Missing two of their most important starters for the second straight game, the Toronto Raptors responded once again, tallying another nail-biter over a top playoff contender, inching a little closer to winning the NBA's Atlantic Division.
Two days after beating the Houston Rockets without injured starters Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson, a creatively-assembled Raptors lineup downed the Indiana Pacers 102-94, an opponent which has struggled recently but is nonetheless battling the Miami Heat for top spot in the Eastern Conference, a squad that came one game shy of the NBA Finals last season.
A week ago, the Raptors clinched their first playoff berth since 2008, but this latest win proves they aren't happy just to get in. Every win keeps them ahead of the Brooklyn Nets in their division and strengthens their hold on the No. 3 playoff seed, which brings home-court advantage. Every win gives a squad of Raptor players green to the playoff experience just a little more confidence as the post-season nears.
What's more, the Raptors are showing once again they make opponents earn every single bucket, even one that has the best defensive statistics in the NBA and features stars like Paul George and Roy Hibbert.
Led by 24 points from Terrence Ross, 22 from Jonas Valanciunas and 18 by DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors won the fifth of their last six outings and improved to 44-32.
"We're a scrappy, grind-it-out team," said Ross, who also added five boards. "So if one player goes down, we've got guys who can help off the bench and give us that same spark, that's how we've been winning games."
Greivis Vasquez (eight points) and Nando De Colo (10 points) shared the running of the floor in place of Lowry (knee), contributing baskets at key moments. Patrick Patterson started in place of Amir Johnson (ankle), and his key contribution was leading the team with seven boards as the Raptors out-rebounded the Pacers 42-39.
Lowry was on the bench in a suit, on his feet at every opportunity, talking up his teammates. The starting point guard has been invaluable to the Raptors this season, averaging career highs in points (17.4), assists (7.6), rebounds (4.8) and steals (1.58) while logging 36 minutes a game during a contract year. Asked earlier Friday if the Raptors ought to do whatever it takes to re-sign Lowry, a smiling Casey said "I would if I was the general manager".
The two teams were neck and neck most of the game. Ross was giving the Pacers the most trouble early, going 4-4 from the field in the first quarter, including two timely 3-point shots, and quickly tallying ten points before the first quarter was through.
The Raptors pulled ahead in the second quarter, taking a 54-46 lead into the half. The game grew more physical as it went on and George, who had been held to just seven points in the first half, turned in a 19-point second half.
Shoving ensued between George and John Salmons late in the night as the Air Canada Centre crowd cheered feverishly in support of Salmons, while he stood toe-to-toe with one of the NBA's biggest stars.
"We feel like we can beat anybody when we step up," said DeRozan, who also added nine assists on a night when he shot just 8-of-19. "Tonight was a big win at this time of the season, so you have to take advantage of it."
George had 26 for the Pacers while David West added 19 and Hibbert had 12.
"I think they've finally got what Coach Casey has been preaching along…. to play for one another like they did in Dallas when Casey was there," said Pacers head coach Frank Vogel. "Their young players have developed…Terrence Ross growing into the player he's become, Valanciunas developing, Amir Johnson experiencing tremendous growth over the last couple of years, DeRozan has grown so much from where he was into an All-Star now. It's a matter of growing up and staying within a system and letting a coach put his imprint on a team."
Casey cautioned his players to avoid an emotional let-down after two big wins. He refused to get too high about beating the Pacers; still, he could appreciate the fact that his team just downed a squad laced with three All-Stars, even if Indiana has lost its mojo of late.
"They have won 53 games, and that is what I look at," said Casey. "It's a quality win, but like I told our players, tomorrow night is the same as tonight."
The Raptors have just six games remaining – three at home – before the NBA playoffs begin on April 19. As of now, third-seeded Toronto appears slated to face the No.6 seeded Washington Wizards, but that could still change. Other possible first-round opponents could still include the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets or Charlotte Bobcats.
They face the Bucks in Milwaukee on Saturday night.