The five-game Western Conference road trip is nearing the end, as the Indiana Pacers were upset by the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night, 109-96. Indiana was once again unable to receive any offense from Roy Hibbert, and nearly allowed another 40+ point performance. This time, the barrage came from Wilson Chandler, who torched the league’s best defense for a season-high 35 points.
With just one game remaining in the trip that they’ve able to split even at 2-2, the Pacers surely cannot wait to return to the place they call home and to the arena that will host decisive playoff games … potentially Finals games in June.
When basketball connoisseurs (or even just random fans) are asked what will be the deciding factor that gives Indiana the nod to end the Miami Heat’s three straight Finals appearances, one of the typical answers has been: “their bench is now better.”
That’s what this team had everyone believing when general manager Kevin Pritchard initiated a trade that brought in forward Luis Scola from the Phoenix Suns, ridding themselves of Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, with Tyler Hansbrough also departing via free agency. The wizard Pritchard also reached out to C.J. Watson, a veteran point guard that has played paramount roles with the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls, indicating he had experience with superstars and sound coaching (Tom Thibodeau and P.J. Carlesimo).
Don’t forget, the return of Danny Granger may have taken quite a bit longer than we expected, but he’s back in full swing and the Pacers are thrilled that he’s experienced zero setbacks (pain, soreness) with his surgically repaired knee and previously injured calf.
Easily the only three dangerous options Indiana has off the bench this season, do I wholeheartedly buy that it’ll be enough down the stretch to unseat a Miami team that’s experiencing, shall we call it … boredom and inconsistency?
You bet your bottom dollar I do.
However, HOLD OFF on the talk of Miami for the time being. First, there’s a team in the Eastern Conference that is currently broiling.
Pacers Still Stronger Than Surging Brooklyn?
The Brooklyn Nets, a team that many penciled “60 wins” on their resume before the season, have won 10 of their last 11 games, and currently own the second longest winning streak in basketball (five games) behind the Oklahoma City Thunder’s seven-game streak.
Brooklyn is still at the bottom of the playoff teams in the East and aren’t even back at .500 yet. However, they’re on the rise and have given no believable reason why they won’t climb to a third, fourth or fifth seed by the end of the season. If I was forced to seed them at this point, the Toronto Raptors would sneak in the third seed with the Atlantic Division title and better record. Brooklyn will be content with a four spot in the postseason and here’s why that matters.
If a second-round matchup between the Pacers and Nets becomes reality, are we so certain that Indiana’s bench can get the job done against a team that will likely have increased confidence?
Since Brook Lopez went down with a season-ending foot injury, Kevin Garnett has been playing serviceable minutes at center, still playing with the same intensity and defensive skills, even if his offense has been at a career-low. Paul Pierce has also started in the power forward spot and that has left Brooklyn with a bench that looks as if they could survive against a Pacers’ second unit.
Second Unit Point Guards
Shaun Livingston has played very similar to the likes of C.J. Watson this season, but Nets’ coach Jason Kidd is more willing to play Livingston more minutes and give him more opportunities. With Deron Williams sidelined back in the earlier stages of the season, Livingston had a starting role and became an even better asset for them to use. This season, he has averaged 7.2 points, 3.1 assists and three rebounds per game while playing a solid 24.3 minutes per contest.
Those scoring numbers certainly can lie to some degree, as he is still capable of creating quality offense for himself and making plays at the rim. Livingston has four games this season in which he scored 18 or more points. Watson has only reached the 18-point mark once this season, but he is one of the most selfless guards you’ll find in the league. He picks his spots and is a far better long-range shooter than Livingston, nailing 36.1 percent of his triples this year and 38 percent on his career.
Not What They Once Were … But Stay Tuned
For the most part, Danny Granger will get a lot of opportunities to back up Lance Stephenson in the postseason, given his defensive pressure and the simple fact that he’s “been there before.” Once the go-to guy for this Pacers team, Granger can add to the attack in a variety of ways. What he’ll have to do though, is be a bit better than he has been since returning.
Jason Terry is another Net that’s having a horrible season altogether, but like the rest … he’s a veteran talent that has gotten the job done before when people counted him out. Come playoff time, it doesn’t take much for him to get hot on the perimeter and make defenses suffer.
Earlier in the month of January, Granger put together a string of six games in which he scored in double figures, averaging 12.1 points per game and shooting fairly well from the field. Overall since returning, Granger has struggled from the field, shooting just 37.3 percent and 32.8 percent from 3-point range. Something tells me that as the stages get bigger for this group and stakes rise, he’ll be far better.
