After winning a playoff series for the first time in seven seasons, the Indiana Pacers want to take the next step.
Preseason predictions that the Toronto Raptors will suffer through a fifth straight losing season have them motivated to prove the naysayers wrong.
The Pacers won all three meetings with the Raptors in 2011-12, but they'll be without leading scorer Danny Granger as they look to make it four straight in the series in the teams' opener Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre.
Indiana went 42-24 last season for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers knocked out Orlando in the first round for their first series victory since 2005 before losing to eventual champion Miami in the conference semifinals.
With Derrick Rose injured to start the season for Central Division champion Chicago, Indiana believes it can finish even higher in 2012-13.
"From looking at a playoff standpoint, we got to the second round last year, so we're hoping to get further than that. We got a third seed in the regular season and we're hoping to do better than that,'' coach Frank Vogel said. "Those are probably the first steps in terms of taking that next step as a franchise."
The Pacers' hopes of getting off to a fast start took a big hit a day before their season debut when they found out Granger would be sidelined indefinitely. Granger played through the East semifinals with a sore left knee and has had blood-platelet treatment in hopes of healing, but was limited during the preseason and now may not play for a while.
Granger, who led the Pacers with 18.7 points per game last season, will get a second opinion on the injury and an update will be provided following that visit.
No one else averaged more than 12.8 points, so it's unclear where Indiana will find offensive production without Granger. Roy Hibbert and Indianapolis product George Hill both signed long-term deals in the offseason, but third-year swingman Paul George (12.1 ppg) may be the best bet to step up
Toronto went 23-43 a season ago with star forward Andrea Bargnani missing more than half of it with numerous injuries. His absence was a big reason why the Raptors were the third-lowest scoring team in the NBA at 90.7 points per game.
Not surprisingly, little improvement is expected from Toronto this season - which the club seems ready to use as a rallying point.
"Some people say they don't read the negative stuff and everything," said swingman DeMar DeRozan, who has also been the target of criticism despite averaging 16.7 points last season. "I use it as motivation. It's frustrating at times. It makes you want to work that much harder at the end of the day, prove everybody wrong."
The Raptors have some new faces, and their most anticipated debut will be by rookie 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian center, Toronto's first-round pick in 2011, missed training camp but averaged 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in six preseason games.
"I think I'm learning something from every practice so whenever you're moving, whenever you're doing something, you're learning something," Valanciunas said. "So I am trying to learn as much as I can."
In some ways, the Raptors are building their team in similar fashion to the Pacers. Indiana posted five straight losing records before last season.
"We have something special here," George said. "That makes it even more exciting knowing that everybody's on the same page.''
George, Granger and Hill all averaged 14.3 points in the 2011-12 sweep of Toronto. DeRozan averaged 18.3.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey is 3-0 in season openers.