Game 64 Preview: Pacers vs. Blazers

Game Time:  7:00 p.m.  TV:  Comcast

After the thrilling and at least semi-important win against the Memphis Grizzlies it may seem a little difficult to get up for a game against the Indiana Pacers.  They're 20-40 on the season.  They're not a division or conference rival.  The Blazers are back home now, feeling relatively secure after a fierce 4-1 road swing.  The temptation to let down or take this game for granted could be massive.  That's perfect, actually.  It should, paradoxically, keep the Blazers on their guard.  At the very least it will be another indicator of where these guys' heads are at.  That Memphis game showed whether the team is ready to take a playoff run seriously or not.  This game will show whether the team is ready to be professional or not.

Believe it or not, that second question probably has more important long-term implications than the first.  Making the playoffs this year will be a crucial accomplishment for the Blazers, no doubt.  At the end of the day, though, it's 99.99% probable that it'll result in a first-round exit...a classic accomplishment with huge short-term ramifications and limited long-term effect.  If they're going to translate that accomplishment into lasting significance, let alone better it, they're going to need to make the journey to the playoffs routine.  The key to that is winning games exactly like this, contests decided not by emotion but by focus and execution.  For all of the success and heroics this team still wins games it's up for and struggles in more mundane situations.  The Blazers will win their fair share of such games on talent, of course, but that's no sinecure either, as talent gets beat 4-5 times a year...games that later turn out to be critical in the standings.  You will know this team has made the step from playoff participant to playoff contender when we don't have to worry about this being the first game back off of a trip against a less-than-inspiring opponent.  These victories need to be predictable, period.  The Blazers would do well by insuring this one is.

What will it take?  Well, only 3 of Indiana's 20 wins have come when scoring fewer than 100 points so right off the bat I'd say controlling the ball, controlling the boards, and playing reasonable defense.  Ball and board control seems obvious.  The Blazers are accomplished at the former by virtue of their slower pace and lack of turnovers.  Rebounding can be an issue for Portland with the regular centers down but Marcus Camby plus some concentrated team help should be enough to counter an Indiana team that runs a -4.8 rebounding deficit.  Mind you, the Pacers have good individual rebounders up and down the lineup, starting with Troy Murphy and Jeff Hibbert and running down through their guards and forwards.  But Portland also has good rebounders and, at least when clicking, put more effort into it as a team than do the Pacers.  Indiana opts to play a faster-paced, Warrior-esque style, eschewing rebounding integrity for the chance to run up the score.  This gives you a clue what "reasonable defense" means against them.  Don't let them run out.  The guards and small forward have to get back in transition.  The big men, meanwhile, should try and press any advantage they find on the offensive boards, forcing the Pacers to stay back and worry about securing the rebound themselves.

That doesn't mean Portland should abandon the running attack altogether.  It's been an effective weapon in spots against lesser opponents and tonight should be no exception.  The Pacers pay even less attention to offensive rebounding than they do defensive rebounding.  There will almost certainly be opportunities for guys like Aldridge and Batum to leak out, knowing their teammates have a great chance at the rebound.  Any extra cheating points you get this way allow you to be more secure slowing the game down later to foil Indiana momentum, should any arise.

An interesting fact about the Pacers:  For a team that wants to rush the offense they get remarkably few actual fast break points on average.  They're abysmal at scoring in the paint as well.  A big part of understanding their 20-40 record is knowing that most games they're content to run down and fire a mid-range jumper or three-pointer.  In fact almost 27% of their attempts come from beyond the arc.  Unfortunately they're 26th in the league in three-point percentage which contributes mightily to them being 28th in overall shooting percentage.  Unless you make the game very easy on them they're going to shoot themselves right out of it.

One thing the Pacers have going for them is pretty good interior defense.  Ideally they'd like to draw you into a jump-shooting contest by sealing off the lane.  In reality they have trouble coordinating and concentrating enough to make it happen most nights.  If the Blazers move defenders around with passes, picks, and cuts the offense should come easily.  They will also foul you up the wazoo if you do get past them.  The Blazers should look to feast at the charity stripe tonight.  Beware taking the game for granted and figuring every shot is a good shot, though.

Individually the Pacers rely heavily on small forward Danny Granger who, despite shooting a career-low percentage, is cashing in to the tune of 23 ppg with spikes abover 30.  He had a lousy outing in their last game versus the L*kers, attempting only 9 shots.  It's a pretty good bet Indiana will be sure to get him more looks tonight.  Beyond Granger the Pacers have amassed a bunch of guys who can best be described as your second or third-favorite players on other teams.  Power forward Troy Murphy is averaging around 14 and 10.  T.J. Ford, Dahntay Jones, and Mike Dunleavy notch around 11 per game.  Brandon Rush is one of their only legit three-point shooters.  Center Roy Hibbert is giving them quality minutes and nice interior play.  He has the potential to become their next really-good home-grown talent.  Right now he's limited by foul trouble and occasional bad matchups to 24 minutes per game.  Basically beyond Hibbert, Granger, and Murphy you wouldn't trade Martell Webster for the entire rest of their lineup (at least the healthy portion) put together right now.  And that's about what you need to know.

This should be a safe, comfortable game for the Blazers.  Anything else will be a disappointment, probably meaning they assumed it would be a safe, comfortable game for them and played accordingly.  Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Check out the Indiana news at IndyCornrows.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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