The message on the grease board within the Toronto Raptors locker room before their encounter Friday night against the tough Indiana Pacers plainly spelled out their mission.
“Protect the paint. Shrink,” read one of the directives.
The author’s choice of words was interesting, given the Raptors had played more like shrinking violets in their two previous games this past week, both losses to teams with sub-.500 records, to put their playoff dreams on life support.
And the Pacers (37-22) just might have pulled the plug, grinding their way to a methodical 93-81 victory at the Air Canada Centre to hand the Raptors (23-36) their third straight loss as they now embark on a four game road trip.
Toronto sniper Rudy Gay led Toronto with 21 points off 7-of-16 shooting, but was knocked on his keester a couple times early in the game by a boisterous Indiana defence and that did not sit well with him.
“He had back spasms,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “That got him frustrated as much as anything.”
It was viewed by some as a make or break week for the Raptors, who headed into Monday’s game against the Washington Wizards just four games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
This after a dreadful 4-19 beginning to the National Basketball Association regular season schedule.
But the Raptors served up consecutive stinkers against both the Wizards and then the Cleveland Cavaliers, both games viewed as eminently winnable,
And their bridge to the playoffs had suddenly inflated to six games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, the squad the Raptors will square off against Saturday in a game in Milwaukee that could have held so much more importance.
Casey said he would never place such a heavy emphasis on one particular week of the regular-season schedule.
“There’s a lot of good basketball left,” he said before the game, rather optimistically. “A lot of things can happen, good or bad.
“For us, it’s every night.”
While the acquisition of Gay at the end of January has been one reason the Raptors play has been picked up, not enough has been said about the contribution of DeMar DeRozan.
While many anticipated the addition of the shot-happy Gay might cut into DeRozan’s offensive contribution, the opposite has in fact happened.
DeRozan finished the month of February averaging 19.8 points – a 4.1-point improvement over his January average before Gay had joined the team.
Gay’s arrival has opened up more space on the floor for the shooting guard, who averaged 7.5 free throw attempts during February, an increase of almost three per game.
“I think a lot of it is spacing,” Casey said in explaining the dramatic leap. “When Rudy’s on the other side of the floor the spacing is better, there’s more alleys to drive.
“It be even more so if we could get Andrea [Bargnani] going.”
They’re still waiting.
While Bargnani did hit 3-of-7 of his field goal attempts to finish with eight points, the seven-footer somehow managed to not haul in a solitary rebound during 33 minutes of court time.
Don’t try that at home, kids.
Paul George enjoyed a solid game for Indiana, leading the way with 22 points and 12 rebounds. David West contributed 15 points and 11 rebounds.
It took a while for either team to get into the flow of things with the Pacers slinking out of the first half with a 39-34 lead after the Raptors struggled to make just 32.4 per cent (11 of 34) of their field goal attempts.
The break did little to recharge the Raptors. In fact, it had the opposite affect.
Led by David West and Roy Hibbert, who each tallied eight points, the Pacers put this one away in the third, outscoring Toronto 25-17 to take a 64-71 stranglehold heading into the fourth.
“You’re talking about one of the best defensive teams in the league,” Casey said. “That’s the level we got to get ready for.”
When the Pacers lead grew to 19 early in the frame and the likes of the seldom used Quincy Acy started checking into the game it was a signal for many of the 18,268 in attendance to start checking out.