Having watched the Indiana Pacers lose their second straight game to the Houston Rockets at Taipei Arena in person on Sunday, I can confidently say that the team still has a long way to go — but there is a lot of cause of optimism. Despite falling to 0-3 on the preseason (against teams in the title contending conversation, mind you), the Pacers are starting to work out the kinks and the chemistry issues at both ends of the floor. Now with this exhausting, tightly scheduled Asia trip out of the way, the team can finally get some rest and refocus for the upcoming season.
The game in Taipei against the Rockets was always going to be the Jeremy Lin show (even though he is American). But anyway, Lin delivered, big time, hitting Houston's first basket, a three-pointer, and finishing with a very pretty stat line of 17 points (6-8 shooting), 4 assists and 3 steals before being held out of most of the final quarter with foul trouble and risk management.
The final score, 107-98, was about right in terms of indicating how close the game was. The Pacers started off quite well and were toe-to-toe with the Rockets before falling behind by double digits in the second quarter. The starters (with Granger in place of Stephenson to start the second half) put together a strong run to close within 2 points, but then the Rockets caught fire from downtown and quickly put the game out of reach.
The biggest problem for the Pacers was still defense. They were the best defensive team in the league last season, so good that they were talking about a historic-level of D, but right now they are struggling to find their spots on the floor and closing out on the open shooters. Sitting courtside I got a great view of all the miscommunication on the defensive end, with poor switches and help-out defense leading to a lot of open threes for the Rockets. They gave up 14 fast break points in the game, certainly an improvement over the Manila exhibition, but still too many for coach Frank Vogel's liking.
Anyway, here are some more observations:
- Paul George is slowly becoming the superstar the Pacers need him to be. Whenever the Pacers needed a basket in this game they went to him (rather then David West), and he delivered often. He finished with a team-high 19 points (7-14 shooting) and 4 rebounds in 28 minutes, but sat out the 4th quarter.
- The point guard situation is looking pretty good with George Hill and CJ Watson. Neither are All-Star level players but are solid, hard-nosed guys who produce when called upon. Hill suffered a mild ankle sprain but finished with 17 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds, while CJ Watson impressed again with 14 points (missing only one shot from the field or the line), even though he did have 6 turnovers. I liked what I saw from both guys.
- Roy Hibbert showed improvements too, finishing with 11 points and 4 blocks as he did a good job of containing Dwight Howard to some degree. Roy still seems a little shaky on offense (he seems to just throw it up a lot) but if he can hold down the fort at the other end I think he could be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year — for real this time.
- David West was really quiet and they didn't go to him too often. I think he just wanted to take it easy, though I did see him frustrated a few times when defensive assignments went awry. And contrary to popular belief he does not scream "And one!" on every shot (just every second shot). No need to worry about the PF position either. I was disappointed I didn't get to see Luis Scola play in person, but apparently Frank Vogel wanted to give the old man some rest. Can't blame him with all that traveling.
- Chris Copeland apparently can't miss in practice, but he missed a lot (again) yesterday (2-8 from downtown, 3-10 overall from the field). I hope he finds his shot soon.
- Lance Stephenson was quiet again, and when he tried to press the action he either succeeded or spiraled out of control, and unfortunately the latter happened more regularly than the former. He had just 4 points on 1-4 shooting, and if this keeps happening he might find himself coming off the bench soon in favor of the next guy I'll be discussing.
- That's right, Danny Granger took another step in the right direction yesterday. After stretching courtside for a few minutes, he came off the bench to score 15 points in 30 minutes. He shot just 5-13, but what was encouraging to see was that he hit 3-5 from three-point range and didn't lose confidence in his shot after a few early misses (including a big swat from behind by Jeremy Lin that brought the crowd to its feet!). He also had 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. Nice work and a solid foundation to keep building on. He said he aimed to be ready midway through the 8 preseason games, and that is fast approaching.
- Orlando Johnson might very well be the best garbage-time player in the NBA this season. He played the last 4 minutes and scored just a single basket, but damn he looked good out there.
The Pacers head home to face the Mavs on Wednesday. I think it's time for them to pick up their first preseason win.