It’s not every day that the NBA’s most prolific offense has a chance to test their prowess against the most aggravating defense. In fact, it happens just once or twice per season. Bankers Life Fieldhouse was lucky to host one of the instances on Friday night, as the Indiana Pacers edged a relentless Portland Trail Blazers unit in overtime, 118-113.
Before the season got underway, Portland indeed had it’s share of doubters, claiming they could never stay healthy or consistent enough to form a playoff team. Head Coach Terry Stotts has made a fool of the naysayers, utilizing the league’s most dangerous duo of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge to the best of his abilities. This season may just be the one that labels Stotts as an offensive genius, as the Trail Blazers entered Friday’s matchup ranking first in points scored per game (107.7) and an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 112.5.
Portland came out of the October gates rolling from beyond the 3-point line, and they haven’t slowed down. It’s quite interesting that the league’s top four shooters — in terms of total 3-pointers made — are a split duo of teammates. Sitting directly behind the “best shooting backcourt in NBA history” in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson …. are Lillard and Portland shooting guard Wesley Matthews.
The bombardment from the perimeter would take a step back on Friday, but not before it tested the heroics of Portland’s sophomore All-Star.
For the Pacers, who exposed Andrew Bynum to the fans (on the bench, in street clothes), Lance Stephenson did not participate on Friday. Stephenson is still experiencing pain in his back after taking a
hard horrifying fall to the floor in Wednesday’s win at Atlanta. Long-time starter, Danny Granger, filled in for the All-Star snub and certainly had a game full of opportunities, playing 40 minutes.
From the tip, Portland carried over the same early offensive attack they placed on the New York Knicks earlier this week, as they jumped all over the Pacers. After Aldridge sparked the offense with his signature mid-range fadeaway from the left block, Indiana (as well as the fans) knew they could be in for a long evening. Aldridge went into a zone that we’ve been accustomed to, connecting on 5-of-10 field goals in the first quarter and giving the Trail Blazers a 28-16 lead. The key all season that truly has worked against the Pacers is Aldridge’s ability to draw Hibbert out of the paint with his shot, and open other possibilities for the remainder of the game. Indiana’s 12-point deficit in the first quarter was solely due to the — once again — slow offensive start. The Pacers shot just 8-of-21 to start the game, with no players scoring more than four in the quarter.
Indiana fought through the adversity, as usual, after play resumed in the second.
After going on a 13-4 run to start the quarter, the Pacers closed the gap to 32-29 after second unit option Rasual Butler knocked in a 3-pointer and David West drove aggressively to the rim for a layup with 7:37 remaining in the half. Butler took control of Granger’s bench minutes on Friday, as the 10-year veteran played 19 minutes and scored a season-high 10 points.
Lillard and George Hill ignited their duel in the second, going back and forth and taking over the offensive reigns. Hill scored eight in the quarter, primarily with penetration and getting into the teeth of the Portland defense. Lillard wasn’t about to have his team’s lead completely decimated, as he poured in 14 of his 20 first half points in the second quarter alone. Indiana did a fantastic job of playing inside-out basketball in the second, as their focus was clearly on getting to the rim and forcing Portland to respond. The Trail Blazers did …. by fouling and putting Indiana on the line 14 times in the quarter, which ultimately allowed the Pacers to crawl back. With the lethal shooter Wesley Matthews coming up scoreless in the first half, Portland was carried by Aldridge and Lillard, who owned 70 percent of the Trail Blazers’ points as the teams headed into halftime.
In the third, we were exposed to the heart and soul of Indiana’s success.
West and Hill are two perfect examples of guys that could care less about their individual numbers. Their focus is performing their specific roles that helps the team win, and that rarely tends to be showing up huge in the scoring department. With how atrocious Paul George has been from the field since Jan. 25, however, someone had to come through and match fire with fire. Luckily, Indiana had two of their backbones to pick up the slack. The duo (West and Hill) had a field day with the pick-and-pop to open the second half, as West nailed jumper after jumper and kept the Pacers swinging with Portland’s similar attack.
Matthews showed terrific confidence throughout the third, electing to challenge Hibbert in the interior on multiple occasions. Needless to say, that’s not the easiest task. Especially considering Hibbert ranks in the upper-echelon of the league in terms of defensive rating and collecting stops in the paint.
Converting huge shots with time expiring is quickly becoming Lillard’s specialty, and that didn’t change on Friday. In the closing seconds of the third, Lillard squared up and drained a 3-pointer while getting fouled. Lillard’s facial expression said it all, until Hill answered with an off-balanced jumper in front of Portland’s bench to keep Indiana in the mix. Both teams shot above 45 percent in the quarter, as Indiana looked at a 77-71 deficit heading into the fourth.
That’s when the Pacers began riding the home crowd, and finding ways to make plays behind Hill, the IUPUI hero. Hill and West combined to go 7-of-10 from the field in the final quarter, for 19 of Indiana’s 32 points in the final 12 minutes of regulation.
West’s mid-range ability has been slightly overlooked since Paul George emerged as this team’s superstar, but there’s no denying he still has a special touch from 15 feet out and beyond. Two critical jump shots, created from the masterful point guard play of Hill, came at opportune times for Indiana in the fourth quarter. West connected on one with 2:04 remaining in regulation to nod up the score at 97.
Matthews finally left his mark, as he was the catalyst that allowed Portland to respond and maintain an advantage. The underrated shooting guard somehow found the bottom of the net on a ridiculous fadeaway 3-pointer in front of some heckling fans, and worked his magic in post positions by getting a smooth mid-range jumper (off the glass) to fall. Matthews led the Trail Blazers in fourth quarter scoring, with 13 points on 4-of-6 attempts.
