November 29, 2010
The honeymoon, of sorts, is over. Everybody knows about the Indiana Pacers now, especially after they knocked off both the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers in less than a week. And with that knowledge comes scrutiny, and with that scrutiny comes hard realizations, and I'm here to tell you that Indiana's 8-7 record is a mirage.
Because they're actually better than 8-7.
I don't know how much better, because properly finishing close games still has some value in this league, but this team's point differential is eighth in the NBA, ahead of teams in Utah, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Portland, Denver and Atlanta. And point differential, not win/loss records, has long been the most telling statistic when it comes to ranking teams. You might not like the idea of the Pacers playing as this league's eighth-best team over the first five weeks of the season, but points are points.
And Indiana is winning by stopping the other team from piling them up.
Members of both the Heat and the Lakers chatted up the stereotype of Indiana's pell-mell offense following their losses to the Pacers, but Jim O'Brien's team held the Heat to a miserable 82.8 points per 100 possessions in last week's win, and the Lakers to a terrible 98 points per 100 possessions last night. Considering that Milwaukee is last in the NBA (by a fairly wide margin) in offense at around 100 points per 100 possessions, and the Lakers entered Sunday night averaging nearly 116 per 100 (tops in the NBA), this is some strong work.
Indiana's D currently ranks fourth in the NBA, up from 14th last season and 19th the year before that. O'Brien's rep is that of a gunner-happy up-tempo coach, but the team is rather middling when it comes to pace this season, so observers have no excuse to gloss over what a sparkling defensive outfit this is, especially when its offense is a dodgy 19th in the league in efficiency.
The Pacers don't cause a lot of turnovers, but they do block 6.6 shots per game, which is good for second in the NBA. On top of those blocks is the way this team closes out. Expertly, with a miss (the team is second in the NBA at defensive field-goal percentage and eFG percentage against) and a defensive rebound as the usual result. The Pacers send opponents to the line quite a bit as a result of all that aggressiveness, but this hasn't been too much of a mitigating factor.
No, the real mitigating factor that has turned what could be an 11-4 team into an 8-7 team are these close losses. Defeats to Milwaukee, Houston, Orlando and (especially, on Friday night) Oklahoma City could have gone either way. Instead, the Pacers couldn't close out, or couldn't come all the way back. And while all teams have their fair share of losses throughout the year, teams (great, terrible and mediocre) all tend to even out in games decided by a couple possessions or less. A 1-4 record in games decided by five points or less is the reason Indiana looks like the best 8-7 team in basketball, and the most confusing.
Until that record straightens itself out, Pacers fans can revel in the fact that the team boasts an All-Star level center in Roy Hibbert(notes) who developed into that sort of strata based on smart play and hard offseason work. Hibbert has always shown good skills, but his foul issues kept him from playing major minutes. This season, Hibbert is averaging about as many fouls (3.3) as he did in half as many minutes during his rookie year two seasons ago, while adding 16 points, 9.6 rebounds, three assists and two blocks per contest.
Point guard T.J. Ford(notes), in probably the most shocking aspect of the Indiana season, has handled a bench demotion like a pro and is often finishing games when second-year point man Darren Collison(notes) struggles. Danny Granger(notes) is averaging nearly 22 points a game while making over 40 percent of his 3-pointers, Tyler Hansbrough(notes) has played well in limited minutes, and Brandon Rush(notes) has come off the scrap heap to be a game-changer on both ends off the bench.
Defensive aptitude doesn't tend to go away, so there's no reason why this team can't sustain this good play, and the Pacers could and should improve offensively as Hibbert gets more and more comfortable with being a go-to guy of sorts down the stretch of games. The surprise element might be lost, I'm sure, but I wouldn't exactly call Indiana's downing of the Heat and Lakers a surprise. They just flat-out beat those giants, and the season is still young.