INDIANAPOLIS - There are a few common denominators between the Indiana Pacers and the reigning champion Miami Heat, with the number of similarities growing each day.
Both teams were conference finalists a year ago, both clubs have an unmistakable identity that defines them, both play unselfish, defence-first basketball and in the last four days, both have reminded the Raptors how far they are from competing at their level.
For Toronto, Friday's meeting with the still undefeated Pacers came to an unofficial end before most of the home team's fans could make it back to their seats. As good as the Raptors looked in the first half and as hard as they worked to look that good, Indiana reclaimed what was, as they knew it, rightfully theirs in less than three revealing minutes.
"We knew they were going to come out and throw their best haymaker at us," Dwane Casey said, his team leading by as many as 12 in the first half and holding on to a two-point advantage at the break.
Everyone knew they would, because that's what great teams do. Indiana opened the second half scoring 10 straight points, forcing three turnovers and holding Toronto to 0-of-4 shooting. Just like that, Toronto's 24 minutes of (mostly) hard work was more than erased and the game was over.
You could see it on the faces of players sitting on both benches as Casey was forced to call a quick third-quarter timeout to regroup. The Pacers had been in this position before, more than you would guess though six games this season. There was no panic, there was no time for sulking. They knew they had it. The Raptors' body language spoke louder than words. They knew it was only a matter of time now.
The Pacers matched a franchise record - previously set in 1970-71 as an ABA team - winning six straight to begin a season. They haven't allowed a team to score more than 91 points or shoot over 40 per cent. They haven't scored 100 points, but they haven't needed to.
"I don't know if the history of [it] is as [important] as the fact that we have to lead on our goal," Pacers' coach Frank Vogel said before the game. "And our goal is the number one seed. We're off to a good start and we all understand the importance of each game when our goal is so high."
They've trailed at halftime in five of their six games, but it hasn't mattered. When you're a team as good as the Pacers, you can afford to bide your time. The Raptors learned that from the Heat on Monday when the defending champs started Toronto's losing streak. The Pacers sent them home with that same effortless spanking, extending the Raptors' skid to three and reminding them why Wednesday's disappointing loss to the Bobcats was so disappointing. They need to take advantage of winnable games because in this league, if you're a middling team, they're few and far between.
"There are no moral victories," Gay repeated. "We want to get this next one, that's it. We have to get this next one. The more we put ourselves in a hole, the more important the next game is and the next game is pretty important for us."
The Raptors host the winless Utah Jazz in the second night of a back-to-back on Saturday. It's not a game they can afford to lose.
George vs. Gay
The match-up at small forward was a fun one in Indiana Friday night. Gay and the Pacers' rising superstar Paul George combined for 53 points, 30 per cent of the total offence in the game.
Gay - who came into the game struggling, shooting just 34 per cent - was red-hot out of the gate. The Raptors' leading scorer looked like the player of old, scoring 14 of his team's 32 first-quarter points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field. He would go on to shoot just 3-of-13 in the second half, finishing the evening with an even 30 points but needing 26 shots to get there.
"You can talk about Paul George, but I thought Rudy outplayed him," Casey said. "They won the game, but talking about individual matchups, Rudy played the game he's supposed to play."
George was outscored by his counterpart, pouring in 23 on the night, but hardly outplayed with 17 of his points coming in the third quarter when his team needed him the most and the game was ultimately decided.
The Pacers' all-star forward, who came into the game fifth in scoring, has had at least 21 points in each of his team's six contests. A gifted two-way player, he's every bit the superstar he was paid to be this summer.
As George stepped to the line with 11 seconds remaining, he was greeted by a chorus of MVP chants. Although anointing an MVP six games into the season is as silly as it sounds, he's playing at that level and that's the direction the 23-year-old is headed. He's that good.
Learning from the best
The Raptors' coaching staff, like most teams with young and impressionable big men, have been using the Pacers' Roy Hibbert as a model for the 21-year-old Valanciunas. Offensively, the Raptors' sophomore centre continues to make strides but, as head coach Casey reminds us, he still has a ways to go on the defensive end. The team hopes he will one day become the anchor that Indiana's all-star big man has grown into on both ends of the floor.
"He does such a good job of getting deep post position," Casey said of Hibbert, who scored 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting. "Where he got JV last year was reposting, kicking it out and reposting up so on that second one, if you relax at all, all you can do is pray."
One technique Toronto's staff continues to preach with Valanciunas is something Hibbert has perfected in his sixth NBA season. To stay out of foul trouble and contest shots in the lane, the Raptors want Valanciunas to go straight up, remaining vertical without bringing his arms down in the process.
"We give him the respect of calling it 'the Hibbert play'," Casey said of the technique. "He's one of the best in the league at doing that and that's where JV is getting much better."
"I'm trying to be like him with that skill," Valanciunas noted. But it's not something Hibbert - the league's early-season shot block leader - picked up overnight, one of the reasons Casey preaches patience with the development of his young centre.
"It takes a lot of time," Pacers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged. "It's one of the things I think most of the big men in the NBA are working to achieve now. I think that's the way that Roy has set the model for how it's done."
Friday was one of those nights that Casey calls a "learning experience" for Valanciunas. One of his roughest of the young season, Valanciunas scored just four points in 24 minutes, committing five fouls and two turnovers. He was out-muscled by Hibbert, beat off the dribble by quicker players, exposed on switches and missed defensive assignments.
The Pacers' star big man is a good example of what Valanciunas can grow into but he also serves as a reminder that it takes time.