Ah yes. Another day, another road game.
Fortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers this will be the seventh and final game of the current extended road trip which has featured 2 wins, 4 losses, a couple nights of thrills, and a thousand miles of heartache and (no doubt) fatigue. The Blazers face the Indiana Pacers at 4:00 p.m. today in a game televised on CSNNW.
The Pacers sit at 9-9 on the season, 4-2 at home. They've defeated a couple of good-ish teams but mostly feasted on cannon fodder. They've lost to legitimately good teams and quite a few mediocre ones. Their start hasn't been bad but it's hardly impressive.
Some of this can be chalked up to the absence of star small forward Danny Granger. His knee is expected to keep him out until February. Without him the Pacers slide down the scale away from dark horse contender and closer to My Little Pony. They've got some good players but not enough scoring pop to make up for Granger's normal 20 per game.
Third-year forward Paul George steps into Granger's spot in the starting lineup. He showed promise as a utility man last season but as his minutes have increased this year his efficiency has abandoned him. He's still a good defender but his shooting percentages have nosedived and he's not drawing fouls. That leaves veteran power forward David West as the main scorer...a role he doesn't mind. He's rebounding from a tough first season in Indiana last year and, unlike George, he has responded to more touches and responsibility with increased production. What happens when Granger returns and starts taking the ball more is a matter for conjecture but that won't bother West tonight.
[Obligatory side note: Everything I just said got inverted last night as the Pacers beat the Chicago Bulls. West went 4-12 for 10 points while George logged his best offensive game of the season, shooting 14-25 for 34 big ones.]
Indiana's backcourt consists of Texas transplant George Hill at point and Lance Stephenson at off-guard. Stephenson has had a heck of a start to the season, firing at a 48% clip from the field, 41% from the arc. This came out of nowhere, as he'd never topped 38% or 14% respectively in his career. His shot attempts are down overall but his efficiency, of course, has gone through the roof with his effective field goal percentage hovering right around 56%. At a similar size and weight he'll be an interesting matchup for Wesley Matthews. Hill's shooting is down from last year but his points and assists are up on average as he shoulders more of the load without Granger. Hill's averages are deceiving, though. He has two kinds of game: amazing and putrid, a true Binary Wonder. On his "zero" nights he scores 8 and shoots under 20%. On his "one" outings he's in the 20's and over 50% from the field. The Blazers would do well to keep him bottled up early. Every scorer they take away from the Pacers makes a huge difference.
The story of the season for the Pacers so far, though, is center Roy Hibbert. Blazers fans may remember him from the aborted restricted free agency chase this summer. He re-signed with Indiana for a sweet $14 million per year. So far he's responded by sinking like a stone in the following categories: Field Goal Percentage (from 50% to 39%), points per minute, defensive rebounds per minute, free throws drawn per minute, free throw percentage, true shooting and effective field goal percentages, defensive rebounding percentage, total rebounding percentage. Plus he's returning to the foul-happy ways of his youth. What's he doing, besides missing a ton of shots? He's increased his offensive rebounds, blocked shots, and facepalms caused per game. It's a bad, bad start for a guy expected to be an All-Star level center.
Indy's bench is plagued by an inability to shoot and score. Geralld Green, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, and D.J. Augustin are all well below the 40% mark--Augustin well below 30%--and Sam Young just barely cracks it. That encompasses everyone who averages more than 10 minutes per game off the pines. Though any of them can get streaky-hot there's no consistent help anywhere. Most of those guys are good rebounders and at least decent defenders, though. If the starting lineup just needed placeholders to fill minutes the Pacers would be golden. Sadly they need more point production, which is part of why they're 9-9 against a mostly mediocre schedule.
The Pacers' team offense is a sad story. Hibbert's woes have taken away their ability to score in the paint. Lacking good jump-shooters to compensate, they enter a death spiral as soon as opponents pack the lane on defense. They can't shoot their way clear nor can Hibbert score in traffic. They don't fast break enough, nor draw enough fouls, to make up for their lack of halfcourt offense. They've topped 100 points only twice in 18 total games, both overtime wins for them.
Unsurprisingly given the paucity of shooting and scoring, Indiana's assist totals are low. Their turnover rate is high. This will give the Blazers an opportunity tonight. If they can stay in front of the ball-handler they should be able to feast on intercepted passes and caroms off of missed jumpers.
The huge caveat here is that Indiana plays slow. If the Blazers fail to force turnovers, grab rebounds, push tempo, they'll be locked into a trudging game in which their offense is just as imperiled as the Pacers'.
Defensively the Pacers allow the fewest fast break points and points in the paint in the league. Part of that is tempo but they're also legitimate defenders. The Pacers allow the lowest field goal percentage and third-lowest three-point percentage in the league. They're also the third best defensive rebounding team in the league. One-and-done is not just a slogan to them, it's a way of life. If their defense has a weakness, it's that they don't force turnovers. But why gamble when you're that effective?
The tale of this game will be told in tempo. If the Blazers play loose, exploit their ability to force turnovers and the Pacers' propensity to commit them, get the ball up the floor quickly, bury a few shots, make it to 100, then Portland has a great chance of winning. If the Blazers are content to walk the ball up the floor they're going to run into that defensive-rebounding buzzsaw.
This game doesn't depend on the Blazers alone, however. The Pacers have been weak in exactly the areas that Portland has the most trouble: shaky point guard play, awful performances from their center. If they repeat those mistakes they'll find the Blazers more than they can handle. But when you look at Roy Hibbert and then glance over at a slumping J.J. Hickson and a not-horribly-strong Meyers Leonard, you start to wonder whether the Pacers couldn't fix their pivot problem just this once. Ditto for the streaky Hill against Damian Lillard. If Hill and Hibbert shine, Indiana could stomp the Blazers into the ground and grind them into dust.
Neither side can afford to give the other advantages here. If either team plays ineffectively they'll lose. Absent that, this game will be about which side can enforce their will and style of game on the other. Look for rebounds, turnovers forced, field goal percentage, and containing Hibbert as barometers of Portland's health. Also look for more small-ball, forcing Hibbert to run around and defend, if things start going poorly (or just slowly) for the Blazers.
2-5 is a fairly sad road trip but 3-4 would be amazing considering the start the Blazers had on this long journey. Let's see what happens.
Indy Cornrows will tell you all about the Pacers end of this matchup.
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