The thumping and thuggery in the first half of the Toronto Raptors home opener against the Indiana Pacers was very much as Dwane Casey forecast.
This would be, the Raptors head coach said in his pregame chat, what the NBA East is about. That whole ‘pound the rock’ thing? It was made for nights such as Wednesday.
And down the hallway, Frank Vogel was preaching a different message to the Pacers: playoffs. The Pacers were 20-18 under Vogel last season after he replaced Jim O’Brien as head coach and succumbed to the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in a first-round playoff series that had no reason being that competitive. Vogel’s reward was a three-year contract with a club option from team president of basketball operations Larry Bird and seeing his team add George Hill and two-time all-star David West in the off-season.
“A nice team,” Casey acknowledged.
It was West who nailed the decisive jump shot with 30.7 seconds left to give the Pacers a five-point lead. West ended up on his butt, and by the time he pulled himself up Justin Bieber, who was 20 or so seats away courtside and had been texting and munching Skittles and Crunch ’n Munch and had a few minutes earlier stood and whooped and thrown his index finger in the air when Andrea Bargnani drove to the bucket and drew a foul, was on his way out of the building.
A minute earlier, Danny Granger had popped in a three-pointer after James Johnson was tangled up behind teammate Amir Johnson, taking the concept of ‘help’ defence a little too far.
“We talked about how we have to play .500 on the road to take the next step, and this was the first toward doing that,” Vogel said. “We had five losses in a row in this building. So we treated it like a playoff game; that’s what I told them when we were watching pregame videotape.”
If it means anything to Casey and the Raptors, the Pacers thought they were a tougher team than former coach Jay Triano’s marshmallows.
“We know they have big guys who are a lot more physical than guys they’ve had here in the past,” said centre Roy Hibbert, whose team led 38-34 at the end of a throwback kind of first half.
In the end, the Raptors didn’t make enough plays to win a close game. Going 7-for-13 from the line didn’t help either, and until DeMar DeRozan attacks the rim more frequently, planting a seed in the minds of officials, they aren’t going to get the trips to the line. So they’d better learn to make the most of their economy.
Yet on this night, at least the Raptors pushed back. Jamaal Magloire is ready – all-too-ready, it seems – to assume the role of team spokesman (really – starting your pregame speech to the fans by thanking the owner for bringing you home?) but he flattened Tyler Hansbrough in the first half, on the ensuing tip-off swatted him in the face and set two bastard picks.
Johnson had two blocked shots and bless the lad – the spirit is willing.
And wasn’t that Andrea Bargnani hooking Hansbrough under both arms and backing him out from under the basket in the fourth quarter? Yes, it was – just like it was Bargnani locking down Hibbert a few minutes later drawing an angry yell and scowl toward officials from the Pacers centre.
“Things got a little closer than we wanted down the end,” said Granger, who finished with 21 points to lead the Pacers, “but we put together a good stretch to close it out.”
The way Vogel saw it, his team left town leading a playoff series. Just 32 more road games to go, coach.
“That team is better than it looks on paper,” he said of the Raptors. “They are very well-coached. They had 35 assists in beating Cleveland and move the ball well. They’re going to be improved this year.”
But they won’t even be able to pretend to be a playoff team. Not this year.