The seventh-seeded Indiana Pacers (45-37) will try to upset the second-seeded Toronto Raptors (56-26) when their best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series begins at 12:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) at Air Canada Centre.
Toronto won three of the four regular-season meetings including once in overtime at Indianapolis on March 17.
The key for Indiana is trying to defend Toronto’s All-Star backcourt of Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. In the three games they played against Indiana this season, DeRozan averaged 24.3 points and Lowry 23.6 points per game.
Pacers All-Star Paul George struggled to find his shot in each of the four games, making 20-of-65 attempts (30.8 percent) and averaging 16.3 points, well shy of his career-best 23.1 average this season. That’s in part because he has to expend so much energy shadowing one of the two Raptors’ stars.
Expect guards George Hill and Monta Ellis to take turns trying to guard the Toronto guard that George doesn’t. It might come down to George taking the hot player. If both are doing what they do best and the Pacers can’t at least slow them down at times, this will be a quick series.
The Raptors haven’t won a playoff series since 2001 but are confident after setting a franchise record for regular-season victories. The Pacers are back in the playoffs are missing out last season, but were inconsistent for much of the year and didn’t clinch a postseason berth until the final week. Indiana won six of its last seven, earning head coach Frank Vogel Coach of the Month honors, but the lone loss was at Toronto.
And it was an ugly one for the Pacers. Despite the fact Indiana needed the win to clinch a playoff spot and neither DeRozan nor Lowry played, the Raptors routed the Pacers 111-98 in Toronto. Raptors rookie guard Norman Powell scored a season-high 27 points.
An obvious disparity from the four regular-season games has been at the foul line. The Raptors made 106-of-141 (75.2 percent) while the Pacers sank 72-of-90 (80 percent). Aside from the 34-point differential, the fact Toronto has gone to the line 51 more times is a serious problem for Indiana.
The Pacers began the season with an up-tempo offense that spread the floor. When that blueprint faltered and rookie forward-center Myles Turner started playing well, he was inserted into the starting lineup and the Pacers went more “smashmouth.” Turner eventually tailed off down the stretch and is back to coming off the bench.
Pacers forward Solomon Hill played well in the final weeks of the regular season. Guard-forward C.J. Miles scored in double digits in each of the four games during the regular season. Guard Rodney Stuckey could also be a key; he scored 16 off the bench when the teams met in the season opener.
The Pacers led that game by eight at halftime and still clung to a two-point lead with 2 minutes remaining before the Raptors prevailed 106-99. Indiana, in fact, led at halftime in the first three meetings, by 11 in a home win on Dec. 14 and by three in an overtime home loss on March 17.
So it’s not that the Pacers can’t play with the Raptors. They’ve just struggled to finish. Toronto’s All-Star backcourt specializes in that.
Pacers-Raptors Series Schedule
Game 1, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Air Canada Centre (ESPN).
Game 2, 7 p.m., Monday, Air Canada Centre (Fox Sports Indiana).
Game 3, 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Fox Sports Indiana).
Game 4, 3 p.m., April 23, Bankers Life Fieldhouse (TNT).
Game 5 (if necessary), time TBA, April 26, Air Canada Centre (TV TBA).
Game 6 (if necessary), time TBA, April 29, Bankers Life Fieldhouse (TV TBA).
Game 7 (if necessary), time TBA, May 1, Air Canada Centre (TV TBA).
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.