The Indiana Pacers are in town tonight to take on the Blazers, and they bring with them a league-best 16-1 record to go along with probably the best defense in the NBA.
Both teams played yesterday in Los Angeles, against the Clippers and Lakers, respectively, netting hard-fought victories. When the Pacers and Blazers square off at the Moda Center tonight, it will be a battle of Portland's offensive prowess and Indiana's elite defense.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert is one of the best paint-protectors in the game. He averages almost four blocks a night and allows opposing teams to score on only 36.5 percent of their attempts at the rim against him. Hibbert is the backbone to Indiana's active defense that hardly allows any points in the paint.
Opposite Hibbert in the post are Pacers power forwards David West and Luis Scola, two guys who are both capable in the mid-range on offense and can clean up the defensive glass effectively. The Blazers actually feature a couple solid offensive rebounding centers in Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland, and as a team, Portland is also good on the offensive boards.
The battle for rebounds on the offensive end could go to Portland tonight, though that may be more indicative of the Pacers forcing them into misses, thus leading to more offensive rebounding opportunities for the Blazers. Indiana allows opposing teams to launch more than 83 shots per contest, good for No. 20 overall in the NBA in field-goal attempts allowed, but get ready for the long list of defensive categories in which they are the best in the entire league: opponents' points per game, fastbreak points, effective field-goal percentage, two-point shooting percentage, overall shooting percentage and shooting efficiency.
In short, the Pacers' defense is what has made them the top team in the NBA just over a month into the season.
Indiana small forward Paul George, coming off a breakout year in which he replaced former All-Star Danny Granger in the starting lineup, has continued his upward trajectory as a star in the league and is considered by many one of the best two-way players in the game right now.
George is relentless when guarding the perimeter, coming up with more than two steals a night and often shutting his man down. When he has the ball in his hands, George is a threat to score from multiple areas on the court. He's deadly in the mid-range, but also hits the three-pointer at a 40.4 percent rate. George also pulls down 6.1 rebounds and earns 3.4 assists a game. The offense flows through him, and he'll make his defender pay if not given full attention.
Outside of George, though, the Indiana offense seems to be somewhat average, relying on a steady stream of contributors that can vary on a nightly basis. Hibbert, West, forward Lance Stephenson and guard George Hill all score between 12.2 and 12.7 points a game to complement the roughly 24 points George pours in a night. Stephenson and Hill are good outside shooters, and backup wing Chris Copeland is also accurate from downtown.
Still, Indiana's offense lags behind Portland's in many areas. The Blazers certainly feature a better outside shooting attack and get up way more field-goal attempts than the Pacers, cashing in on more of them.
Portland holds onto the ball better and passes it more effectively than their Indiana counterparts, but both teams' perimeter defenses are among the best in the NBA in limiting efficient passing. It will be interesting to see which team -- if either -- can find enough lanes to move the ball through in order to hit open teammates consistently, because both defenses are stingy around the arc.
Blazers point guard Damian Lillard may find it difficult to contribute in his usual variety of ways, because the Pacers do not allow scoring at the rim or from the perimeter and they pressure ballhandlers while not fouling often. Essentially, any way that Lillard could contribute will see many roadblocks tonight. Of course, he is certainly capable of overcoming a tough defense, but it'll take a huge effort to stare down this Indiana squad and come out the victor.
Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge will face off against West and Scola, both capable defenders out to the mid-range and tough enough to play Aldridge one-on-one if he drags either out toward the perimeter. If Aldridge goes into the paint tonight, Hibbert will be back there lurking.
In the Pacers single loss this year to the Bulls, they were outrebounded, outscored from both inside and outside and George was held to a low percentage shooting. Still, this isn't exactly the perfect blueprint for beating them, because Indiana hasn't been a great rebounding team all season, they haven't scored a ton of points in the key, they're not dependent on the three-pointer and if George is having an inefficient night, there are a variety of secondary players on offense who can step up and score 20-plus points when necessary.
17 games into the season, Indiana is simply a great defensive team, motivated to dominate the opposition behind the leadership of George and Hibbert.
Portland's best defensive game plan might be to limit George's ability to contribute offensively, though this is much easier said than done. Blazers wings Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright will have to stay in front of him all night, fighting through screens, harassing him as much as they can and making his shot attempts as difficult as possible. If the Blazers can neutralize George a bit, they probably have a solid enough defensive scheme to keep his teammates at bay with a lot of extra effort and a little bit of luck in the form of a tough shooting night for Indiana. Forcing Pacers misses and securing the subsequent rebounds will also be key factors, because Indiana will allow a good defensive rebounding team to pull down misses. Even so, rebounding on the defensive end is not a strong point for Portland.
The Pacers are a good team, and they certainly appear to be for real. Likewise, the Blazers have found multiple ways to win games this year behind the consistency of Aldridge, the backcourt threat of Lillard and the contributions from a number of other players that make it hard for opposing teams to defend Portland's deep-attack.
If the Blazers want a shot at knocking off the Pacers tonight, they'll have to make life difficult for George and grab rebounding opportunities. It also wouldn't hurt to force a few turnovers, get out on the break and score easy transition points when Indiana's airtight halfcourt defense isn't yet set. Moving the ball around, making the extra pass and hitting open looks -- all strengths of the Blazers -- would be the least difficult path to victory tonight. Still, that's no small feat against arguably the best defense in the NBA, but that's what Portland will have to do against elite defensive units like that of the Pacers if they want to prove they belong among the top teams in the league.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter