Wednesday evening may have served as a wakeup call to the Chicago Bulls, as well as any other title contender in the Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers downed Derrick Rose and the Bulls 97-80 in a game that told us a lot about Frank Vogel’s young and cohesive group of guys.
On a night where Paul George and Lance Stephenson shot 11-36 from the field, three key bench assets helped Indiana’s offense score enough on the tough Tom Thibodeau defense. While George Hill (hip) sat out a third straight game, it was veteran C.J. Watson who once again filled his shoes and didn’t disappoint the fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Watson scored 11 points as the starting point guard on Wednesday, shooting 3-5 from the field and not turning over the ball once. When Hill returns, Watson’s confidence is going be even higher when he enters the game off the bench.
Luis Scola played his most impressive regular season game since becoming a member of the Pacers, scoring 12 points on 6-8 shooting. The highlight play during Indiana’s fourth quarter run included Scola’s steal at mid-court and ball control to finish a fastbreak layup on the other end. Donald Sloan, who previously played for the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012-13, had a solid night off the bench with 9 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.
After the game, Head Coach Frank Vogel broke down just why Scola was the best pickup of the offseason:
“He’s one of the best players in the history of international basketball and one of the best power forwards in the game”, Vogel stated. “We’ve got him as a backup power forward. It’s quite a luxury.”
Paul George said it best after the game concluded. “People think this is a one-man team. It’s not just me out there.”
George hit it right on the head, and that reason alone is why Indiana is now the toughest team to beat in the NBA. Forget just the Eastern Conference, this team should be favored over anyone they play this season.
Paul George is playing at an MVP level through five games, averaging 25.8 points, 4.0 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game, while compiling a Player Efficiency Rating of 27.17 early on this season. Other than LeBron James, George is a player that is emerging as the best “tw0-way” player in the league, as his aggressiveness is the same on the defensive end as it is on offense. Most NBA coaches only dream that their superstars have the same mentality.
With the bench proving to work wonders for Vogel, the only team in the Eastern Conference that can take down this Indiana squad through seven games looks to be the defending champion Miami Heat. However, if the Pacers complete Vogel’s goal of grabbing the top seed in the conference, there will be a new representative in the NBA Finals. Playing at home is something that every title contender must do, but you tend to see something special from Indiana’s play when they have the home floor. In the 2012 postseason, Indiana matched up with Miami knowing they were the inferior team and gave it one wild 6-game ride. In the 2013 postseason, the Pacers knew they were equally matched with the Heat due to the breakout year from George.
In the 2013-14 season, this team knows they are better and more complete than the Miami Heat.
One factor that will play into Indiana’s success as they push for the 60-win mark in the East is their ability to stop the opposing team’s superstar. Already this season, the Pacers have forced Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Kyrie Irving, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, and Derrick Rose into relatively poor shooting nights. They proved multiple times against Miami that they have answers on how to limit LeBron James, and with Roy Hibbert clearly being the best rim protector in the league thus far, they will have enough to dethrone the “King.”
Looking at just how stressful the Pacers’ defense has been against the main stars they have seen in the 5-0 start, it’s quite startling:
-Anthony Davis: 8-20 FG (40 percent)
-Jrue Holiday: 8-18 FG (44 percent)
-Eric Gordon: 8-19 FG (42.1 percent)
-Kyrie Irving: 6-17 FG (35.3 percent)
-Josh Smith: 5-16 FG (31.3 percent) Yes, Smith continues to launch 3-pointers, too (1-6 against Indiana).
-Brandon Jennings: 6-20 FG (30 percent)
-Derrick Rose: 6-15 FG (40 percent)
The way Indiana is pressuring the marquee talents in the league thus far is just about as good as it gets on the defensive end. Putting their brick wall interior defense up against the more dynamic teams such as the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers will be their toughest test, as they will have to deal with the more complete point guards in Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.
Fortunately for Indiana, they won’t have to worry about that until the NBA Finals tip off in June.