Apologies for the absence the last few days. Playoffs aside, this was the most important part of the post-lockout season, and I was strangely absent. Not that any of you care, but I had a good reason: I’ve become a dad! Look out, because in about 20 years the NBA will have a new star.
In the meantime, the Indiana Pacers began their season with a 2-0 start, downing Detroit at home (91-79) and then Toronto on the road (90-85). Sure, neither win was against a top notch team, but a win is a win, and with the Pacers beginning the season with 15 of their first 22 games on the road, they’re going to have to dig deep to pull some of these out.
The Pacers beat two mediocre teams, one with ease (Detroit) and the other ought to have been easier (Toronto). It’s only two games into shortened season with a shortened training camp and two new key players (David West and George Hill), but a few things are already jumping out at me.
- the Pacers are playing good D — the Pacers have carried that defensive intensity they displayed against the Bulls in the playoffs last season into this season. From what I have see, everyone is playing hard. They don’t have any guys that can flat out shut down opponents, but as a whole they are working as a unit and it’s working. That said, we’ll have to wait until they play an elite offensive team before we can declare them a genuinely strong defensive team. Remember, last season the Pacers played pretty good D to start the season too, but that deteriorated significantly until the playoffs.
- the Pacers are playing ‘smash mouth’ basketball — Frank Vogel did not lie. The Pacers are playing his brand of basketball — smash mouth basketball — going after every loose ball, pounding the offensive boards, scrambling on D, taking charges and knocking guys to the floor if they have to. It’s not pretty at times but it’s been effective for the most part (the Pacers grabbed 30 offensive boards in the first 2 games). However, it remains to be seen whether they can keep this kind of intensity up in the long run.
- the Pacers need to work out their offense — flashes of brilliance, but the Pacers have not been very good offensively. Some of that can be attributed to the long layoff, new teammates and a lack of conditioning, but there were still far too many bad shots and miscommunications. The Pacers shot 36.8% against the Pistons and 39.5% against the Raptors, and despite playing good D, this type of percentage is not going to get it done against better opponents.
- Pacers still playing too sloppily — this has been a persisting problem for the Pacers and it will take some time for them to work things out. There have been numerous head scratching plays and careless turnovers (almost all have had a couple each). They had 10 turnovers against the Pistons and 16 against the Raptors and many were utterly avoidable. Hopefully, as they become more familiar with each other, the Pacers will find a way to take better care of the ball.
- Roy Hibbert has improved – he’s still awkward at times, but big man Roy Hibbert looks far more confident out there than he did at stretches of last season. His post game is more patient and his shots are more considered — he has been tossing up less of those ‘hope for the best’ hook throws and has been utilizing his height better. The most notable improvement has been his rebounding. Hibbert had double-doubles in both games (16-14 and 12-10), including 7 offensive boards overall. I love what I am seeing from the big fella, hope he can keep it up.
- Granger can’t find his shot but is a happy man — while Granger’s shot hasn’t been falling (6/18 and 8/19), he has still somehow managed to lead the team in scoring both games. But he doesn’t have to be, and it’s something he has acknowledged. Granger is in a good place right now and keeps raving on about the number of weapons the Pacers have. He knows he doesn’t have to be the man every night and he has excellent teammates he can defer to. Perhaps we will see this reflected in his assist totals.
- George Hill is still finding his feet — I think George Hill has realized how easy it was playing with the likes of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and it’s going to take an adjustment before he finds his place on this Pacers team. So far, Hill has underperformed, scoring just 4 points in his debut and 3 points (going 0/5 from the field) against the Raptors — but you can see from the way he plays that he knows how to play the game and will be an invaluable asset moving forward. I’d like to see Vogel give him more minutes (he’s played 24 and 19 minutes, respectively) to show what he can do.
- Paul George is going to be a star – maybe I’m being overly optimistic here, but I have a feeling that George will eventually become the best player on the team. His game has taken another step this season — apart from growing 2 inches to 6’10”, George has been a lot more aggressive offensively and has clearly worked on his 3-point game (he has shot 6/10 thus far). He’s averaging 15 points per game right now and there’s no reason why he can’t keep this up.
- David West makes a huge difference — I was somewhat skeptical when the Pacers signed West during the offseason but he has made a tremendous difference to this team. He’s a great post player, excellent mid-range shooter and as solid as a rock. Coming back from ACL surgery, he still has plenty of rust and conditioning issues, but I worry much less whenever he is on the floor. He gives the Pacers that much needed offensive punch in the post. His numbers thus far have been just okay (11-12 and 14-6) but I expect him to occupy a bigger role as the season rolls along. He’s that second reliable scoring option the Pacers have longed for. In fact, he will probably become the most reliable scoring option on the team before long.
- Hansbrough is a great 6th man — the experts were right — Hansbrough does make a fantastic sixth man. The energy he brings is unmatched in the league and coming off the bench against second units can hide a lot of his weaknesses. He won’t have great numbers every night (15-13 vs the Pistons and 8-8 vs the Raptors), but if the matchups are right, expect Vogel to go to him and watch him explode.
In short, a good start. Plenty to work on but I like what I see. As Granger has been saying, this team really has so many awesome options.
You’ve got Granger’s shooting (which can only improve); David West’s low-post game and veteran stability; Hibbert’s 7’2″ presence, post-game and shot blocking; Paul George’s length, athleticism, slashing and (now) 3-point shot; Collison’s blistering speed and passing (when he decides to); Hansbrough’s energy and ability to score in spurts; George Hill’s structured skill-set and slashing; and Dahntay Jones’s athleticism and defense.
On top of this core you still have the youthful potential of Lance Stephenson (he appears to have grown up a little); the hustle of Lou Amundson and Jeff Pendergraph (when he recovers from injury); the rebounding, hustle and veteran leadership of Jeff Foster (when he recovers from injury); and the scoring ability of AJ Price (if he ever gets a chance to play — personally I think he makes a fantastic third-string guard).
I love the fact that the Pacers have so many hustle bruisers like Hansbrough, Amundson, Pendergraph and Foster. I love the fact that in today’s game against the Raptors, Granger hit the big 3-pointer to provide some much-needed breathing room down the stretch, and then David West closed it out with a one-on-one baseline jumper.
That’s all for now. Pacers play the Cavs next at home before embarking on a 4-game road trip that ends with the Heat and the Celtics. Could they start the season 5-0?