TORONTO - Reeling from back-to-back losses, both of the disheartening variety, the Toronto Raptors (23-35) host the Central Division-leading Indiana Pacers (36-22) at the Air Canada Centre Friday evening -- a 7:00pm et tip on TSN. Despite finishing February with a record of 7-5 -- their first winning month since January of 2010 (10-5) -- the Raptors are glad to turn the page to March after losing the last two games of the month to sub .500 teams (Washington and Cleveland). Their first opponent of March, the Pacers, are one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 10 of their last 13 contests. They had won five straight by an average of 23.8 points per defeat before falling to the Los Angeles Clippers 99-91 on Thursday.
"We've had some bumps in the road. Again, we're in a building process, we're going to have bumps in the road but I like the direction we're going. I like our core group. In any building situation, in the process there's going to be bumps and tangles and things like that but I like the way our guys overall [have] fought through them, are fighting through them, [are] going to continue to fight through them until we get to where we want to go."
-- Raptors coach Dwane Casey on his team's progress in February
Trends and Tidbits
Although the Pacers have won their last three games at the ACC, the Raptors have had some recent success against them, leading the season series 2-1 and winning their last two in Indiana. Rudy Gay knocked down the winning jumper with one second remaining in overtime to give Toronto a 100-98 victory in the latest meeting on February 8th. Gay scored 17 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter and overtime, fulfilling his destiny as the closer Toronto coveted before acquiring him from Memphis.
So far, the season series between these teams has featured three hard-fought, closely contested, barn-burners. Each contest has been decided by two points and has ultimately come down to the final possession with each game going to the road team. According to Raptors, Toronto and Indiana are the only opponents in the NBA to play three games decided by two points or less this season. With a win on Friday, the Raptors would take the season series with Indiana for the first time since the 2007-08 campaign.
What to Watch For
- Battle on the Boards
Known for their size and physical brand of basketball, the Pacers are the NBA's best at rebounding the ball, pulling down 45.8 per game. Although the Raptors rank 28th in this category (39.9), they have held their own against Indiana this season and even bested them on the boards in their overtime victory last month. Amir Johnson had 14 rebounds in that game while rookie Jonas Valanciunas grabbed 13 for Toronto. Set to face Pacers centre Roy Hibbert for the fourth time in his young career -- and with double-doubles in two of those first three meetings -- look for Valanciunas to see an uptick in playing time after getting just 24 minutes in the Cavaliers loss on Wednesday.
- Grindhouse Basketball
The Pacers are one of the league's premier defensive teams for a reason. They have sound individual defenders across the board, they're big, yet quick and physical, yet agile. They make up for sub-par offensive production with a consistently punishing defence. "They're not a running team," Casey said of the Pacers, who allowed just 89.1 points in February (2nd in the league). "They're [a] very efficient, methodical, try to slice you up team." The Raptors have shot just 39 per cent against the Pacers this season but they have shown the ability to play in and win those gritty games that Indiana specializes in. Their much-improved defence gave up 93.5 points (6th) last month.
Without Hibbert in Thursday's loss to the Clippers -- he was suspended for his part in an altercation with the Warriors' David Lee -- the Pacers interior defence was vulnerable as Indiana was outscored by 18 in the paint. After serving his one-game ban, the Pacers All-Star centre and defensive anchor will be back to create havoc around the rim Friday night.
- Who takes better care of the ball?
Turnovers have been an issue for Toronto in each of the team's previous two losses. The Raptors committed 12 of their 14 turnovers during the first half of Monday's loss to the Wizards before the Cavs exploited their 15 miscues for 20 points on Wednesday.
Indiana turned the ball over 20 times, leading to 21 points for the Clippers on Thursday. Neither offence has been especially efficient of late so the team that is able to minimize unforced errors should have an advantage in what has the makings of a close, low-scoring affair.
Who to Watch For
DeRozan has been one of few bright spots in each of his team's previous two games. The Raptors' guard is coming off an efficient 34-point performance, shooting 10-for-19 from the field and matching a career-high with 14 free throws on 15 attempts. DeRozan has bounced back after a rough January, thriving in February playing alongside Gay. The duo has combined to score 38 or more points in eight of the 12 games they've played together.
For DeRozan, he has scored 18 plus in nine of those games, also attempting six or more free throws in a career-best seven straight contests. Even more impressive has been his efficiency during this recent stretch, scoring over 20 points while shooting at least 50 per cent in three of his last five games. "I think DeMar has played some of the most efficient basketball since I've been here," Casey said. "He's really choosing his spots wisely." He and Gay will both be in for a challenge against Indiana's stellar perimeter defenders. Lance Stephenson and All-Star Paul George have helped hold DeRozan (39 per cent) and Gay (30) under 40 per cent from the floor in three meetings this season (Gay was with Memphis for two of those games).
After the boos subsided in Monday's tilt following Casey's plea (the support Bargnani movement) to Raptors fans, the home crowd may not be as patient with the seven-foot Italian after he was held without a point through 15 minutes in Cleveland. That performance was Bargnani's third scoreless outing over the last four games. In seven contests since returning from a bout of the flu, he has averaged 3.3 points, 1.8 rebound, 0.3 assists while shooting 11-for-36 from the field and a measly 1-of-11 from three-point range.
Time is running out for the former first-overall pick to prove himself worthy of his already shrinking playing time and his relationship with this fan base may already be unsalvageable. For what it's worth, Bargnani's 14-point performance in Indiana last month remains his highest scoring outing in nine games since returning from an elbow injury.
"Spark, bounce, aggressiveness offensively, aggressiveness defensively. He didn't back down from West. He really did a good job of pressuring the elbow, denying those catches out, showing on pick and rolls. He was active and that's what we've got to get from Andrea and all our players each and every night. And that's what everyone's looking for, that old Andrea. But again, no one can do that but him."
-- Casey on Bargnani's last game against the Pacers
One of the most underrated big men in the association, West is playing some of the best basketball since signing with Indiana in 2011. The Pacers forward averaged 20.7 points in February and always seems to bring out his 'A' game when facing the Raptors. A proven Raptor killer, West has scored 22.0 points on 51 per cent shooting against Toronto this season.
Coming off the bench, Granger is still working his way back from a knee injury that kept him out of the Pacers' first 55 games of the season. The former All-Star has been rusty -- understandably so -- since returning, shooting 2-of-17 and combining for seven points in his first two games back before scoring 12 on 5-of-10 from the field in the Clippers loss. Although they've played well without him and won't rush him back into their lead role, especially with George excelling, the Pacers could certainly use his scoring. It will be interesting to see how he reacts to whatever role coach Frank Vogel puts him in down the stretch and into the postseason.