Portland Trail Blazers vs. Indiana Pacers Preview

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazers pay a visit to the league-leading Indiana Pacers tonight, a team that hangs its hat on being the best defensive unit in the NBA. All-Star Paul George -- who scored 43 points against Portland in a December loss -- will likely be aggressive tonight considering teammate Lance Stephenson will play hurt or will sit.

Friday, February 7
Bankers Life Fieldhouse; Indianapolis, IN | 4:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD, ESPN; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Mo Williams | Out for the Pacers: Lance Stephenson (day-to-day)

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Update: Pacers Guard Lance Stephenson will sit tonight's game out with a lower-back injury, Indiana coach Frank Vogel said earlier today. Forward Danny Granger will start in his place.

Update: Blazers guard Mo Williams will be out for "family reasons" according to coach Terry Stotts. The Blazers announced that he will be away from the team indefinitely.

Mo Williams has left the Blazers for family reasons and will not be with the team for tonight's game at Indiana. A media report citing the death of his sister was inaccurate. No other information will be released.

Williams wrote on Twitter this week that his sister is in the hospital.

Tweeps say a prayer for my sister, she been in the hospital for the last couple days. My heart is heavy rt now.

Lord give me strength. #comeonsis #bestrong

Thx for everyone prayers. #sheisafighter #shestrong

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The Blazers arrive in Indiana today to take on the 38-10 Pacers, owners of the best record in the NBA.

Indy coach Frank Vogel recently compared his team to the Seattle Seahawks, the Paul Allen-owned Super Bowl champion team that possessed the best defense in the NFL this past season. Vogel's comparison to the Seahawks holds merit; Through 48 games this year, the Pacers are far-and-away the league's best defensive squad. The next best team in defensive efficiency -- the Chicago Bulls -- sits 4.1 points behind the Pacers in that category.

Indiana has been in the driver's seat in the Eastern Conference the entire season, piling up wins via a defense that only gives up 90.2 points a game. Even so, the Pacers may have lost focus the last ten games, because they've lost twice to the Suns and once to the Nuggets, going 7-3 in that stretch and allowing 98.4 points a game. Indiana has also been allowing higher percentages from both the field and from behind the arc, at 42.9 and 35.9 percent from opponents, respectively.

All-Star forward Paul George leads the way for the Pacers, though his numbers have been a bit off the last five outings as his points per game have been down by about 7 points, his field-goal percentage is at 31.8 percent and his three-point shooting percentage has sunk to below 23 percent. George distributes his shot-attempts pretty evenly between threes, mid-range jumpers and shots closer to the rim, the majority of his twos coming off the dribble while almost three-quarters of his outside shots are of the catch-and-shoot variety. George is usually solid -- not great -- from everywhere on the floor, though he's one of the best corner three-point shooters in the NBA. The last time the Blazers and Pacers met, George scored 43 points on 16-30 shooting, 7-15 from deep.

Forward David West is a much more reliable scorer lately, hitting over half his field-goals. Half his shots come near the basket, the other half from the mid-range, where he's actually slightly more accurate than Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge. West has been taking over 13 shots a game his last five, leading the team with almost 17 points a night.

Center Roy Hibbert has been more aggressive offensively lately, taking about 11 shots a game and hitting 50 percent of them. You might expect the 7-foot-2 center to stay in the key with the ball, but Hibbert drifts out to the mid-range for jumpers on about a quarter of his attempts, where he hits a respectable 42 percent. Starting point guard George Hill is usually a good three-point shooter, but lately he's had to rely on attempts closer to the rim to get his points because his outside shot just isn't there right now.

Guard Lance Stephenson improved his shooting from all over the court the last several weeks, though he may be unavailable for tonight's game with a bruised lower-back suffered on a drive to the hoop against the Hawks on Tuesday night. In his last five games, Stephenson has hit almost 58 percent of his shots, a lot of them coming at the rim where he's an explosive scorer. Almost two-thirds of Stephenson's shots come off the dribble, so whichever Blazer is guarding him will have to stay in front of him if he plays tonight. On the season, Stephenson has been an average three-point shooting wing, but he's the most accurate Pacer from deep the last couple weeks, hitting 37.5 percent of his threes.

