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Raptors vs. Pacers, 2016 NBA playoffs: Can Toronto finally escape the first round?

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The Raptors are in as good a position as ever to advance in the playoffs, but they also carry a history of two straight upset defeats. Will Indiana be the third?

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Raptors just never faded. Unlike years past where they tailed off after a hot start, Toronto -- led by the NBA's best backcourt east of Oakland -- surged to the top of the conference standings and stayed there for the entire season.

Dwayne Casey's bunch even gave LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers a bit of a scare. The Raptors failed to catch Cleveland in the end, but setting a franchise record for regular season wins and entering the playoffs as the No. 2 seed is a fine consolation prize.

Things haven't gone as smoothly for the Indiana Pacers. Indiana came into the season looking to embrace the NBA's small ball, three-point shooting revolution. Initially, thanks to a scorching hot start from C.J. Miles, the plan worked.

Eventually, though, Miles ceased shooting like the second coming of Klay Thompson and the Pacers, despite Paul George's stellar play, fell off a bit. The emergence of rookie Myles Turner, who may go down as one of the top picks in the 2015 draft, helped stabilize the team. But a porous crunch-time record -- the Pacers have dropped 20 games in which they once held a lead in the fourth quarter this season -- kept Indiana in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Now the Pacers will have to take four out of seven games from a squad that's been one of the league's best all year.

The key for the Pacers will be turning up the pace and getting the typically snail-like Raptors to do something they so rarely do: turn the ball over. Only five teams forced more turnovers per 100 possessions this season than Indiana and only six teams turned the ball over less frequently than Toronto, per NBA.com. The Pacers were also No. 1 in the league in points off turnovers, meaning they rely on those cough-ups to kick start their often anemic offense. It will be hard for them to pull off the upset if the Raptors are able to hold onto the ball.

Indiana does have some trees to guard the rim, which could make life difficult for the perpetually attacking Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. As is seemingly always the case, Frank Vogel's team does an excellent job of limiting clean looks from deep. That means that Lowry and DeRozan will have to get even more creative in how they get their points, make sure they continue to draw contact and get to the foul line at a prolific rate.

If, somehow, the Pacers are able to keep their hands to themselves, force a few extra turnovers and get some big games from George and Monta Ellis, they could make life incredibly difficult for the Raptors.

THE MATCHUP

  • Raptors (56-26, expected record 53-29) vs. Pacers (45-37, expected record 46-36)
  • Raptors offensive efficiency: 107 (5th) | Pacers offensive efficiency: 102.4 (23rd)
  • Raptors defensive efficiency: 102.7 (11th) | Pacers defensive efficiency: 100.2 (3rd)
  • Season series: 3-1 Raptors.

Key matchup: Paul George vs. DeMar DeRozan

Sometimes, playoff series come down to the simple battles between opposing stars. The difference here is that George is going to have to carry the load on both ends of the floor, whereas DeRozan has Lowry and a deeper team to help him.

The Pacers' top lineup features George, Ellis and George Hill. That means two of those players will have to defend an All-Star guard in DeRozan. Vogel could try getting George some rest by slotting Hill onto DeRozan and Ellis on Lowry, but that would leave Indiana incredibly vulnerable and likely force some double teams and off-ball help, which would surrender open jump shots. Perhaps that's a gamble Vogel is willing to take. If not, he'll need George to take the DeRozan assignment.

Not only could that drain the Pacers' best scorer, but DeRozan is also a wizard at drawing fouls. And yet assigning DeRozan to George and hoping George can limit hit clean looks, stay out of foul trouble and also save his legs for the other end of the floor might be Vogel's best bet.

X Factor: Crunch time

The Pacers' crunch-time woes were briefly mentioned above, but here's another stat to illustrate just how bad things have been. Indiana has attempted 25 shots this season with 10 seconds or fewer remaining in one-possession games. They've misfired on 24.

The question is how these struggles should be viewed. Is this just our friend Small Sample Size making an extended appearance, or is there something fundamentally wrong with how the Pacers go about their business in close games?

A parsing of the numbers fails to reveal any glaring statistical drop off in crunch time, but that doesn't mean all these bad attempts and open shots surrendered are happy accidents. Time after time this season, the Pacers have made mental mistakes at moments when they could least afford them.

The Raptors, meanwhile, have two studs who thrive down the stretch. Toronto also boasts one of the league's top crunch-time point differentials and offensive ratings, per NBA.com. If these trends continue for both teams, then this series will be a quick one. If the Pacers can figure out a way to clean things up, they'll have a shot.

Predictions

Ziller
Flannery
Prada
Weitzman
Raptors HQ
Indy Cornrows
IN 5
IN 7
IN 7
IN 5
IN 5
IN 6

SCHEDULE

GAME 1 - Pacers at Raptors, Saturday April 16, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

GAME 2 - Pacers at Raptors, Monday April 18, 7 p.m. ET, NBA TV

GAME 3 - Raptors at Pacers, Thursday April 21, 7:30 p.m ET, NBA TV

GAME 4 - Raptors at Pacers, Saturday April 23, 3 p.m. ET, TNT

GAME 5 (if necessary) - Pacers at Raptors, Tuesday April 26, TBD, TBD

GAME 6 (if necessary)- Raptors at Pacers, Friday April 29, TBD, TBD

GAME 7 (if necessary) - Pacers at Raptors, Sunday May 1, TBD, TBD