TORONTO - Momentum is a tricky thing in this league, one day you have it and the next you don't.
Seven days ago the Toronto Raptors (22-36) were feeling good about themselves and their chances at making a late-season playoff run after defeating the Knicks for the second time during a red-hot stretch in which they accumulated seven wins in 10 games.
On Friday it became clear that their fortunes have turned once again following a third straight defeat, this one at the hands of the Indiana Pacers (37-22), 93-81 at the Air Canada Centre.
"It was a gritty game, a grind-it-down game," said Raptors forward Rudy Gay, who led the team with 21 points despite struggling from the field. "Both teams forced people to take tough shots they just made a lot more than we did. They also made a lot more easy shots. They made it easy for themselves."
With 49 combined fouls called, 33 turnovers committed and some questionable shot selection on both ends, the game was indeed a choppy one. Gay shot just 7-for-16, frustrated by Indiana's aggressive defensive attack but also fighting through back spasms that began to slow him down in the first half.
"I'm trying to play through it," Gay admitted, "because right now [is] not the time to sit out. [I'm] just trying to play through it and do as much as I can for the team. I just don't want to be in the team's way."
Despite experiencing some recent success against the Central Division-leading Pacers -- winning their last two in Indiana -- the Raptors offence was lulled to sleep early in the game, quickly determining their fate in another low-scoring affair between these clubs. Their defence was able to keep them in it until the second half when the Pacers began to do what they do best; attack the rim and pound the glass.
Coming off a pair of disheartening losses to a couple of sub .500 squads in the Wizards and Cavaliers, Toronto now watches its once-salvageable season slip away.
"It's not easy to lose," Gay said, frustrated as the team fell to 7-6 since trading for him at the end of January. "Especially right now, it's not easy to lose. They're a great defensive team but to be one of the elite [teams] you have to be disciplined and do what we do everyday. So for that, I think they deserved to beat us."
Fast Breaking Points
- Pacers Controlled the Pace
The game's methodical, half-court tempo is one that immediately favoured the defensively superior Pacers. Although Indiana controlled the pace from the start, and especially in the second half, the Raptors didn't do much to take the visiting team out of their comfort zone. Prior to the contest coach Dwane Casey had hopes of pushing the tempo and moving the ball but this was not the case as his team played right into Indiana's hands, frequently attacking Paul George and Lance Stephenson -- both plus perimeter defenders -- on isolation sets. Both Gay and DeMar DeRozan -- who finished with nine points following a scoreless second half -- were out of rhythm and seemed to be forcing their games at the expense of a cohesive offence, one that totalled just 12 assists. Despite 20 Pacers turnovers, the Raptors were unable to get out and run -- totalling eight fast-break points, six of which came in garbage time -- and the team couldn't (or wouldn't) move the ball once they were forced to run their half-court sets.
"Everything's got to be with force. Everything's got to be catch and go, catch and move. And we've got to get better ball movement. Right now the ball is sticking. Right, wrong or indifferent we've got some guys playing at high level offensively but we've got to get it to them off of movement."
Coming off a 34-point performance in Cleveland on Wednesday, DeRozan struggled with his shot despite his continued aggressive play. "We couldn't score and we couldn't get stops," a subdued DeRozan said after shooting just 2-for-10 from the field and 5-of-10 from the line. "That's all on us."
- Sloppy Start
Both teams came out flat, limping their way out of the gate offensively -- on par with the recent history between these teams. The Raptors were noticeably rusty, waiting until the nine-minute mark and missing their first four shots before getting on the board with a Jonas Valanciunas free throw. Toronto shot a paltry 18 per cent in the frame and was held to a season-low 13 first-quarter points. The sluggish play carried over into the second quarter as the two teams were called for 24 fouls combined and committed 16 turnovers with both clubs shooting under 40 per cent in the opening half. However, Toronto was able to hang around -- down only five at the half -- thanks to a Pacers offensive that was nearly as inefficient.
