As the season winds to a close I will be reviewing the teams that can legitimately challenge for the title. I will focus on 9 teams, 5 from the West and 4 from the East, and will break down what makes them dangerous, what can be used against them, and how far they can be expected to go. Up today: the Indiana Pacers.
When Danny Granger went down prior to the season, the focus turned to the added workload on Paul George. Roy Hibbert faced similar scrutiny because of his newly minted max contract. When the team got off to a 6-8 start with George and Hibbert struggling, it looked like the loss of Granger would be enough to defang the team that stretched the eventual champion Heat in the 2nd round last year.
After that stretch though, the team locked down on defense, Hibbert healed up and started hitting shots, and they haven’t looked back. While I might start most of these profiles with a look at a team’s offense, the #1 defense in the league warrants a reversal in the order. The Pacers defense doesn’t rely on anything flashy to get the job done, instead choosing to employ one of the oldest strategies in the book.
It all starts with Hibbert, whose job is to smother any and all attempts at the rim. He never strays far from the basket except in rare case when an offensive rebound forces an unwanted switch into a perimeter matchup. In these cases the other players on the floor, especially David West, rotate into the middle to prevent easy drives. Even on pick-and-rolls Hibbert stays low to protect the rim rather than blitzing the ball handler or least showing hard.
This is where his teammates come into play. The perimeter trio of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, and Paul George are all fairly athletic or at least good size for their position. Their quick movements to cover the pick-and-rolls and to rotate back make it possible for Hibbert, and when he checks out, Ian Mahinmi, to linger around the basket and affect the highest percentage shot in the game.
There are also no defensive sieves amongst the starters, and everyone in the rotation works hard on this end, all of which contribute to that top ranking.
The offense got off to an especially slow start as the team struggled to find any consistency without Granger and with Hibbert’s wrist injury. As the season wore on however, Paul George cranked up his production, West got in on the act, and Hibbert healed, leading to a respectable offense that finished the season 19th in efficiency despite spending time in dead last early in the season.
Again, there’s nothing mind blowing happening out there. A steady diet of Hibbert and West post-ups lead the charge. Both players are also capable of hitting mid-range jumpers, with West being especially effective from there. They are also very effective passers, allowing Hill and Paul George to benefit from open perimeter looks and for Stephenson to lurk on the outside and pick his spots to contribute.
Paul George and Hill get their fair share of looks as well, with the bigs setting off-ball screens to free them for jumpers around the elbow or allowing them to sneak into the lane. Neither is an exceptionally good ball handler for their respective position, but they manage to keep things freed up with solid shooting and smart ball movement. It’s nothing pretty, but with a defense this good it gets the job done.
Unfortunately, the main threats standing in Indiana’s way in the postseason will be the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, both of which employ outside-in offensive attacks and could prove to be too much to handle. Before they get to those teams, they must face the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks do employ a jump-shooting center in Al Horford who can draw Hibbert off his perch or simply shoot over him. If the shots are falling and good Josh Smith shows up, the Hawks could easily take a couple of games, but in the end the Pacers’ stout defense will bottle Atlanta up enough to keep this series from really being up in the air.
It’s the second round where the first of the Pacers’ main foes will show up in the Knicks. This series (assuming the Knicks can dispatch Boston) will likely hinge partially on the health of New York’s key players. When healthy, the Knicks’ floor spacing attack could prove tough for even the Pacers. The strength of the Knicks will face Indiana’s strength, and the deciding factor may end up being New York’s home court advantage.
If Indiana can get past New York, their presumptive Eastern Conference foe will be the Heat. The odds of getting past LeBron James and company are slim for almost any team unless injuries force them out of their game. At times Miami runs a five-out system that will wreak havoc on Hibbert’s ability to stay near the rim. West and Paul George will also have to contend with the tough on-ball D of James, and Hill will be pestered by Dwyane Wade. Add it all up, and this will be the end of the line for the Pacers.