The NBA’s hottest team? No more.
Just like that, back-to-back home losses have dropped the Indiana Pacers into a three-way tie for seventh place with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat among five bubble teams vying for the last two Eastern Conference playoff spots.
And Monday night was perhaps even more discouraging than losing two days earlier to the Celtics as the struggling Toronto Raptors awoke from their funk with a 117-98 dismissal of the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry improved his franchise record with a seventh career triple double — 20 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists — and the Raptors hit 12-of-23 3-pointers while the Pacers missed 17-of-19 from beyond the arc. The Raptors (40-27) didn’t look like a team that had lost 10 of 12, including seven on the road. The Pacers (30-36) didn’t resemble the NBA’s best team since Feb. 1 with a 13-3 record.
When the visitors weren’t burying 3-pointers, they were driving to the basket and getting fouled. Toronto hit 27-of-33 free throws to the Pacers’ 20-of-25.
“We came into the game saying we didn’t want to put them on the line, and we did that,” said Pacers reserve guard Rodney Stuckey, who had 20 points. “And they were hitting shots, too.”
The 117 points allowed were the most at home by the Pacers this season and tied for the second-highest total overall. The Raptors dominated the boards, 51-36, Indiana’s largest rebounding deficit of the season. And behind Lou Williams’ game-high 24 points, the visitors had a 41-28 edge in bench scoring. The Pacers dropped to 3-15 when their reserves have been outscored.
“They were just too much for us,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel.
The Raptors swept the three-game season series from the Pacers for the first time since 2000-01. And it’s the quickest Toronto has reached 40 wins in a season in franchise history, although recent missteps included losing the lowly New York Knicks.
“We know that that Pacers are the best defensive team in the league,” Lowry slightly overstated about Indiana, which began the night ranked third at 96 points allowed per game. “We wanted to come out with great effort and energy.”
That the Raptors did, and they never let up. They put together four consistent scoring quarters of 29, 29, 30 and 29 points. The Pacers tried to keep up for a half, down just 58-54 at intermission, but Toronto pulled away.
Lowry almost had a triple-double by halftime with 12 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. And he realized he was close.
“Yeah, I knew because they have the huge scoreboard out there,” he said. “But I didn’t care about that. We were winning the game and I was just concerned with playing the right tempo.”
Pacers center Roy Hibbert, whose 17 points were the most he’s scored in 16 games, said the Raptors also broke down his team defensively with pick-and-rolls.
“They play the pick and roll as well as anybody in the league,” Hibbert said. “We struggled against it tonight and it led to a lot of 3-point looks.”
Lowry hit five 3-pointers, Terrence Ross three, Grieves Vasquez two, Amir Johnson and Williams one apiece.
The Pacers had tied a franchise record with 17 3-pointers in a recent home win over Orlando, so missing 17 including many on wide-open looks was as pivotal as anything. C.J. Miles missed the most, six in seven attempts.
“I thought we got a lot of good looks and moved the ball,” Vogel said. “We just had a tough shooting night.”
Pacers point guard George Hill had a team-high 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting. Stuckey hit 9-of-16 shots. Subtract their efforts and the Pacers made just 20-of-57 shots (35 percent).
Indiana has been home for much of three weeks with eight of their last nine at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That enabled the team to win a season-high seven games in a row to get into playoff contention. The Pacers now play six of nine on the road beginning Wednesday at the Chicago Bulls (40-28).
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.