For the non-believers of the Indiana Pacers, you’re about to find out just what they are made of.
In the next three games, Indiana will be faced with their toughest 3-game stretch of the 2013-14 season as they take on serious contenders for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Two of the three games will be on the road, in back-to-back nights. It sounds difficult enough as it is, but knowing their opponents adds to the excitement and anticipation.
Saturday, Dec. 7th at San Antonio Spurs
In my early pick for the 2014 NBA Finals matchup, the Pacers travel down to San Antonio to take on the NBA’s most overlooked contender, the Spurs. By not playing fast paced, athletic basketball, the Spurs rarely get media attention during the regular season. Instead, people catch on to their intelligence and skill during the Playoffs, when they make their title run.
Last season, the Pacers dropped both games against the Spurs, due to Tony Parker‘s incredible performance in their second meeting, posting 33 points and 10 assists. There are obviously a couple of fun things to look out for in this game, one of which will be a matchup in the paint. Roy Hibbert and Tim Duncan have recently had a chance to get to know one another and train together in the offseason and will be facing each other for the first time this year. Duncan’s four NBA titles speak for his post game, and it was one classy move to work with a young center in Hibbert to increase his potential. But that’s just who Duncan is, and always has been; the classiest individual of this generation.
Another storyline for this game will be the point guard matchup. Pacers’ George Hill began his career in San Antonio under the realm of Spurs’ Head Coach Gregg Popovich and was a young guard that didn’t have a true position at the time. He played a lot of his minutes alongside Tony Parker, since he was generally more comfortable playing as shooting guard instead of being the floor general. During the 2011 NBA Draft, the Spurs traded Hill to Indiana for rookie forward Kawhi Leonard and it proved to be a move that would change Hill’s career. Popovich wasn’t even fond of the trade at the time, as Hill once told me that Popovich called him the night of the trade “in tears.” Since the departure, Hill has been forced to develop into a point guard type player, even though he hates putting that title on his game. On Saturday, it will be essential for Hill to play efficiently and not only take care of the ball against the veteran Spurs, but to also score like he knows he can. As smart as Popovich is, he’s going to do all he can to make sure his defense contains Paul George, meaning someone will need to step up and make plays for Indiana. If the Pacers hope to escape with a win, the one who is capable of knocking down shots the defense gives him is George Hill.
Sunday, Dec. 8th at Oklahoma City Thunder
It’s hard enough to have your team get focused on the end of a back-to-back, and prepare for another team just hours after leaving a different city. What will make it even tougher for Pacers’ Head Coach Frank Vogel is the fact that his team will be up against the NBA’s scoring leader, Kevin Durant.
Playing in “Loud City” at Chesapeake Energy Arena will once again be a hostile environment the Pacers’ defense will need to withstand, seeing as the Thunder are virtually unstoppable when the crowd gets behind them. In fact, only two teams in the league remain undefeated at home: Oklahoma City and Indiana. Some could argue that this doesn’t equal good news for the Pacers due to their only two losses coming from very difficult places to play, Chicago’s United Center and Portland’s Moda Center.
The game will feature two of the best rebounding teams in the league with Oklahoma City averaging 47.1 rebounds per game and Indiana with 45.2 per game. Who would have ever thought the Thunder’s frontcourt would be ahead of the aggressive Hibbert and David West on the boards?
Key matchup: Are you kidding?
Every NBA fan has been (or should’ve been) waiting for this showdown all season. Paul George, one of the two MVP candidates from the Eastern Conference, will go toe-to-toe with the Western Conference’s best player in Kevin Durant. Not only is Durant the best overall talent in the West, he is the best scorer and could easily be in the conversation of the “best shooter.” But, like everyone else, Durant is totally aware that he’s going to be facing a player that has stepped up his game immensely since the last time they met.
Two 6’9″ forwards 25 and 23 years old that are capable of putting up 30 anytime you ask them, and two guys that have become better team players to show their unselfishness……is going to be a sight to see.
Of course, the key difference that will probably determine the game is that George has more of a defensive mindset to his game than Durant typically has.
Tuesday, Dec. 10th vs. Miami Heat
After just one day of rest coming home from their Western Conference adventure, the Pacers will be tested by their arch nemesis. Indiana puts their 9-0 home record on the line as the Miami Heat come to Bankers Life Fieldhouse hoping to demonstrate why people may be too quick to crown the Pacers.
On the other hand, Miami has been known to take a game off here and there, in terms of effort. Taking a look at their recent matchup at Chicago, the Heat were out-rebounded 49 to 27, causing a distasteful defeat to a Bulls team without their marquee player. 13 of the Bulls’ rebounds came on the offensive glass, which just continues to highlight the rebounding struggles Miami has had since the Big 3 came together in 2010.
Indiana and Miami battles are always fun-filled, but regular season affairs aren’t typically as nail-biting as we know this year’s Eastern Conference Finals is going to be. Last season, the Pacers took two of the three regular season meetings, but all three were decided by 10 points or more. It seems as if home-court advantage truly does matter a great deal with these two juggernauts.
In this matchup, it’s going to be about Indiana’s bench. One of the main reasons General Manager Kevin Pritchard brought C.J. Watson and Luis Scola to the team is so they can feel more comfortable for a full 48 minute game against Miami and other title contenders. When Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra utilizes his second unit, Indiana knows Scola can be frontcourt presence they need to get them points and stretch out the defense. If his mid-range shot is falling, it just equals trouble for any defense because the paint tends to be more exposed.
While this 3-game stretch is probably the toughest that ANY team will experience this season, consider it a great opportunity for Indiana to shut down critics of their strength of schedule. Heading into Saturday’s game at San Antonio, the Pacers are 13-1 against teams that were below .500 at the time. That’s 14 of their 19 games played. Clearing the table and winning all three of these games would raise every eyebrow in the nation, and solidify their spot as the favorites to stop another South Beach celebration.