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Friday night marked the third time that the Toronto Raptors (18-32) and the Indiana Pacers have done battle this season and the third time that the teams have ended things with a slim two-point differential. That isn't to suggest the Raptors, who sit in the Atlantic basement, and the Pacers, who lead the Central division, are teams of equal talent, but the clubs seem to match up in a way that doesn't leave much room for error.
This time around, as was the case in their most recent meeting in November, it was the Raps who showed clam, steady nerves while Indy made the errors down the stretch in what, ultimately, was a 100-98 Toronto OT win. In order to extend the game to overtime, Amir Johnson scored on two putbacks within 11 seconds thanks to a Rudy Gay steal and his ability to get his second shot off and beat the buzzer by the narrowest of margins. Once the extra frame got going, it was Gay who took advantage of two surprising Pacer turnovers and drained a game-winning jumper with 1.7 seconds on the clock. For the second time in as many games between the teams (at the Fieldhouse, no less), Paul George couldn't convert a final chance to tie.
Raps Get Clutch
Raptor fans who watched the end of Friday's game could be forgiven for suspecting that the two teams may have switched jerseys at some point. It was Indy who had trouble inbounding the ball (one turnover with six seconds left in regulation and two more in the final 50 seconds of overtime) and who failed to keep Johnson off the glass as he collected three rebounds and four points in seven seconds. Meanwhile, it was Toronto who clawed their way back and found a solid look from 15 feet out for Gay. Over-all, the Raps came away with the win thanks to a 36-26 scoring edge over the fourth quarter and overtime period (Gay had 17 of his 23 points over that stretch)
Disrupting the Passing Lanes
Indy's turnover problems weren't simply a late game issue. Not with the Raptors benefiting from a Gay-led emphasis on getting into the passing lanes and intercepting lazy dish attempts. On Friday, he had his second consecutive five-steal effort as the team forced 19 Pacer turnovers, including five from the typically pass-savvy David West and four in 15 sloppy minutes from dunk contestant Gerald Green. For the Raps, even Andrea Bargnani got into the active hands act with two steals of his own (although he did have four of his team's 14 turnovers).
I chewed the second unit out for their effort against Boston, so it's only fair that I give credit when they produce. Dwane Casey shook up his bench minutes, giving a returning-to-100% Jonas Valanciunas a longer look and cutting fairly drastically into Alan Anderson's court time. Valanciunas responded to the minutes boost, offering 14 of the bench's 37 points (Bargnani also had 14 off the pine) and adding a career-best 13 rebounds. The big man duo combined to shoot 13-20.
No Deep Threats
Eventually, the Raptors' lack of any viable three-point options is going to be a problem. While Indy was able to successfully use the three-ball as a weapon (9-22 - 40%), Toronto's shooters (2-9 - 22%) seemed reluctant to attempt even open looks from deep, with no player trying more than two attempts and only DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross converting. No surprise, though, that Anderson's only shot attempt on the night was a missed three.
- Gay played a significant role in helping the Raptors pull out the win, but he almost played a significant role in giving the Pacers new life and extending things to double overtime. After his made jumper over George with 1.7 seconds left on the clock, Gay wound up over-playing an inbound pass to George on the other end of the court, giving the blossoming wing a clean, albeit off-balanced, look from the top of the key to tie. After George's miss a quick camera shot of an incredulous, relieved Gay told the story.
Sunday sees the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans pay their annual visit to Toronto for an evening affair (6:00pm, TSN). In New Orleans, Anthony Davis seems to be hitting the rookie wall while fellow rook Austin Rivers continues to struggle. However, the 17-33 club has been boosted by Eric Gordon's scoring and the rapid improvement of Greivis Vazquez, who had his first career triple-double in a Friday win over Atlanta.
Prediction: Raps 107, Hornets (for now) 101 (33-12 this season)