On top of the back spasms that may have limited him, the Pacers had Gay blanketed throughout most of the game, forcing him to make plays out of the double team and take tough mid-range jumpers. "They start[ed] keying in on him," Casey said of Gay, who committed four turnovers in the game. "They did a good job of sending quick help to him. But we've got to do a better job of getting it to him and DeMar on the weak side, that way the defence is softer."
- Battle on the Boards, Second Half Skid
Known for their size and physical brand of basketball, the Pacers entered the game as the NBA's best at rebounding the ball (45.8 per contest) while the Raptors ranked 28th in that category (39.9). Although the Raptors have held their own on the boards against the Pacers this season -- even out-rebounding them in the February 8th meeting, a 100-98 overtime victory for Toronto -- they were outmuscled on Friday, specifically during a second half run that put the game out of reach. The Raptors actually had the rebounding advantage at halftime, one of the reasons they were able to stick around despite their poor shooting, but Indiana bested them by 14 on the boards in the final 24 minutes. The Pacers also held a 10-point second-half advantage in the paint thanks in large part to the dominance of Roy Hibbert and David West, who scored eight points apiece during a third quarter that saw Indiana shoot 63 per cent from the floor. George added seven points in that period and scored 17 of his game-high 22 in the second half.
Coming off a scoreless outing in Cleveland, Andrea Bargnani did an adequate job -- at times -- manning up with West. "They've got one of the best front courts in the league and I think he did a pretty good job defensively," Gay said of Bargnani. "It wouldn't be easy for a lot of people. He fought with them and I commend him for that." Hearing boos from the crowd once again, the Raptors' forward scored eight points in 32 minutes -- the most he's logged since returning from injury last month -- but failed to grab a rebound in his time on the floor. While Amir Johnson was saddled with foul trouble, Bargnani and Valanciunas were forced to take on the bigger, stronger and more experienced Pacers frontcourt. Not surprisingly they were simply outmatched.
The Pacers opened up a 13-point lead in the third quarter and extended it to as much as 19 midway through the fourth before Casey pulled his starters with Saturday night's game in mind. Toronto's garbage-time crew kept things interesting for the fans -- as much as they possibly could at that points -- as rookie and sparingly used Quincy Acy threw down a couple of vicious slams and Alan Anderson scored 12 of his 14. Acy finished with six points and four fouls in five spirited minutes.
Notables and Quotables
The Raptors and Pacers split their season series at two games apiece with the road team winning in each of their four meetings. ... The first three meetings were each decided by two points and according to Raptors Media Relations they are the only two opponents in the NBA this season to have played three games decided by two or less. ... The Raptors have been held under 20 assists in all four games against Indiana this season. The team has registered 19 or fewer assists in eight of 14 games since the trade for Gay following a stretch where they exceeded 20 dimes in 22 of 23 prior to the deal. ... The Pacers have won 11 of their last 14, the last four at Toronto's ACC and improve to 12-5 in the second night of a back-to-back. ... Toronto finished the month of February with a record of 7-5, it's first winning month since January of 2010 (10-5). ... Despite missing have of his free throws on Friday, DeRozan has now attempted six or more shots from the line in a career-best eight straight games. ... Terrence Ross, who did not see the floor in the Cavaliers loss and has fallen out of favour in the Toronto rotation, logged 12 minutes. The rookie guard was held scoreless on 0-of-4 shooting. ... Pacers forward Danny Granger did not play in the second half as the team opted to rest him in his fourth game back from a knee injury that kept him out of 55 contests this season. Granger came off the bench to score eight points in nine first-half minutes before taking the rest of the night off.
"You are talking about one of the best defensive teams in the league. That is the level we have to get ready for. We have to develop that mentality. That is playoff basketball. We have to be able to execute against that type of basketball and that type of physically. Everything has to be with force."
"It's not that our guys are not competing it's just understanding how [we've] got to do it and the physicality and the force we've got to do it with."
The Raptors open a four-game road trip in Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back Saturday night, a must-win if they hope to keep their playoff aspirations alive. Toronto sits 6.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Bucks for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference going into a crucial meeting on Saturday -- 8:30 PM tip on TSN2. With their slim postseason odds dwindling by the loss, another lackluster outing in Milwaukee could represent the unofficial nail in their 2012-13 coffin.