Pacers-Raptors Preview

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.”

Toronto has added point guards Kyle Lowry and John Lucas as well

as swingman Landry Fields to complement the nucleus of first-round

picks Bargnani, DeRozan and Valanciunas.

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.