptors? No, they could do it, but it will require a lot of things to go Indiana’s way.
First, the Pacers need a huge series from Paul George. The Raptors have two big weapons in All-Star guards Lowry and DeRozan, and they can afford it if one of them has an off night. On the Pacers, PG is the only guy who can beat a team by himself over the length of a series. Monta Ellis might have a good game, or CJ Miles might shoot the lights out one night — but if PG doesn’t average at least 25 points while shooting close to 50% from the floor, the Pacers probably won’t get past 5 games in this series. PG hasn’t been 100% as of late, but he’s been playing much better than he did when he went through that horrendous slump mid-way through the season.
Secondly, the Pacers need to live up to their ranking as the third best defensive team in the league. I know it certainly doesn’t feel like it when watching them play at times, but the numbers tell us that the Pacers were the third best defensive team in 2015-2016. George Hill will need to be solid against Lowry, and PG will have to clamp down on DeRozan, even though Frank Vogel might put their best offensive player on someone else to conserve his energy on offense. Playing good D means cutting them off on penetrations and not letting them live at the line. If Lowry and DeRozan combine to get to the line 20 times a night, the Pacers won’t have a chance. If they can keep it to 10 or fewer, then it means the Pacers are doing something right.
Thirdly, the Pacers need someone apart from PG to step up every game. Whether that is Monta, or CJ Miles, or George Hill, or Jordan Hill, or Rodney Stuckey, or Myles Turner, it doesn’t really matter. Just at least one of them needs to put up close to 20, because the Pacers offensive simply isn’t consistently good enough. The good news is that all these guys ARE capable of putting up numbers on any given night.
For me, the X-factors in this series for the Pacers are Myles Turner and Ty Lawson. Vogel might be hesitant to give his prized rookie extended minutes in a playoff series, but Turner has the ability to unsettle the Raptors with his floor-stretching ability, athleticism and rim protection. Provided he gets minutes and can stay out of foul trouble, Turner could provide that element of surprise the Pacers desperately need in this series. The second is their newly acquired point guard, who hasn’t given us enough of a sample size thus far, though it’s hard to deny that the offense appears more fluid when he is on the floor and that his passing makes everyone around him better. If Lawson can rally the second unit and give the Pacers’ bench an advantage over the Raptors’ bench, it will make the gap between the first unit a lot less glaring.
Given that the Raptors have lost in the first round the last couple of years, including last year when they fell to the Washington Wizards despite having home court advantage, they could be vulnerable if they lose a one of the first two in Toronto. The Pacers missed the playoffs last year because of a gutted team, but this is a squad with players who have gone deep into the playoffs. PG and George Hill should be confident out there with their experience, while few still remember that Ian Mahinmi once went all the way to the Finals (and won) as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. Solomon Hill, should he get minutes (he should, considering how he has played as of late), should also be able to contribute. And of course, Monta Ellis was on the Golden State team that upset the top-seeded Mavericks back in 2007.
So realistically, if the Pacers want to stand a chance, they need to win one of the first two games in Toronto, and their best chance will be game one. It’s going to be a hard task, and I’ll put their chances of an upset at a very low 15%. Chances are, the combination of Lowry and DeRozan are going to be too much for the Pacers, who have never really found their identity this season due an assortment of reasons, including chemistry, rotations and injuries. Don’t forget, the Raptors won 56 games, which is how many the Pacers had when they were the top seed a couple of seasons ago. They’re a really good team, and even Greg Popovich (apparently) thinks they will make the Finals. Personally, I’m hoping the Pacers can avoid a sweep. I’m expecting a five-game series and will be happy if they can stretch it to six, and will be very surprised if we see a game seven.