BALL IN TORONTO’S COURT, NOW THEY ‘GOT TO GO PLAY’
Raps may have broken Pacers’ spirit, and Indianapolis fans can sense it
Paul George, the superb Indiana Pacers forward, was talking after his team’s Game 3 loss about the need for his teammates to be tougher and more physical.
“I keep telling the guys,” he said, “whatever coach is drawing up, (the Raptors) know.”
You aren’t going to get clean shots and easy looks at the basket, he said. There will be a hand in your face, he explained. You have to push through it.
It was a surprising admission, this thought that nothing Frank Vogel could design was going to outsmart Toronto’s defensive scheme, but after two straight games in which the Raptors held the Pacers to fewer than 90 points, you had to concede that George was on to something.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey had said before the series tipped off that his charges needed to be prepared for the Pacers’ swarming defence, which he described in terms that sounded a lot like he expected the Raptors to be wrestling a lion: “Hitting, holding, slashing, ripping.” Yikes! Hopefully no one bleeds out at centre court.
But it is Toronto that has excelled at the physical game. Other than the second-half collapse in the series opener — in what was still a one-possession game with four minutes left — the Raptors have held the Pacers to fewer than 50 points in five of six halves.
Indiana held the lead in Games 2 and 3 for less than four minutes combined. And no Pacer other than George has gone on anything approaching a sustained scoring streak. Even he finally cooled off Thursday night, with 25 points, but only 6-for-19 shooting from the field. He simultaneously credited DeMarre Carroll with aggressive defence that frustrated his ability to make shots while also complaining about it: George said Carroll was hitting him on the elbow or wrist with “every shot,” even though the referees sent him to the freethrow line 12 times.
And so, as the teams practised Friday afternoon in preparation for Game 4 Saturday, the question is no longer whether Toronto is better (they are) or whether they can assert themselves in the playoffs (they did), it’s whether they have, in the space of a week, broken the Pacers’ spirit.
“We haven’t done anything,” Casey said Friday, in the leastsurprising quote of the day.
He said his team needed an “underdog mentality” and pointed to what happened in Game 1 as evidence of what happens when they take possessions for granted. (In fairness, the Raptors could be accused of a lot of things after the opener, but overconfidence was not one of them.)
Each team has now dropped its opener at home, but the differences between Game 1 and Game 3 are striking. At the Air Canada Centre, the Raptors were sloppy and tight, their best players were terrible and they still held the lead at the half and hung around until the closing minutes.
At Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers were sloppy and emotional, their best player was pretty damn good — George had 25 points and 10 rebounds — and Toronto took a five-point lead after less than five minutes and it was never that close again.
It was a total throttling, one in which their best players still shot below their regular-season percentages and Jonas Valanciunas, who has bestrode the court like a Lithuanian colossus in the series, was held to nine points in limited minutes because of foul trouble.
It seems worth noting Indianapolis itself is wary of this Pacers team. There were dozens of empty seats Thursday night despite the announced sellout, and as of Friday afternoon, hundreds of tickets were unsold for Game 4, ranging from $275 seats just a few rows from the court to $18 seats just a few rows from the roof.
More significantly, the resale market has priced tickets at close to face value; in Toronto, good seats are reselling for five and 10 times their original cost. Indiana may be the heartland of basketball, but Toronto, presently, is far more excited about its team than Indianapolis is about the Pacers.
The Raptors’ quick start in Game 3 only deadened the atmosphere even more. Time after time, the Pacers arena presentation exhorted the crowd to get loud and was met with studied indifference. Perhaps this is because the basketball heartland knows when its team is overmatched.
Toronto’s bench unit has been deadly, and if they get a strong start from one of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan or Valanciunas, it’s hard to see how George can match the Raptors’ depth on his own. He’s a spectacular defender, but can’t cover everyone.
The Raptors, of course, will not entertain such talk.
“Every day’s another game,” Lowry said Friday after practice.
He said he expected the Pacers to come out strong and said they needed to be able to match that intensity.
But he also allowed that his team just has to do what it does. Nothing particularly unexpected has happened in the past two games and Toronto cruised in both.
“We just got to go play, man,” Lowry said.
One suspects he is right.