Paul George stole the show with 33 points, including 27 in the second half, as the Indiana Pacers snatched a 100-90 Game 1 victory and extended the Toronto Raptors’ playoff woes.
Raptors duo Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined to shoot just 8 for 31, and the hosts did themselves no favours with 12 missed free-throws.
Still, this victory was about George’s ability to lift his team when it mattered most in his first playoff game since a horrific broken leg back in 2014.
The talk coming into the series was that Toronto’s two all-stars should be too much for the Pacers’ leading scorer to overcome, but, George shifted the narrative, both as a scorer and a creator. He added six assists to his points tally.
This result piles all the pressure on the Raptors heading into Game 2 on Monday. Throughout the regular season, despite chasing the Cleveland Cavaliers all the way in the Eastern Conference standings, the feeling around Toronto was that real judgement would only come in April and May.
After back-to-back first round exits, including a painful sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards last season, the message was clear: prove it in the playoffs. There is a long way to go in the series, but the Raptors did little to quieten the doubters.
Pre-game, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey urged his team not to “be paralyzed because it’s a playoff game” – but waves of déjà vu started immediately, with Toronto all-star duo Lowry and DeRozan choosing to take tough shots and struggling to find a rhythm.
It was left to Jonas Valanciunas to take charge and fire up a home crowd still adjusting to the early start time. Valanciunas grabbed nine rebounds as the Raptors opened up a five-point advantage at the end of the first quarter – the Lithuanian centre would finish with 19 boards, a Toronto playoff record.
But, despite the early lead, the uneasiness remained for the home fans. After all, Toronto had led early against the Wizards last year too before Game 1 of that series slipped away.
With a limited offense, the Pacers’ best hope to hang in this series is to force gritty low-scoring games and hope George can bring home the win in the fourth quarter. The first half went exactly to Indiana head coach Frank Vogel’s game plan, as his team held the Raptors to just 39% shooting, with George playing solid defense on DeRozan. Toronto held a narrow 45-43 lead at half-time.
After a back and forth third quarter, Vogel kept George on the bench for a surprisingly long stretch to begin the final frame. But, the Raptors missed their chance to cash in, and the Pacers star made them pay when he returned, with the smaller DeRozan unable to stop him.
George led Indiana on a game-turning 16-8 run with a three-pointer followed by a pair of jump shots. As the Raptors’ threw up frantic shots in the final minutes, the groans rang out even louder among the home fans. They had seen this story unfold before.
For Casey and his players, Monday’s game now takes on even greater importance. The ghosts of last year’s playoff meltdown have reared their ugly heads and only a series-levelling win will quieten the noise.