by Tyler Gobble
As a lifelong Hoosier, and thus Pacers fan, recently exiled to Texas, it takes some wacky combo of trickery and good timing for me to see these Pacers play. I don’t own a TV. They don’t play Houston and San Antonio much. And really I only like watching basketball with a beer in hand, preferably at a musty bar. This week I got some good fortune, the week I snuck back to Indiana for the first time since the move, with two games (that stupid nailbiter loss to the Heat and that pummeling of the Rockets) on national television and a third (that we-are-just-better-and-more-experienced-sorry-Brad game against the Celtics) popped up on the local (read: only) sports bar’s (read: only) TV the day after my return.
Staring at the weaving and cross-overs, the flying elbows and booyeah moments, with each play I found myself looping back to points that are quickly becoming facts during this amazing Pacers start:
These Pacers Are Finding The Balance Between Playing Their Game and Knocking Opponents Out The Precious Driver Seat: Some teams try that we-do-our-thing-and-hope-you-can’t-do-yours-better tactic like the Suns of earlier years, but obviously, that hasn’t been championship-effective. What I’ve seen is the Pacers knowing what they are—a very good (maybe all-time great!) defensive team, lead by a budding two-way superstar, and flanked solid perimeter shooters, and hard elbow throwers inside—playing wonderful team hoops. All five fellas on the floor are hustling to help, to grab loose balls, to not leak either way and give up opportunities. But by doing that, they’re also exposing weaknesses in other team’s games—lack of versatility, mental composure issues, and thin lineups (more on this in a bit).
*Besides George, no Pacers is average more than 13 points per contest, but all four other starters are averaging between 11 and 13, with two bench players—Scola and C.J. Watson—capable of that with more minutes. And that’s not even counting Danny Granger, who scored 12 in his second game back after nearly 2 years out with injuries.
*They are the only team in the league giving up less than 90 points per game, giving them enough oomph, despite being in the bottom half of the league in points scored per game (98.5), to be tied with the Thunder for the second-best record.
*Unlike the other top teams in the league—Blazers, Thunder, Heat, in particular—you won’t find these Pacers in the top five of a lot of team stats categories shown on the NBA stats mainscreen. You find them towards the top of things like points allowed per game, point differential, defensive rebounds and blocks per game, currently. They hover in the middle of the top half of the league (if we’re lucky) in more noted categories.
I Was Totally Wrong About Lance Stephenson: In the NBA Preview on this here site, I said this about Lance—
I don’t think he should ever be allowed to hold the ball for more than Hot Potato time, but I will say that you can do a lot worse than Lance Stephenson as your first guard off the bench. I don’t want to prove this.
That was me scared about those crazy eyes Stephenson shows every other touch or so, especially when Paul George and/or George Hill are out. That was me assuming Granger would come back and deserve the starting spot without even playing a game. That was me not giving the coaching staff and team around him (not to mention his own damn self) faith in developing this fella.
But while Lance stills seems a little wacky with the ball, he’s making solid plays regularly, and some remarkable ones with more frequency than I ever expected:
Fact is, he’s the rightful starter. Four triple doubles, all in wins. One of only a handful of players averaging 6 boards and 5 assists a night, including the team lead in dimes. Most importantly, he’s bought into his roles, as Paul George’s wingman on both ends of the floor, and as the number one guard in those few moments when PG is breathing on the bench.
If They Are Going To Win It All, They’re Going To Do It By Annoying Opponents Into Submission: Like those Pacers teams of my childhood, with their badass elbows and dynamite Miller Time, these Pacers are admittedly kind of annoying. There’s no front court in this league that can match the experience and wallop combo of Hibbert/West/Scola/Mahinmi. And Paul George is QUICKLY learning how to be a fierce scorer, especially coming out for half number two, blazing 9 points a game in the third quarter.
But what can take this team even further than those Pacers teams (remember they only made it—and lost—in one NBA Finals in 2000) is the play surrounding (or extending beyond) those characteristics. Like Lance Stephenson, George Hill, and others boosting the scoring with timely shots (see: their early play in all three games this week to create leads). Like how Paul George plays defense beyond anything Reggie Miller was ever capable of (or would have ever tried to). And now with Danny Granger returning, Danny Granger who—let’s remember has averaged 25 points a ballgame before—as a Sixth Man, these Pacers are only going to get tougher and tougher (AND TOUGHER) to beat.
Next chance to watch: TONIGHT TONIGHT vs. the Brooklyn Nets. Between this glowing return to my Hoosier homeland and the Pacers badassery, I’ve never been happier sitting tall on a creaky stool and woot-wooting.