Indiana Pacers Playoff Primer- Round One: Toronto Raptors


On April 15, 2015, the Indiana Pacers were eliminated from playoff contention when they lost their final game of the season. Almost one year to the day later, following Paul George's recovery and a virtual team identity overhaul, they clinched a playoff berth. By winning their final two games of the year, the Pacers secured the Eastern Conference's seventh seed, avoiding a first round date with the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers. However, their actual opponent is hardly any more of a walk in the park, as Indiana will open the playoffs against the second seed Toronto Raptors. Toronto has been a thorn in Indiana's side for some time now, having won ten of the previous fifteen meetings between the two teams,1 including three out of four this year. However, these two teams have never before met in the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see just how much the regular season meetings are influenced by Toronto's and Indiana's regular season performance.2

The Basic Numbers

The Raptors concluded the regular season ranked in the top half of the league according to both offensive and defensive rating.3 Their offensive rating of 107.0 was fifth in the NBA, trailing the other four best teams in the league. Their defensive rating of 102.7 placed them just outside the top ten in the league, although it was a marked improvement from their rank of 23rd just a season ago. All in all, their +4.3 net rating4 was the sixth best mark in the league for this season.

Conversely, the Pacers were undoubtedly a defensive-minded team for most of the year, as shown by their outstanding defensive rating of 100.2. This mark was third best in the NBA, and second only to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference. Their offensive performance was a different story, however, as their offensive rating of 102.4 ranked 23rd in the league this season. The defense salvaged Indiana's overall net rating to +2.2, good for the 11th best rating in the NBA. 

Both teams are poor ball-movers, evidenced by both being in the bottom six of assist percentage (Toronto is actually the worst in the league). While that has always been the case for Toronto this year, Indiana has actually improved significantly in that regard since the All-Star Break.5 The Raptors' lack of movement certainly has not been a detriment to their offensive efficiency, however. Despite not scoring many second-chance points (12.3 per game), Toronto has optimized their possessions with great team three-point shooting.

It's an overly simple comparison between two teams, but the numbers show that the key to the series will be how Indiana's defense can maintain its performance from the regular season, while also matching or trying to match the offensive output of Toronto. 

How It's Done

1. The top guys have to score EVERY GAME

Those two guys are Paul George and Monta Ellis. Ellis was brought to Indiana so that he could be the guy to take the scoring load off of George, and nights where the two both lead the offense together were less frequently occurring than team president Larry Bird probably expected. When Paul George and Monta Ellis each score at least fifteen points, the Pacers are 17-8. In those losses, the average margin of defeat is just over five points, meaning the Pacers' poor crunch time reputation rears its ugly head once again. It is also unacceptable that two talented scorers like George and Ellis only reached fifteen points in the same game 25 times. Too often have the Paces struggled to balance their scoring, leaving the weight solely on one player's shoulders. If the Pacers want to win this series, George and Ellis both need to have solid scoring averages with little to no variance among the games plus efficient contributions from the secondary scorers like George Hill, C.J. Miles, and Rodney Stuckey. Essentially, to match the Raptors on the offensive end, everything needs to go close to perfect for Indiana.

2. Force turnovers and LOTS of them.

All season long Indiana has been the best team in the NBA when it comes to scoring off of forced turnovers. Of Indiana's 102.2 points per game, 18.9 of them come off of turnovers- nearly one-fifth. In order for the Pacers to continue thriving off of opponent miscues, they're going to need to ramp up the pressure and force the turnovers themselves. Toronto was the sixth best team in the league in terms of turnover ratio,6 meaning that Indiana probably won't be getting too many freebie points off of unforced errors. The Pacers' key defensive cogs like George, Hill, and Solomon Hill need to disrupt the passing lanes and cause deflections. Live ball turnovers will be Indiana's best friend in this series, should they force them.

3. No fouling

Only two teams got to the line more frequently than Toronto this past season, as the Raptors took 26.7 free throw attempts per game. Over one-fifth of Toronto's points scored per game came from foul shots, so Ian Mahinmi and Myles Turner playing smart post defense without fouling will be crucial for Indiana. Toronto also averaged 36.3 drives to the basket per game, behind only Philadelphia. The aforementioned defensive presence on the wings will need to stay in position to prevent Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan from drawing fouls off of those opportunities.

The Matchups to Watch

1. Paul George vs. DeMar DeRozan

 

This one is obvious. George and DeRozan are both top ten scorers in the league, and they can both get hot from three-point range at any given time. DeRozan has taken fewer bad shots this year, as seen by his improvements both in offensive rating and effective field goal percentage over last year. It is probable that George will guard DeRozan for most of the series, but DeRozan will probably switch out his assignment with DeMarre Carroll, a more capable defender. DeRozan has actually been fairly effective guarding George this year, but the size of Carroll would pose bigger problems for George in the paint. Watch for George to close out early and often on DeRozan and force him just inside the three-point line, and adjust position to seal off any possible driving lanes. Of Toronto's 36.3 drives per game, DeRozan is responsible for 11.6 of them.

2. George Hill vs. Kyle Lowry

Oh, boy. Hill is certainly a capable defender due to his length at the point guard position, but Lowry is one of the very best at his position. He is a solid three-point shooter at 38.8%, and he is the primary source of movement for the Raptors' offense. Hill simply does not possess the typical point guard skill set of Lowry, so out-dueling him on the offensive end is out of the question, save a miraculous three-point shooting night from Hill. The Pacers can only hope that Hill can be effective enough on the defensive end so that Lowry will not take over games by himself.

3. Ian Mahinmi and Myles Turner vs. Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo

Complete every defensive possession. Extend your own offensive possessions. The Raptors secured both offensive and defensive rebounds at better rates than the Pacers this season, and it was largely in part to Valanciunas and Biyombo. These two centers blow Mahinmi and Turner out of the water when it comes to rebound rate, so Indiana must rely on the fundamentals of positioning and boxing out. Valanciunas and Biyombo both played very well against Indiana this season, averaging a combined 29.8 rebounds per 36 minutes in contests against the Pacers. It is unclear how much time the rookie Turner will receive in his first playoff series, but he'll earn more minutes if he can hold his own against Biyombo on the glass.

Prediction

This series will be more tightly contested than most media outlets are saying. Toronto is without question the better team, and with DeMarre Carroll fully healthy, this starting lineup is quite imposing. Despite his struggles against Toronto this year, Paul George has typically shined under the bright lights of the postseason, and he is more than capable of winning one or two games by himself. This series rests on whether or not the Pacers can contain Lowry, force turnovers, and out-rebound Toronto. If they can do all of those things, they have a chance. Unfortunately, the Pacers really haven't shown us this year that they can put a complete game plan together over a consistent stretch of time. Indiana will keep this interesting, but Toronto will win this one in six games.

1. Dating back to the 2012-13 season

2. All stats below are courtesy of stats.NBA.com

3. Offensive rating = Points scored per 100 possessions. Defensive rating = Points allowed per 100 possessions

4. Net rating = (Offensive rating)-(Defensive rating)

5. I outlined that here: http://www.hashtagbasketball.com/indiana-pacers/content/the-ty-lawson-effect

6. Turnover ratio = Number of turnovers per 100 possessions

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