For as much criticism as has been laid out for the lack of competiveness of the first round of the NBA playoffs, the bottom half of the Eastern Conference has certainly made up for the other lopsided match-ups. And on Sunday, both of these high-intensity series match-ups will face their conclusion, as a pair of Game 7s await these four teams, with two going home.
In Toronto, the second-seeded Raptors look to upend the seven seed Indiana Pacers. The Raptors are perhaps the team with the most pressure in the first round of the playoffs, as they have faced mounting criticism with their struggles to move on from the first round. This year has proved no different, as the Pacers took Game 1 in Toronto, mounting pressure on the Raptors’ young core of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But the Raptors would temporarily silence the criticism, winning the next two to take a commanding 2-1 series edge.
Back would come Indiana, however, winning Game 4. In Game 5, the Raptors again looked as if they had figured it out, winning behind a resurgent DeRozan. But the Raptors have fallen back to earth, dropping Game 6 in a contest that was never really close. Now, the pressure has built to this game, with Toronto facing elimination in the first round for their third straight year.
Indiana’s Paul George has been the catalyst for this series, carrying the Pacers to this point. DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll have struggled in this series to contain George, and his scoring has opened up open shots for shooters like Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey to make plays.
But the biggest problem Toronto has faced is again the disappearance of Kyle Lowry. Lowry, a two-time All-Star in the regular season, has vanished in the postseason again. His shooting has dipped dramatically in this series in comparison to the regular season, and his turnovers are up. For the Raptors to have any semblance of a chance, Lowry is going to have to perform at the level he did in the regular season.
The Pacers have challenged the size of Toronto by spacing out and shooting, relying mostly on the driving of George and Hill for paint scoring early on. Toronto has yet to find an answer for Indiana’s perimeter play, and has countered so far by dominating the glass. In games where Jordan Hill and Myles Turner are playing well, however, the games get much tighter.
The keys for the decider are going to lie in different places for both teams. For Toronto, finding Kyle Lowry is a must. George Hill v Kyle Lowry is match-up the Raptors should win 90% of the time, and to have these two play to a draw in this series isn’t going to get it done. The Raptors need Lowry back, and they need it now. For the Pacers, the play of Turner and Hill have been extremely important. In games where the Pacers keep the totals on the glass close, Indiana usually comes out on top. The Pacers aren’t built to outshoot the Raptors, so having a presence rebounding and getting second-chance points is going to be key to sending the Raptors home again.
The Pacers have proven they can win in Toronto, doing so in Game 1. Also, with the shaky nature of the Raptors, no building is immune to the Raptors’ postseason struggles. Another early postseason exist would certainly call in to question the strength of this current core, as the Raptors look to avoid the title of a team ‘built for the regular season’.
In the other series, the Miami Heat entered the postseason as the trendy pick to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. And in their first two games against Kemba Walker and the Charlotte Hornets, it seemed as though Dwayne Wade and company were well on their way to setting up that showdown.
Wade, along with Luol Deng, Hassan Whiteside, Joe Johnson and a deep bench, blitz the Hornets, shooting a blistering 61% in the first two games to rout Charlotte in Miami. Midway through Game 3, the Hornets lost small forward Nic Batum, and all seemed to be point to another quick exit for Charlotte in the playoffs.
The Hornets would respond, however, going on a massive run to take Game 3. And in Gamer, it was again the Hornets who prevailed, using a new size line-up to challenge Miami’s frontcourt advantage and to bully Miami out of the paint, forcing shooters back off the line and lowering Miami’s shooting back down to 40% from the field.
As the series headed to game five, however, Miami remained the trendy pick to win out, as no Eastern team had truly capitalized on playing on the road. The Hornets would buck that trend in Game 5, however, using late-game heroics from Walker, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee to steal a game from Miami and take the series to Game 6 with a chance to end it in Charlotte.
This proved to be too tall a task, as the Heat found their offense again, shooting in the 50% range and using a red-hot D-Wade to send the series back to Miami for a decisive Game 7.
The Hornets have to get back to what has gotten them thus far: shots for Jeremy Lin and Kemba Walker. More specifically, the Hornets have to attack the pick and roll with their two guards at the intensity that they did in Games 3 through 5. Physical and slashing play can take a home crowd out of a game, and Walker and Lin are two of the best at getting to the basket. With Batum also dealing with nagging injuries, the Hornets are also going to need much more scoring from the Al Jefferson-Frank Kaminsky- Cody Zeller frontcourt, as well as better shooting from Courtney Lee.
In Miami’s case, less is more. Allowing Joe Johnson and Luol Deng to get their shots, and letting Wade facilitate has worked in the three wins for the Heat thus far. Using Whiteside to run the offense through has seemed to slow down rotation, and has also led to confusion for Dragic, who is already struggling in this series early on. Smart defense is also key, as pick and roll fouls are the worst surrendered in basketball, because it forces into soft defense later in the quarter.
All four teams will be facing mounting tension in Game 7, but only two will survive. For Toronto, the pressure to win now could never be higher. Even for Miami, expectations are high, and an early loss to Charlotte could result in panic on the older roster. For the lower seeds, Indiana and Charlotte, the pressure is on their opponents, and they’re playing with house money.
We’ll find out soon if either of these teams can parlay that into a berth into the next round.