By Chris Molicki
Despite being dubbed the top challenger for the Cavaliers in the East, the Toronto Raptors have a lot to prove in Round 1. After back-to-back first round exits as the higher seed, this is the best Toronto team they’ve had during this run, and there could be some major shake-ups if they fall flat again. Meanwhile, the Pacers are back in the playoffs, which means Paul George’s postseason return. While the Raptors are the better team, Indiana might have the best player on the floor in George (although Kyle Lowry will have something to say about that).
When the Pacers have the ball: Despite a successful season last year, Toronto’s defense was its downfall, ranking 24th in the league in defensive efficiency. This year, they’ve upped it to 11th, and that’s without DeMarre Carroll for most of the year. Carroll has played a mere 52 minutes since returning from injury, and the key for Indiana will be for Paul George to win that matchup. I’m not so sure the inconsistent Monta Ellis and George Hill will outplay the Toronto guards, so a lot will come down to George and rookie Myles Turner. The Texas standout burst onto the scene this season before slowing down a little as the season went on. Turner is the perfect x-factor as a big man who can shoot, as well as protect the rim. If he can pull the Raptors bigs away from the basket, that’ll make life a lot easier for George and company.
When the Raptors have the ball: In a guard-driven league, it’s pretty nice to have the combo of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Both players have seen their scoring averages increase by 3+ points this year, and the defensive improvement is evident as well. Going up against a third-ranked Pacer defense that thrives off turnovers, it’ll be up to these two to take care of the ball. This series will be crucial in getting Carroll back on track and trying to boost the confidence of Jonas Valanciunas, but it’ll all boil down to the Toronto backcourt.
Matchup to watch: Carroll vs. George is great, but I’m intrigued to see how the benches stacks up against each other. Dwayne Casey has a strong bench that gives him the luxury to go with a bunch of different lineups. Don’t be surprised if James Johnson or Patrick Patterson play heavy minutes to give the Raptors some versatility. Cory Joseph should also be a big factor as a rock-solid backup point guard, something Toronto lacked last year. As for Indiana, Ty Lawson hasn’t fit in, Rodney Stuckey has fallen off, and there’s not much off the bench in the frontcourt. A lot will fall on the shoulders of C.J. Miles to lead the second unit. If the Pacers get clobbered when their starters rest, this could be a short series.
Pick-Raptors in 5: George can only do so much, and the Raptors are a much better team than they were last year. They’re balanced, have depth and versatility, and the improvements from Lowry and DeRozan should push them to the next level. I don’t see enough from Indiana to really compete.