Okay, so much for the easy schedule... or is it? The Indiana Pacers travel to Brooklyn to take on the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center today at 6 P.M. EST. The 23-14 Pacers boast the best record in the Central Division and the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, just ahead of the 21-15 Nets.
But tonight's game is a bit more of a crapshoot, with both teams dealing with various injuries. For the Nets, Gerald Wallace is out with bruised ribs, Deron Williams is questionable with a right quad contusion, Kris Humphries is a game-time decision with a sore ankle, and Mirza Teletovic & Joe Johnson are both probable with various illnesses. The Pacers' injury list is much shorter but still devastating: they will likely be without starting small forward & both-ends-of-the-floor fulcrum Paul George, who's been battling the flu.
To help us understand just what's going on out in Indiana, I'm joined by the always-excellent Jared Wade. Jared is the managing editor of Eight Points, Nine Seconds, an Indiana Pacers blog, ESPN TrueHoop Affiliate, and go-to site for all things Pacers.
Devin: There's a report that Paul George may not play after getting the flu. How important is he to the Pacers' success, and how does your confidence change with him in or out?
Jared: George sat out last night against Charlotte, and didn't fly with the team to New York after the game. According to Indianapolis Star reporter Mike Wells, he may be flying in by himself today, but I haven't heard any updates. The Pacers' chances plummet without him in the lineup. You could argue that David West has been Indiana's most valuable player this season, but Paul George has been their best.
Georg was shaky at times early in the year, but since a disastrous zero-point game against Golden State on December 1, he's been playing out of his mind. He has averaged 20.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 3.9 apg and 1.9 spg on 44.8% shooting over his past 19 games. He's playing great perimeter defense, which would be extra helpful today against both Joe Johnson and Deron Williams. In the past, with both George Hill and Darren Collison struggling to not get overpowered by Deron, George has taken some turns checking him. They won't have anyone capable of doing that today if Paul George doesn't play and D-Will decides to take Hill, who is recovering from the flu himself, down into the post.
Devin: 7'2" C Roy Hibbert -- career 48% shooter before this season -- is shooting under 40% from the field. What?
Jared: He seems to have lost all touch around the hoop. Some of his hook shots are more just flings at the rim than anything else, and he has been missing simple lay-ins all year. Tim Donahue wrote a really good piece at 8 Points, 9 Seconds breaking down just how bad he has been on hook shots and tip-ins this year, noting that some of this may be due to his wrist injury. Still, that can't explain it all. Roy simply looks lost and is seriously lacking confidence.
The one saving grace is that it hasn't affected his defensive play. Hibbert's protecting the paint better than ever. He still struggles somewhat in pick-and-roll coverage, generally leaving the pull-up jumper as an option for the ball-handler as he stays back so as not to get blown by off the dribble before the other defender recovers. (Similar to what Nets fans see with Brook Lopez, I believe, though Hibbert is much better at masking his mobility issues without giving the ball-handler as great an advantage.)
But the fact of the matter is that this team will continue to play below its ceiling until Roy Hibbert figures out how to make some shots.
Devin: The Pacers have the best defense in the NBA by the numbers -- they allow a paltry 95.2 points per 100 possessions. Are they really this good defensively?
Jared: They are. Early in the year, as they struggled to beat teams like the Kings, Raptors, Bobcats and Wizards, the numbers suggested that they were elite defensively. But it seemed just as possible that they were playing teams who just couldn't score against anyone and the numbers were skewed. But the sample size is too large to ignore now.
It's impressive how they've kept some of the league's best offenses in check. They held both Miami and (a Carmelo-less) New York under 80 points this week and kept Memphis to 95.4 points per 100 possessions two weeks ago. Their rotations are excellent, and Hill, George and Lance Stephenson present so much physicality on the perimeter that most teams have a difficult time running fluid sets. Technically, everyone plays on a string and nobody routinely blows assignments. All that, plus Paul George and Roy Hibbert's individual brilliance, has led to a defensive team that is as good as advertised.