Second Unit Frontcourt Favors Nets
If the Pacers and Nets meet, Andray Blatche and Andrei Kirilenko are also going to be problems to take care of. Kirilenko can still show shades of his aggressive defense he was praised for, but he’s lost his ability to stretch the floor with his shooting, the way he did in his Utah days. This season, he hasn’t attempted a shot from beyond the arc. We’re assuming Jason Kidd wants to leave that for his guards that can score in bunches.
Blatche has had himself quite a season, proving to be the blessing in disguise from the Lopez injury. Without Lopez, Blatche has been able to step up monumentally and be the frontcourt anchor behind this team’s winning streak. Throughout the year, he has posted seven 20+ point performances and is still capable of crashing the boards with authority. Don’t tell me it’s going to be so easy for Indiana’s Luis Scola to contain Blatche unless Hibbert is around to protect the paint, also known as his home.
Scola has been the tough one to figure out since joining Indiana in the offseason. Indiana fans can go ahead and admit that they probably expected the same guy that showed great potential as Yao Ming‘s interior successor in Houston and impressive play in Phoenix. However, Scola has had to slightly change his game since becoming part of Frank Vogel’s unit. This season, we are seeing Scola turn into a spot up shooter from mid-range, even just a couple steps in from the 3-point line.
With the amount of post-ups that Hibbert and David West use to keep the offense flowing, the team just likes to keep Scola stretching the floor for him to be an option out of a Lance Stephenson or Paul George drive. It’s working, as Scola is shooting 48.7 percent from the field and has kept his morale up despite playing 8.6 fewer minutes per game than last year, and taking four fewer shot attempts than he was given in Phoenix. He displays the perfect championship attitude that will be enough to get Indiana over Brooklyn, and could play huge roles if the refs decide to making things interesting by putting Indiana’s bigs in foul trouble against a veteran Nets team.
Nets’ Reggie Evans is the furthest thing from an offensive threat for a Brooklyn team that struggles to break 100 points most nights (comparable to Indiana). However, his rebounding can be a vicious tool for Brooklyn, which would make it imperative that Scola stays true to his veteran skill of boxing out. Evans will get into the head of his opposition, so it could lead to fun head-to-heads with David West in the frontcourt. Mirza Teletovic has also come a long way into growing as a perfect perimeter option for Brooklyn, as he knocked in 17 points in the latest loss to the Pacers in December. Don’t sleep on him becoming a threat that Indiana could have problems handling.
Why It’s an Interesting Series
While Indiana has dismantled Brooklyn twice already and played them in a thriller at the start of the season, both teams will be the first to tell you that the regular season doesn’t even compare to what will go down in the playoffs. Brooklyn probably has the stronger star power if Deron Williams remains healthy, as George Hill will have his hands full.
Joe Johnson has demonstrated that people were wrong to call him out last season, as he has increased his shooting across the board, scoring the ball at 44.8 percent overall and 38.9 percent from the perimeter. In the NBA, Johnson has one of the quickest “on fire” capabilities, meaning he can get on a scoring tear faster that guys outside of the Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Stephen Curry class. Earlier this season, he posted 29 points in one quarter, in which he hit eight 3-pointers. We know Indiana isn’t going to give him anything at rim without a 7’2″ vertical monster daring him to enter, so the 3-point attack is going to be one of the main keys.
Overall, Indiana’s second unit may not be what fans and analysts make it out to be. They rank among the bottom in points scored per game as a bench and Danny Granger simply isn’t the guy that cares about finding his offense every trip up the floor. What this bench does inflict, however, is a defensive mindset that is aided by center Ian Mahinmi, who may see the floor in key moments when Hibbert gets in foul trouble.
The Pacers and their fan base want to automatically jump to the Eastern Conference Finals to meet Miami, but overlook the journey it is going to take to get there. Every year a different journey begins, and the worst mistake a team can make is to look too far ahead. Just ask the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks.
With the Nets solidifying themselves as the fourth or fifth best team in the East, which I believe will happen, we’ll be in for a treat. Pierce and Garnett have been to the Finals twice before, and they have a good chance to run into a superstar in George that is looking to lead the Pacers to their first title. Brooklyn doesn’t have a LeBron James (or even a Chris Bosh since Lopez is down), but their recent success foreshadows a team that can be just as dangerous for an eager Pacers squad to eliminate.