Dec 8, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha (25) during the second quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers: Meaningful Week Ahead

To say the Indiana Pacers haven’t proven their legitimacy as NBA title frontrunners would be an egregious statement.

Not only have they held on to the league’s top record (20-3) and continue to feast on the appalling Eastern Conference, but Indiana has secured quality road wins against the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers.  Oh, dismantling the Miami Heat’s defense in the second half of their Dec. 10 meeting also sits firmly on their 2013-14 resume.

A valuable lesson the world of professional sports teaches you is the importance of a team putting their focus on the present, rather than the future or past.  Success is never achieved in November and December basketball, at any level.  In the NBA, which has been dominated by the Western Conference dating back to the 1980s, it’s all about which team peaks after the All-Star break and stays relatively free of injury.

Pacers

From Celtics’ player to Pacers’ President, the hard work and patience Larry Bird has had to sustain through Indiana’s building of this core group. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

An exception can be made for these Indiana Pacers, however, as their regular season is becoming more about statements being made throughout the year against top tier teams.  Face it, we already know Indiana is able to produce in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  They played for the conference title the previous year, and nothing is stepping in the way of that repeating.

This next stretch for the Pacers will be key for them to capitalize on, before they head into the Christmas holidays.

On Monday, Dec. 16, Paul George and the Pacers will host the Detroit Pistons, who have lost four out of their last five games.  Well, “losing” doesn’t quite define two of those defeats, as they are better described as “meltdowns.”  On Dec. 11, Detroit surged through the fourth quarter against the New Orleans Pelicans and forced overtime, only to lose 111-106 on the road.  Sunday, Dec. 15 at home, they choked away a 11-point lead in the fourth quarter to drop a heartbreaker to Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers on a buzzer beater in overtime.

Don’t look now, but Pistons’ Andre Drummond vs. Pacers’ Roy Hibbert is setting up to be the best big man rivalry for the next few years. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana and Detroit met earlier this year at the Palace of Auburn Hills,  and the outcome favored the defensive minded Pacers.  Out-shined by one of the best games from Paul George (31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists), was Indiana’s commitment to defense.  The Pacers held Detroit to just 37.9 percent from the field and 20 percent from beyond the 3-point line.  Of course, this included Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings both shooting 1-of-6 from 3-point territory, an area that neither of those two ever disliked.  Keep launching those perimeter shots, 26.9 percent effective Josh Smith.

Andre Drummond was completely taken out of the game by Pacers’ center Roy Hibbert, going just 3-of-5 from the field and scoring six points.  This performance came at the time where Hibbert was blocking anything remotely close to the rim, as he recorded seven blocks in the Pacers’ 99-91 victory.  This time around, Drummond is playing much better in the paint, and will be a tougher test for Indiana to overcome.  Sitting as one of the two remaining teams that are unbeaten at home, Indiana is still going to give Coach Mo Cheeks a hard time.  Bankers Life Fieldhouse shouldn’t be disappointed on Monday.

Wednesday, Dec. 18, is where the Pacers will face their toughest (and most telling) test of the season.  That’s right, still winter basketball and you’re going to hear humorous reactions regardless of either outcome in this matchup.  Well, one of those that you hear will be close to the cold hard truth, not exactly comical.  The Pacers will travel to South Beach to take on the Miami Heat in their first of two road games against Erik Spoelstra’s defending champions.

On ESPN’s broadcast, it should read “2014 Eastern Conference Finals,” considering it’s a waste of time, money and plane trips to have any sort of 8-team playoff in the Eastern Conference this season.

Seriously, two teams over .500 in the East?

The Heat fell apart in the second half of the Dec. 10h meeting at Indiana, 100 percent due to Roy Hibbert’s ability to contest LeBron James at the rim and make things difficult for Miami.  In fact, the Heat scored only 37 points in the second half of action, which is right up Indiana’s alley.  The Pacers average only 97.8 points per game (20th in the NBA), and are more than happy with games hovering around the 75 or 80 scoring mark.

In Miami, however, the story is going to be much different.  There is no way Dwyane Wade sits out due to resting of the sore knee, and it’s quite apparent that the league is becoming driven solely upon home court advantage.  Teams, and players, seem to be more productive in front of their home crowd, and it plays a substantial role in the playoffs.

Why bring this up?

This game is going to have a playoff atmosphere to it, no question.  These teams respect what the other has been able to accomplish, but they sure don’t like each other.  In the first matchup, the game didn’t turn out to be a Paul George vs. LeBron James battle that everyone anticipated.  George was shut down in the first half and the Pacers’ frontcourt pulled them through.  In American Airlines Arena, you can fully expect Miami’s role players to make this a game that favors the Heat.

In Indiana, the Pacers’ bench has the edge simply because C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, and Ian Mahimni are more comfortable and effectively meet the expectations of their roles.  They are active, aggressive, and make huge plays on both ends.  However, Miami’s bench is still the better, more productive bench in many people’s eyes.  Norris Cole‘s game has evolved since entering the league as a rookie with raw talent, and he has gained the trust of the Heat’s veterans.  You can never sleep on the clutch shooting from Ray Allen, who is simply an even better shooter at this stage of his career and will keep Indiana on their heels in a regular season game or playoff series.  Battling a hamstring injury, Michael Beasley will likely be ready to go by Wednesday’s duel, and you can bet he’ll be eager to show why his absence in last week’s game was undermined.

That’s right, Danny Granger is targeting a Dec. 20th return, vs. the Houston Rockets. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday, Dec. 20, the Pacers face two interesting challenges.  The Houston Rockets will be in Indianapolis, setting up the first meeting between the two teams that improved tremendously this offseason.  The other side of the story, for the Pacers, is the probable return of forward Danny Granger, who hasn’t played a single game for the team this season due to a calf injury.

For a team like Indiana that believes their frontcourt is second to none, they will be matched up against the second ranked rebounding unit in basketball, as Houston collects 46.7 boards per night.  Dwight Howard out-performed Roy Hibbert last season in Indianapolis as I watched in person, so this is easily going to be a game where the Pacers look to utilize inside-out basketball and allow Hibbert to draw attention to the paint in order to open the perimeter for his shooters.

 

 

It could be problematic for Granger’s first game back to be against a Western Conference powerhouse, considering Coach Frank Vogel hasn’t explicitly stated whether or not the former All-Star will be starting or coming off the bench.  With these three intense battles taking place this week and the holidays right around the corner, surely Pacers’ fans won’t jump to any conclusions if  Granger struggles out of the gate early on.  Good luck, Indiana.

 

 

Tags: Danny Granger Frank Vogel Indiana Pacers Paul George Roy Hibbert

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