On November 18th, the Pacers’ record was 4-7, with the wins coming against Toronto,Washington,Sacramento, and Dallas. Not exactly quality wins. The team, while playing great team defense, looked completely out of sync on the offensive end, with no sign that improvement was coming. Three weeks into the 2012-2013 season, the Pacers did not look like the team that entered the season hoping to challenge for the top seed in the East.
Fast forward a mere 7 weeks, and the Pacers are sitting pretty at the top of the Central division, and fourth in the Eastern Conference. After a 10-5 record in December, the Pacers have begun 2013 2-1, and have finally risen to the level at which they finished the shortened 2012 season. Finally, teams aren’t looking at a trip to Indiana as an easy win. When teams come up against the Pacers, they know they are in for a physical battle in which the first team to 90 has a decided advantage. The Pacers have built their new found success on team defense, overpowering teams both in the paint, and on the perimeter.
On the offensive end, the Pacers clearly miss the unique skill set Danny Granger brings to the table. Early in the season, the Pacers lacked the ability to squelch a prolonged run by the other team with a big score, and conversely, couldn’t hit a big shot that would break the proverbial camel’s back. They had a knack for coming up short on big offensive possessions, which has seemed to be Granger’s responsibility since the departure of Jermaine O’Neal.
One of the more disconcerting aspects of the Pacers offense in the early season was the disappointment that was Roy Hibbert’s shot-making ability. A man who got paid quite handsomely in the off season was failing to live up to the undeserved hype. All of the sudden, Pacers fans had inflated expectations that Hibbert simply could not meet. His previous career high in points was 12.8, but fans wanted a 20-10 type of guy. Roy simply is not that player on the offensive end. His shooting percentage is down, which cannot be spun in a positive light, but I think that can be attributed, at least partially, to increased pressure to live up to his contract.
In recent weeks, Hibbert has done a much better job at playing to his strengths and letting the game come to him. He has begun accept that his biggest impact on a game will always come at the defensive end. Hibbert has been one of the top 3 defensive players in the NBA for the first half of the season, which is nothing to sneeze at. His impact on the game is worth every cent he is earning. The Pacers are second in the league in points against, and lead the league in FG% against, and 3P FG% against. Hibbert has had a direct impact on this team defense success.
Before the season, Commissioner David Stern implemented a system in which players would be fined if the league office caught them “flopping”, which has helped Hibbert immensely. Being a giant human being, with Go Go Gadget arms, Hibbert no longer needs to worry about players using his tendency to be aggressive when challenging shots against him. The rules state that a player can “go straight up” when challenging a shot, and any excessive contact will be deemed an offensive foul. In years past, the shooter could throw up a junk shot, fall to the ground like an Italian footballer, and the defender would be hit with a shooting foul. Hibbert’s length, combined with a new sense of accountability on the referee’s part, has essentially made scoring at the basket an impossible task against the Pacers. Knowing the basket is sufficiently protected, the perimeter defenders can play tighter defense, and hassle shooters. Taller wing players like Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and Gerald Green can get a hand in a spot-up-shooter’s face because they know that an easy layup won’t be the result of overly aggressive perimeter defense.
Roy Hibbert has obviously been a key for the defensive success of the resurgent Pacers, but Paul George has started to develop into the All Star caliber player we were all hoping he’d be. He’s a match up nightmare for almost every team in the league. He’s a 6’9” shooting guard. I received this text message from ESPN, “Coach Frank Vogel says Paul George (29 pts, 13 rbs vs. Wizards) ‘becoming beast of a player’”. I don’t really know why ESPN thought it was valuable enough to text me that, but it’s a heckuva lot better than some of the things that were said in mid-November.
In this writer’s opinion, Paul George has finally turned the corner towards becoming the type of player he’s always had the potential to be. Every team yearns for an all-around contributor like George. He can score at the rim, as we’ve seen with some acrobatic layups and soaring dunks. He’s a threat from behind the arc, averaging 2 made 3’s per contest, and shooting an acceptable 37% from deep. He hauls in over 7 rebounds a game, averages 1.5 steals per game, and can distribute the ball well, with over 3.5 assists per game. Essentially, we are seeing Andre Iguodala 2.0 grow before our eyes. You know what Andre Iguodala has? World championship medals and stuff. That’d be fun to say about a Pacer.
Despite a turbulent start, the Pacers have found a way to play well on a consistent basis. One of the reasons for this can be seen with the emergence of stronger bench play. Now that is has been settled that Lance Stephenson will start the game, but the hottest lineup will likely close it, the players can assume their roles and play within the system. At the beginning of the season the rotation was thrown off by the loss of Granger. Coach Vogel was toying with the lineup every day, trying to solidify the starting lineup without draining the bench of its firepower. The players didn’t know what role they would be filling because of inconsistent minutes and situations. The sudden success of DJ Augustin has given the Pacers a legitimate back court backup and allows George Hill to take a back seat in setting up the offense for a couple minutes during the game. Without a significant drop off in production at the point, the Pacers have found themselves able to hold a lead when the starters aren’t on the floor.
The Pacers got off to a rough start, but have played better as of late, and are only getting better. They have shown no signs of regressing back to their November form, and the players should continue to improve in their roles. If Danny Granger returns, expect a transition period of about 3-5 games, followed by a similar resurgence to the one we saw in December. As a fan base, we should be excited for what the second half of the season brings, because we’ve seen the bad, but that’s in the rear view, and we’re headed for sunny days, my friends.