Raptors fans can breathe a huge sigh of relief. After another Game 1 loss and a nervous first three quarters, the Raptors put the Pacers away early in the fourth quarter for a 98-87 win, evening their best-of-seven series at 1-1. A strong early run and a decisive bench performance late bookended the critical victory.
The Raptors came out firing, ready to make up for the loss in Game 1 on Sunday. They jumped out to a 21-7 lead thanks to some monster buckets from Jonas Valanciunas, who had 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting and seven rebounds in the first. The Pacers kept within striking distance throughout the first half, though, as DeMar DeRozan continued to struggle and Monta Ellis got hot. Toronto held only a 53-48 lead at halftime.
The third quarter was more of the same. The Raptors worked hard to get DeRozan and Kyle Lowry going, but, led by Paul George's 11 third-quarter points, the Pacers stayed in the game.
But the Raptors finally put the game away with their unstoppable lineup featuring four bench players and Lowry. That group dominated teams during the regular season and did so again, going on a 15-5 run to give Toronto an 18-point lead. The Pacers tried and failed to buy a bit of rest for George, then continued to struggle once he re-entered the game.
By then, though, it was too little, too late. Led by 16 points from Cory Joseph and 14 from Patrick Patterson, the Raptors earned a home split to take to Game 3 in Indiana on Thursday.
4 things we learned
1. The Raptors' bench is still great
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan got most of the credit for Toronto's 56-win season, but Toronto's dynamite bench was just as big a key. Joseph, Patterson and Biyombo played crucial roles all season, supplying additional ball-handling, defensive pressure, rim protection and perimeter shooting. The four-man combination of Lowry and those three outscored opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions this season when they shared the court.
So it should come as no surprise that they keyed Toronto's decisive run. Those four, along with rookie Norman Powell in place of Terrence Ross, dominated Indiana's all-bench unit and continued to do so once the Pacers' starters returned. Joseph and Patterson provided much-needed scoring with Lowry and DeRozan struggling, while Biyombo was an intimidating presence around the basket.
2. The Raptors made enough adjustments
This wasn't a pretty result, but the Raptors did change a few things to spur their offense.
Adjustment No. 1 was featuring Valanciunas more, both in the post and in the pick-and-roll game. Valanciunas dominated the first quarter, helping Toronto get off to a fast start. The Raptors have often ignored him in past games, but used him to draw Indiana out of the paint for lob passes. The Pacers must figure out a solution to all those lob passes on pick-and-rolls.
The other big adjustment involved their screens. Toronto used two players to set ball screens for Lowry and DeRozan, hoping to tilt the defense before going into the play they wanted. They also sent multiple cutters through the lane when DeRozan and Lowry were going to work, buzzing around to keep the defense honest.
In the end, they scored 98 points against a great Indiana defense and could have scored more if they were better in garbage time. Credit Dwane Casey for making key changes.
3. ... But none helped DeMar DeRozan
Nevertheless, DeRozan still shot just 5-18 from the field and sat on the bench during Toronto's decisive run. Toronto used a variety of guard/guard screens to try to force George off DeRozan, yet none of them really worked.
There may not be an easy adjustment to get DeRozan going against Indiana's ferocious defense. He continues to force shots wildly and is failing to get to the free-throw line. The powerful moves he made during the regular season are closing up in the playoffs as the Pacers close in around him. He had plenty of opportunities to score when George wasn't guarding him and still couldn't convert.
Toronto kept DeRozan on the bench for the entire fourth quarter, and it was the right decision.
4. Someone please help Paul George
Where would the Pacers be without George? Indiana's star showed up again, roasting the hobbled DeMarre Carroll to the tune of 28 points on just 15 shots. The Raptors had a little more success using Powell on George, but it generally didn't matter.
The problem is that the Pacers don't have any other scoring options to help George. Monta Ellis had a big first half, but disappeared in the second once his long two-pointers stopped falling. The Raptors sent more help to George, loading off non-shooters like Rodney Stuckey, Solomon Hill and Ty Lawson successfully. George Hill, the team's best perimeter shooter, was invisible.
Someone needs to step up if the Pacers want to win this series. The problem is that nobody really did consistently for 82 regular season games, so why should Pacers fans hope that someone will now?