Apr 2, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Josh Smith (6) is fouled by Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) during the third quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers won 101-94. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers (53-23) at Toronto Raptors (43-32): preview & 3 keys to victory

Apr 2, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (24) reacts during the fourth quarter of the game against the Detroit Pistons at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers won 101-94. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

 

The Toronto Raptors welcome the Indiana Pacers, a team in turmoil, to the Air Canada Centre tonight. While Indiana’s position at the top of the Central Division is unassailable, they haven’t had much fun in recent games. The Pacers’ offense has fallen off a cliff; they have lost 5 of 7, and not cracked 80 points in any of those defeats. Their fans breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday when the Pacers were able to hold off the lowly Pistons at home (and break a century for the first time in 10 games), but are aware the team is still in a funk.

One problem Indiana doesn’t have is player health. Their starters have played almost every game. Roy Hibbert at centre can dominate the paint using his immense height and bulk, or toss up 8 bad shots in a row. He’s got all the physical gifts anyone could want, but is wildly inconsistent. Paul George, last season’s NBA Most Improved Player, averages over 21 PPG [Points Per Game], which leads the team. His shooting range extends beyond the 3-point arc, and he can work inside to great effect. Lance Stephenson may keep the MIP award in-state. He’s the top rebounder among guards in the league, and scores 14 PPG – not too shabby for a #40 draft pick. David West at power forward has given the Raps fits for years. He possesses a highly reliable mid-ranger jumper. George Hill at point guard is similar to Mario Chalmers in Miami; both are low-profile distributors who will shoot effectively if other options are closed off.

All that offensive talk aside, Indiana hangs its hat on defense. They rank fifth in team plus/minus at +5, but have by far the lowest-ranked offense (96.8 PPG) of the 12 best in the category. Hibbert ranks fourth in blocked shots, they are near the top in total rebounds, their bench has solid defenders like Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola on it…there are many reasons why they are so stingy.

The Raps have two key players, Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson, listed as “day to day” on the injury report. I strongly suspect we won’t see either player on the floor, so I’m building my forecast accordingly. Even so, the Raps can win if they:

  • move the ball on offense. During their excellent second and third quarters against Houston, all 5 Raps were touching the ball in the half-court set a number of times.
  • lean on Hibbert. Jonas Valanciunas must avoid his usual 2 or more reach-in fouls, because we have little defense if JV sits down. While Chuck Hayes is remarkable, I don’t know if he can keep the big man from scoring.
  • make some 3-balls. We can win this game with 85 points, and we can get there quickly if Terrence Ross finds the range.

I’m going to suggest the Pacers are still in an offensive slump, and so the Raps will win a slugfest 89-86.

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