I've got to tell you, it's really tempting to begin this preview with, "If you can't beat Cleveland and Washington at home, who can you beat?" and leave it at that. But you know, the Blazers are masters of the unexpected. From time immemorial they've looked awful for two weeks then brilliant for three, only to nosedive again. They're in free fall now, so why not come out of it with a rousing victory against the Pacers?
The game tonight starts at 7:00 p.m. Pacific and will be televised on CSNNW. And Portland viewers will get the chance to look at the guy their front office made a run at this summer, center Roy Hibbert. Early returns on Hibbert's brand-new, Blazer-inspired, $13.7 million contract have inspired a serious case of buyer's remorse. He's averaging under 10 points per game, shooting an unfathomable 41.5% from the field. This guy shot 50% last season, now all of a sudden the rim's the size of a doughnut hole for him. His free throw attempts and percentage are down and naturally PER and his advanced shooting percentages have tanked. He's doing two things well: blocking shots and grabbing offensive rebounds. Those aren't enough to make up for his deficiencies. Last year he was all-world, this year it's, "What in the world?!?"
Even worse, the Pacers still lack the services of scoring impresario Danny Granger. The 29-year old small forward has been down all season with a knee injury. It'll be interesting to see what happens when he returns, as the Pacers have been milking great performances out of 22-year-old Paul George, who also plays Granger's position. The veteran's $14 million expiring contract may be dangled as trade bait over the summer if he recovers enough to return to form this season. But none of that is happening tonight.
George will play this evening, of course. He's been feast-or-famine offensively, shooting 50% and scoring 30 or shooting 30% and scoring 15. The Pacers win nearly every game in which he scores big, so the Blazers should be invested in keeping him contained tonight.
David West is another concern at power forward. He's not at his New Orleans levels of production but he's had classic battles with LaMarcus Aldridge over the years. Hibbert's presence on one side and George on the other means the Blazers will have trouble switching around defenders. They don't have any big guys to spare. They'll have to choose between Aldridge on West and J.J. Hickson matched up against the much-bigger Hibbert or Hickson on West and Aldridge against the much bulkier Hibbert.
George Hill is a serviceable point guard, putting up the best numbers of his career. He's in the advanced journeyman category but he's a decent defender and won't lose the game for the Pacers on either end.
Beyond those four main players, Indiana goes with a lot of toughness and energy. Lance Stephenson is a jack of all trades at shooting guard, including the defensive trade. Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi provide size, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green provide experience and horrible shooting. But they don't get rattled and collectively this team defends well enough that their average-level offense provides plenty of wins. They're 26-16 at this point, having won 7 of their last 9. Most of those victories came at home but a team that's taken down the Grizzlies, Knicks, and Heat in the last couple weeks won't be intimidated by the Blazers, Rose Garden or no.
The Pacers don't score much and they don't score efficiently. Their shooting percentages are lousy, their pace plodding. They're grinders in every sense of the word. They rely on dominating the glass to control the game. Defensively they allow neither points in the paint nor fast breaks. They get back, swat everything that comes in the lane, force you to shoot over the top, then rebound your miss. They're 1st in the league at field goal percentage allowed, 4th in three point percentage allowed, allow the 4th fewest opponent free throws per game, and are second only to the Bucks in blocked shot percentage.
From Portland's perspective you can look at this impressive defense in two ways. Nobody scores on the Pacers, let alone a team as streaky as the Blazers. Indiana would seem to have every road to point production blocked. On the other hand, the Blazers score no fast break or paint points anyway. They never shoot close enough to get shots blocked unless they're pounding the offensive glass. The shots Indiana will allow--jumpers--are the exact shots the Blazers rely upon. If the Blazers can get hot from the perimeter Indiana's defense won't look nearly as good.
The critical issue for the Blazers tonight will be rebounding and physicality. They're out-sized on the front line. If the Pacers dominate the glass Portland will almost certainly lose. But it's hard to see where the Blazers will break through since the Pacers bring in a never-ending stream of rebounding bigs. Hibbert looks dangerous to Hickson or Aldridge. Nobody off the Blazer bench is going to make a difference. If Portland doesn't get serious rebounding help from the smaller positions they may be in trouble.
The Blazers also need a couple of heroes in the shooting department. Fortunately they have plenty of candidates there: Nicolas Batum, Wesley Mattews, Damian Lillard, Will Barton, even a guy like Luke Babbitt could make a big difference in this game. Remember that on most nights 92 points will beat the Pacers. Drop 12-13 three pointers and you'll probably get there. Hitting shots also eliminates that pesky rebounding issue. Relying on somebody to get super-hot isn't exactly the prescribed way to draw up a game plan, but at this point it may be the best shot the Blazers have.
In the meantime, go ahead and discuss this matchup. I'm particularly interested to hear your reflections on Hibbert's season so far. Do you still wish the Blazers had him at that price or do you think Portland dodged a 7'2", 280 lb, slow-moving bullet this summer? Weigh in below.
The venerable and vivacious IndyCornRows covers your Pacers perspective.
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