Though the Indiana Pacers have had a rocky start to their 2016-17 season, they showed Saturday what kind of team they can be when everything comes together.
A thorough 111-94 dismantling of division rival Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse saw the Pacers (3-3) shoot a blistering 53.5 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range while also holding the Bulls' corresponding clips to 43 percent and 33.3 percent and jumping out to leads of 20-plus points in the first quarter.
It appeared every bit the team President Larry Bird envisioned when he embarked on his major offseason makeover. The Pacers recorded 27 assists to aid their excellent shooting, including eight and six assists from starting guards Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague, respectively.
Speaking of Teague, who had come under plenty of early scrutiny for his play in the first stretch of games, particularly for his poor shooting and defense, his performance against the Bulls unquestionably was his best so far this season. Teague scored 21 points on 14 shots (a 64.3-percent clip) and hit three of five attempts from beyond the 3-point arc, from where he had particularly struggled entering Saturday. He also managed to keep up with the Bulls' guards on the other end; Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, who to that point had bolstered a surprisingly prolific Chicago offense, scored just nine and four points, respectively. There was a lot of premature panic about Teague's play, especially when people pointed to the spectacular production the Utah Jazz have been receiving from George Hill, whom the Pacers traded to acquire Teague. Saturday's effort reminded us of Teague's ceiling and what he's capable of bringing to the table. It's on him to hit that level more consistently, but I'm sure Pacers fans will breathe a bit more easily after seeing him succeed Saturday.
Myles Turner continued to display his rapid maturation and potential as a new-age rim protector, adding four blocks to strengthen his young season average of 2.7 rejections per game. C.J. Miles hit four of seven 3-pointers to help seal the deal for the Pacers in the fourth quarter after Paul George had been ejected for inadvertently kicking the ball into the stands and in a fan's face. The backup point guard also had a strong night for the second unit, adding 10 points on 57.1 percent shooting.
The Bulls were on the back end of a back-to-back stretch, so they might have been tired entering Saturday, but it still was encouraging to see the Pacers move the ball and score so fluidly and show some grit on the defensive end for such a complete win. Looking ahead to the third full week of regular-season play, the question remains what kind of performance we're going to see from these Pacers on a consistent basis. Thus far, consistency has leaned in slight favor of poorer outings. What might this week's slate of opponents and their situations do to perpetuate or change that?
Monday, 7 November 2016 at 07:00 PM ET Away
The Hornets are off to a fast start. Charlotte has averaged 102 points in its first five games while holding its opponents to an average of 95.8 points. Thus, a 4-1 record. As Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer explains, the Hornets are fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, limiting their first five opponents to less than a point per possession. Bonnell also points to the effective play of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whom Charlotte selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and who is averaging a leaguewide position-best 9.2 rebounds per game. Additionally, Bonnell credits the Hornets' team length for their ability to defend as well as their clean play, committing the fewest turnovers and fourth-fewest fouls of any NBA team. Based on Bonnell's observations, the Hornets are what the Pacers should strive for defensively if they are to utilize a fast, athletic roster.
The Hornets gave the Pacers fits last season with largely the same roster, sweeping the three meetings between the two teams and averaging 107 points in the contests. Supplied with capable shooters, particularly lengthy and (in Marvin Williams' case) big shooters, 3-pointers came relatively easy for the Hornets against a Pacers team in transition with a backcourt that had trouble guarding athletic points and wings. Point guard Kemba Walker gave George Hill plenty of fits in 2015-16, and conventional wisdom says he'll be a handful for Teague as well with his 24.4 points per game. Nic Batum is in many ways a prototypical "3-and-D" player -- the kind of player the Pacers could use badly in their starting lineup, but that's a different story -- and he could be a problem on one or both ends of the floor for Monta Ellis. It'll be interesting to see how Turner and Thaddeus Young handle the Hornets' bigs, Williams and the recently extended Cody Zeller. Williams is the matchup nightmare for Indiana, at least based on recent history. He shot above 50 percent from 3-point range on four or more attempts against the Pacers twice last season. Perhaps a truer stretch-four like Young could halt Williams' prowess from downtown, and it should be noted he hasn't been a lethal 3-point shooter thus far this season, shooting just 33.3 percent from long range.
The difference in this one, as he is more often than not, likely will be Paul George. Bonnell mentioned in his post that while this Hornets team plays smart, tough, together basketball and doesn't make mistakes, it doesn't have great talent or that one superstar-level player that gives a team the chance to contend for conference championships and NBA championships. The Pacers have that one guy. George has opened 2016-17 as proficiently as ever, scoring 22.2 points per game at just under 48 percent shooting (52.8 percent from 3-point range) and posting a player efficiency rating of 21.14. His fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers further proved he simply is a level above most players in the NBA and a level below only a handful of guys.
Given the way the Pacers' highly capable offense has sputtered at times early this season and the Hornets' defensive successes (and history of success against Indiana), the big picture could suggest some problems in this matchup. If George is on, the Pacers will have their chance to win. If he isn't, it could be a rough night in Charlotte.
