January 20, 2019

With a balanced attack and stifling defense, the Indiana Pacers dropped a second-half hammer on the visiting Toronto Raptors on Friday night. An 18-0 run that spanned six and a half minutes in the third and fourth quarters helped Indiana even their first round series with a 101-83 win.

Paul George awoke in the second half after a slow start, but had plenty of help to set up a winner-take-all series finale on Sunday afternoon.

“My job tonight was to be a threat, put pressure on them,” George said. “I tried to pick them apart with passes. Move the ball, and try to get them to shift the defense a little bit. I had plays here and there, but (my teammates) were the ones that did most of the damage tonight.”

George was held scoreless from the field for nearly 23 minutes on Friday, netting his first bucket on a catch-and-shoot three just 1:06 before halftime. But the All-Star still finished with 21 points, 11 boards, and six assists. All five Pacer starters finished in double figures, including rookie Myles Turner who had 15 points and contributed some superb paint defense.

“Paul George can’t beat the Raptors. The Pacers have to beat the Raptors,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “We need everybody. We got really solid contributions from just about everybody that played.”

Ian Mahinmi had 12 points, mostly as the roll man or off of offensive boards as he kept Indy close early on. George Hill added a dozen of his own and Monta Ellis had 14.

Meanwhile, the Raptors’ stars once again struggled. Toronto hasn’t yet had a single game in which both All-Star guards – Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan – were scoring efficiently. Tonight, neither one did. The pair combined for just 18 on 7-of-27 shooting.

“The Pacers are doing a great job on me, simple as that,” Lowry said. “Give them credit, they’re playing me extremely well. George Hill is really playing great defense right now. Their team defense has really… forced me into tougher shots.”

Indiana has been steadfast on its basic principles all series: when either of Lowry or DeRozan has the ball, the Pacer bigs drop back to wall off the paint. The idea is to turn those two into pull-up shooters instead of drivers, and so far it’s working.

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Toronto actually led early, mostly because of opportunistic scoring in transition. Six of their first eight came on the break, and then when DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson each nailed a three, the Raps led 14-4. But Indiana ended the quarter on their own 14-4 run.

Then it became a battle of lineup chess, and the small-ball quintets that lifted Toronto in Game 5 might have been their undoing.

Indiana first went small early in the second quarter, and Toronto matched them. That matchup favored Indiana initially, as Turner and CJ Miles each scored a putback and a long jumper in an 8-0 run. Then Toronto decided to counter small with big, and Indiana just couldn’t handle the Jonas Valanciunas pick-and-roll. The starting center scored three buckets in that stretch on decisive rolls, got to the line, and on another play drew help from a third defender to open Carroll up for a corner three. That 10-2 run forced Indiana to go back to a two-big lineup with 3:59 left in the half, and it looked like Toronto was determined to use its size.

But in the second half, it was the Raptors who chose to go small, with rather disastrous results.

The Raptors actually pulled to within a point at the 1:49 mark when Cory Joseph scored six and then capped a 9-2 run by stealing and assisting a Normal Powell dunk. But from there, the Raptors’ small lineup hit a funk that lasted six minutes and 37 seconds.

Indiana scored the final six points of the third quarter and the first 12 in the final period. That 18-0 run prompted Toronto to return to two bigs at the 9:36 mark, but they still wouldn’t score until two minutes later when Lowry hit his only three of the game.

“We played the bigger lineup a little long than usual, even when they went small,” Vogel said. “We didn’t match (their small lineup). We stayed big to make sure we could still contain the glass.”

Indiana kept piling on at that point, stretching the run out to a 30-5 push over 10:16 of game time that gave the home team a 26-point lead. With more than three minutes left, the Raptors threw the white flag, pulling the starters.

Vogel also mentioned better passing, screening and spacing that led to that 10-minute stretch. The Raptors also made some curious defensive decisions about who would come over to slow George. At several points, whether by design or mistake, they brought help from across the top. It’s gutsy, since most NBA teams won’t help from one pass away, but that’s a reflection of how little Toronto feared the guys dotting the perimeter around George.

But it backfired. Solomon Hill got an open three that way in the first half, part of that 14-4 first-quarter run. And later, the same kind of help drew Rodney Stuckey’s man so that he could add a three as part of the 18-point surge.

Those two combined for 17 off the bench, further evidence that the attention paid to George freed up a lot of different Pacers to aid in the best collective effort of the postseason.

Joseph and Carroll led Toronto with 15 apiece, while Valanciunas had 14.

The series will be decided in Sunday’s Game 7 in Toronto. It will be just the third Game 7 in Toronto’s franchise history. They lost both prior chances, including a devastating 1-point loss at home to the Brooklyn Nets two years ago. The Pacers lost a Game 7 to the eventual champion Heat in 2013 and beat 8th seeded Atlanta at home in 2014’s first round.

But this isn’t about history. It’s about these two teams, and 48 more minutes to continue the chess game of lineups, matchups and defensive strategies.

“We kind of understand every move they can make, they understand every move we can make,” Vogel said. “It’s gonna be about will and execution.”

“One game. Win or go home,” Lowry added. “That’s it.”

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Dan Clayton

Dan covered the Utah Jazz for a decade for a number of Spanish-language media outfits, most recently as the team's Spanish radio analyst for game broadcasts. In 2014, Dan moved from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn and had to hang up the micrófono, but stays involved in the conversation by contributing regularly to Salt City Hoops, the ESPN TrueHoop affiliate covering Jazz basketball.

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