In what looked to be a closeout win for Portland, the Pacers stuck together and forced some horrible turnovers by the Trail Blazers late in the fourth, to give themselves a chance. The “foul game” was coming into effect as Indiana intentionally fouled Nicholas Batum and sent him to the line with just 22.7 seconds remaining. After Batum connected on both free throws …. it was Hill’s time to make the city love him even more, trailing 103-100.
As one of the many missed 3-pointers by Paul George clanged off the rim, Hibbert made a great heads-up play to track down the loose ball and quickly found a teammate on the perimeter. Being the savior all night long, Hill didn’t disappoint. Splash. Tied at 103 with 8.3 seconds remaining, Indiana and Portland headed into overtime after Frank Vogel drew up a defensive plan to stop Lillard from winning the game at the buzzer.
In overtime, both teams started out neck and neck, facing a tie a 107-all before the explosion began. Once again, Hill and West were responsible for lighting the fuse, and allowed the Pacers to go on a 10-3 run that made the lead too much for Portland to overcome in a short amount of time. West capped off the overtime thriller, as he stole an ill-advised pass from Aldridge and threw down a devastating slam that crushed Portland’s chances. Indiana led 111-107 after the play, and never looked back.
Lillard’s postgame interview:
Pacer of the Game
Player of the game honors could be shared by Hill and West, but the point guard that takes heavy scrutiny deserves it after this performance. Nearly reaching a triple double, Hill scored a career-high 37 points, handed out eight assists, and collected nine rebounds.
After the game, Hill discussed how he went about his last second magic in the fourth:
“Just trying to move to an open spot to get a shot up.” Hill stated. “I knew we needed a 3. The best way to do it is off an offensive rebound.”
He’s got a sound point, considering the best looks from 3-point range in the NBA come after offensive rebounds. Why? Defenses collapse in the paint, fighting to secure possession. When they fail to track down the ball, they also lose track of their defensive assignment. Hill was the beneficiary of that situation on Friday.
What else can you say about the unselfish David West? He hadn’t contributed 30 points in a single game all season until Friday, when he racked up 30 points on 13-of-16 shooting. I’ve concluded that he will always be the most underrated power forward in basketball, and he still doesn’t receive the proper respect he deserves. If he’s playing at this level consistently and learns to be more active in looking for his shot in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations, Indiana can’t be beaten …. especially at home.
The Slump Isn’t Ending
While Paul George did come through late in Friday’s win with a clutch jumper and a go-ahead dunk with 3:48 remaining in overtime, he has been in a horrible slump in terms of efficiency. George, who will start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star game, shot just 5-of-23 in one of the most significant home matchups of the season. We can’t be prisoners of the moment and assume that Portland’s defense is a problem for the budding star, considering he dropped a career-high 43 points on Stott’s Trail Blazers in the Moda Center earlier this season.
In his last seven games, George has shot 38-of-156 from the field (24.3 percent) and 8-of-41 from 3-point range (19.5 percent).
I took the path of telling everyone they shouldn’t be worried about this rough stretch, but is it time to start being concerned? Even if Indiana is getting the job done, and has won four straight games?
Coach Vogel doesn’t think so, but does believe Portland’s defense forced George into some tough looks on Friday:
“A lot of his misses were contact plays at the rim,” Vogel said. “The whole league is trying to pull the ‘Roy Hibbert’ at the basket. They go in there and everyone jumps straight up and absorbs contact … and they’re (refs) honoring verticality. In order to finish at the rim, you got to have the contact finishes, you got to play through that. It’s just something he (George) has to work on. His perimeter shots are going to fall, it’s just a matter of time.”
As tremendous as Portland has been this season (35-15), it’s unarguable that their road to the NBA Finals is on a completely higher level of difficulty than the Pacers’. Indiana has one team (unless Brooklyn can make playoff noise) on their radar to get through the Eastern Conference, and that’s the defending champion Miami Heat.
However, I dare you to pick a matchup that would be more intriguing than Indiana vs. Portland in a seven-game series, for all the marbles. In all honesty, it would be this year’s Super Bowl all over again. Except for one thing: we won’t expect the scorching hot Portland offense to be “embarrassed” in the same manner that Peyton Manning was. Indiana proved that they aren’t opposed to scoring in high figures to win ball games, as their 118 points on Friday marked a season-high.
After catching up with David West in the locker room, he offered me his take on how it would be to see this team again in June, and how it is to go head-to-head with the best power forward in the league (Aldridge):
He Needed More Than a Cup
Due to the earlier meeting at Portland in December, Roy Hibbert expressed how he needed to protect himself in his next showdown with Aldridge, saying how he took a couple shots to the groin from Portland’s star. Hibbert’s game on Friday didn’t resemble anything that we seen in their last battle, as he shot just 2-of-8 from the field for four points, and only collected six rebounds in 39 minutes. Even Hibbert is aware that his production as a 7’2″ center is not acceptable in a game symbolizing a potential series for all the marbles:
Indiana will travel to Orlando for a Sunday evening meeting with the Magic. The Pacers are 2-0 against Victor Oladipo and company this season, with an average margin of victory of 14.5 points. The two met last week, and Indiana nearly let Arron Afflalo impersonate Damian Lillard in that 98-79 home win.
Who are we kidding? There’s only one Damian Lillard … and George Hill didn’t back down when forced to go toe-to-toe with the sophomore sensation.