Wednesday, 9 November 2016 at 07:00 PM ET Home
Ah, the Philadelphia 76ers and "The Process." For four years now, the Sixers have been attempting a rebuild some have blasted as deliberate tanking, instituted mostly by the team's former GM, Sam Hinkie. "The Process," as the rebuild came to be known on social media, saw rosters of borderline NBA talent finish at or near the bottom of the league repeatedly only to narrowly miss out on the top pick in the NBA Draft Lottery -- until 2016, right as Hinkie resigned. Philly proceeded to select Ben Simmons No. 1 overall, and in true Sixers fortune, Simmons fractured his foot before the season and is out indefinitely. The Sixers again find themselves winless to open the season, but unlike in years past, they have a very real reason for optimism: the play of center Joel Embiid.
Perhaps the face of Philly's hard luck before Simmons, Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, missed all of what would have been his first two seasons with back and lower-body injuries, leading some to question whether he'd ever play in the NBA. Nobody doubted his immense talent, however, and now that he has been able to regain his health, the 7-footer has made his presence felt on the floor, averaging 18.5 points and three blocks per game at a player efficiency rating of 25.39. Given the highly impressive play of the Pacers' young big man Myles Turner, it's going to be especially intriguing to see these two go at it Wednesday. Embiid is more of a traditional under-the-basket center, but the Sixers have two other young centers, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor, who are capable of strong nights, as well as the recently acquired Ersan Ilyasova, who provides another lengthy option in the frontcourt and a potential stretch-four (he hit four of six 3-pointers in a one-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last Saturday). If the Sixers are to do serious damage to the Pacers, they likely will do so at their big positions.
Philly's most interesting wing player could be Dario Saric, whom the team also selected in the first round of the 2014 draft but who hadn't come over from Europe until now. Saric has been compared to Simmons in physical attributes and playing style in that he is capable of a "point forward" role. Saric probably is still getting adjusted to the NBA game, but he is averaging nine points per game and is a player to watch. There's not much else on this team -- Gerald Henderson has enjoyed a respectable NBA career, but this Sixers team is a long way from contention and likely will need to "Trust the Process" for a few more years. The Pacers should win this one, but of course, you never know when the unpredictable no-show game is coming, and Indiana has struggled with its offensive consistency even against a poor Brooklyn Nets team. It is possible the Sixers could pull off an upset, but unlikely, especially if the Pacers are going to start playing like they played Saturday more consistently.
Friday, 11 November 2016 at 07:00 PM ET Away
What do you know, back-to-back games with Philly. This is convenient for me as I just wrote about the Sixers and the potential matchups, so pretty much copy and paste everything directly above. The only difference is that this one will be in Philly, but given the Sixers' attendance problems of late, I doubt that difference will be significant.
Saturday, 12 November 2016 at 07:00 PM ET Home
The Boston Celtics were on top of the NBA world in the 1980s thanks to an Indiana native in Larry Bird, and now it appears another Hoosier has them on the up-and-up and headed toward sustained success in the East. Brad Stevens, who famously took Butler to two straight NCAA championship games before becoming the Celtics' head coach in 2013, already is respected league wide for his coaching chops, and he is sure to get another roar of applause when he returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday. Celtics exec Danny Ainge gradually has supplied Stevens with more and more talent, and arguably the most storied franchise in NBA history once again is formidable night-in and night-out.
Or so everyone thought entering 2016-17.
While the Celtics sit with the same record as the Pacers at 3-3, they haven't played as well defensively as prognosticators anticipated they would, Gary Washburn writes in the Boston Globe. I will add it certainly isn't the kind of defense I would expect from a Stevens-coached team. Boston has allowed an average of 118.7 points in its three losses, and even in its three wins, it has given up an average of 105 points. The Celtics surrendered 77 -- seventy-seven -- first-half points to the lowly Denver Nuggets in their loss yesterday. This is as close to a trend as one can identify with such a small sample size of games, and if the Pacers' offense is clicking Saturday, it could be in for another eye-popping stat night.
Remember, though, that the Celtics still have talent and very well could match the Pacers offensively. Isaiah Thomas might not be Isiah Thomas (I'll show myself out), but he still is a fantastic point guard in his own right. He is averaging 26.2 points per game at a 49.4-percent clip and is logging 6.7 assists per game. Spelling him is Avery Bradley, who himself is averaging nearly 20 points per game at nearly 50 percent shooting (40 percent from 3-point land). Even though the backcourt seems to be struggling to defend, it's capable of exploiting problems Teague and Ellis have on that end of the floor.
Up front, the Celtics' big offseason acquisition was Al Horford, who has been efficient offensively, but more quietly, averaging just 12 points per game but recording 4.7 assists per contest. It's a somewhat less difficult role than what he had in Atlanta, but he still is effective on that end. However, he and Tyler Zeller do present a bit of a problem defending the rim, and I like Turner and Young to get theirs, especially if they can draw those two out on occasion. Elsewhere, Boston fans are excited about their 2016 first-round pick, Jaylen Brown. His numbers are a bit quiet, but he has made his presence felt on the floor on multiple occasions early this season and his length gives him serious potential to develop into a quality NBA player. I think this kid has a future in the league with Stevens to coach him.
Ultimately, this will come down to whether the Celtics defense we've seen thus far this season is what we'll see regularly going forward and if it is, I like the Pacers to score a lot of points at an efficient rate. Indiana, however, has displayed many of the same defensive deficiencies as Boston, and this could end up being a shootout. I look for an entertaining affair.