On paper, Indiana's bench looks pretty solid, but its production of late has been hit-or-miss. Forward Danny Granger hasn't hit much of anything, making only a couple shots a night lately and a few free-throws. Guard C.J. Watson contributes about 7 points a night on 45 percent shooting and Luis Scola has missed two-thirds of his shots the last five games. Center Ian Mahinmi is the last main player in Vogel's nine-man playing rotation, hitting only 35 percent of his four shots a game recently.

As a whole, Indiana's efficiency is down on offense lately but the team is putting up about five more shots per game over the last 10 to balance out the differences in shooting percentages. The Pacers are usually somewhat of an average NBA offense, relying on keeping opponents' scoring down for wins. They draw a decent amount of fouls and are good at converting free-throws.

The Blazers have been up-and-down on both sides of the ball the last several weeks, being outscored 104.5 to 102.1 the last 10 games, allowing 46.2 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from outside. Over the same length of time, Portland has made 43.4 percent of its overall field-goals and just 30.4 percent of its threes, both several percentage points below the season average. Perhaps the Blazers have begun to round back into form, holding the Knicks to 40 percent from the field in a 94-90 win Tuesday, also forcing them into a 4-21 performance from deep -- this after New York had been one of the league's hottest outside-shooting teams recently.

Aldridge has decreased his shot attempts lately after leading the NBA in that category for a stretch. On about 19 shots a game, Aldridge has hit a rough patch lately, hitting just 38 percent of them for 19.8 points a night. He still gets to the line almost 7 times a game, and his late-game scoring helped put the Blazers in the lead for good Wednesday night against the Knicks, even though he went 5-17 for the game.

Point guard Damian Lillard -- fresh off the announcement that he will be the first player in NBA history to compete in five All-Star events next weekend -- is finally back to his normal self from the field, cashing in on 41 percent of his shots. Lillard's three-point accuracy still evades him, though, as he's now gone several weeks hitting less than a quarter of his outside shots. Lillard gets to the line about five times a game, which helps his scoring numbers and he's also found teammates reasonably well, averaging about five assists a game, too.

Guard Wesley Matthews has been the most consistent outside-shooter on the team all season, and following a tough stretch shooting from deep, he's now back to 41.9 percent from long-range. Forward Nicolas Batum might be on his way back to becoming a reliable three-point threat after going a combined 4-10 from outside the last two games, a string of two solid shooting performances that might be a sign he's rounding back into his early-season form. Batum's facilitating has tapered off a bit lately, but he's improved his overall shooting, finding ways to put points on the board even though he's setting up teammates less.

Off the bench, guard Mo Williams is still having a hard time from the field, missing three-quarters of his shot-attempts the last couple weeks. His assists are way down, as well. Portland coach Terry Stotts has tweaked his rotation slightly, opting for center Meyers Leonard and forward Dorell Wright against the Knicks instead of rookie guard C.J. McCollum and forward Thomas Robinson. None of the four players has been particularly efficient in limited minutes recently. Big men Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland have both maintained consistent shooting percentages as fourth or fifth options when on the court.

The Pacers are one of the best rebounding teams in the league, pulling down almost 50 a game compared to about 45 from Portland. While the Blazers rely a lot on a handful of frontcourt players to bring down the majority of their rebounds, the Pacers get solid rebounding from all directions, with Scola, West, Hibbert, George and Stephenson all grabbing between 5.2 and 9.4 rebounds a night. Portland excels at rebounding offensively behind the efforts of Lopez, Aldridge and Freeland, but Indiana is the best defensive rebounding team in the league, so you can expect a battle after misses on the Blazers' end of the court. In fact, following Portland's early December victory at home over the Pacers, Hibbert jokingly tweeted that he'd have to "wear a cup" next game against Aldridge after the two big men repeatedly went hard at each other down low.

The Blazers would like to head into the All-Star break next weekend with a few more wins under their belts instead of limping in. Tonight's match-up will no doubt be difficult for Portland, but they took out the Pacers earlier in the season and Indiana is going through somewhat of a rough stretch. Still, though they've had some struggles from the field lately and have had a few bad losses, the Pacers are 38-10 overall and 23-2 at home. If Stephenson sits, the Blazers' chances for a win tonight would definitely increase, because he's been arguably the most consistent Pacer lately and Vogel's bench has been a bit spotty the last handful of games. Don't be surprised to see another close contest.

-- Chris Lucia | bedgecast@gmail.com | Twitter

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