A time-honored line of NBA thinking goes like this: Whichever team has the best player normally wins a playoff series. Should that prove true in the Toronto Raptors’ first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers, Dwane Casey’s team will go home much sooner than anyone anticipated – at least if Game 1 is a harbinger of things to come.
Paul George sucked the life out of Air Canada Centre on Saturday afternoon, leading the Pacers to a 100-90 victory over the Raptors with an utterly dominant two-way performance. The former All-NBA honoree scored 34 points – including 27 points after halftime – grabbed four rebounds, dished six assists, and swiped four steals in Game 1, all while hounding DeMar DeRozan into 5-of-19 shooting with his typical brand of shadow-man defense.
Even more impressive than George’s overflowing stat sheet, though, is how he controlled the game as it hung in the balance.
From the time the fourth quarter clock read 6:21 to when it expired for good, the 25 year old reminded a national audience why he seemed on the verge of perennial MVP contention breaking his leg in August of 2014. George scored or assisted on all but four of the Pacers’ 21 points during that outcome-deciding stretch, picking the Raptors’ defense apart with pull-up jumpers and canny pick-and-roll playmaking.
He scored 17 points in the third quarter alone, too, a personal second-half surge that he explained to ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez after the game.
“After the first half I watched film,” George said. “I got locked in, I got focused, I made shots.”
Simple enough, right?
But it wasn’t close to that basic for Toronto, which shot 38 percent from the field and connected on four of 19 tries from beyond the arc. Kyle Lowry, an 81.1 percent free-throw shooter during the regular season, went just 4-of-9 from the stripe, evidence of team-wide struggles many will say came as a result of nerves gleaned from the Raptors’ ongoing organizational playoff woes.
Dating back to last spring, Toronto has lost seven consecutive postseason games. The Raptors are just 2-5 at home over the past three seasons, and haven’t won the first game of a playoff series since 2001 – the same season they last played past the first round, too.
George, however, doesn’t seem to believe angst or even Indiana’s defense is what caused Toronto to falter. The Pacers superstar thinks it’s only a matter of time until DeRozan and Lowry get back on track.
“They missed shots,” George said of the Raptors’ backcourt stars. “Them two guys are good. They missed shots.”
Indeed. DeRozan and Lowry combined to shoot a dismal 8-of-32 from the floor and misfired on all 10 of their three-point attempts.
Basketball is a make-or-miss game, but what most separates the truly elite players from those operating on a level below them is consistency on a game-by-game basis. That’s a tough feat to pull off when defenses are geared to stop you first and foremost, but George did so with aplomb on Saturday. DeRozan and Lowry? Not so much.
The Raptors may very well be a better team than the Pacers. If George and his starring Toronto counterparts play for the rest of the series like they did in Game 1, though, it almost certainly won’t matter.