Playoffs Pacers: How Far Can They Go?

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Pacers-Bulls, image courtesy Y! Sports, AP.

Sporting a 49-32 record this season, the Indiana Pacers are kings of the Central Division. Tough playoff contenders? Definitely. The inevitable question arises – how good are they, and how far into the post-season will the team go?

Let us look at some factors for the Pacers’ quiet, but solid, third spot finish in the Eastern Conference, which could very well be the same reasons for a good run in the playoffs.

The emergence of Paul

With star forward Danny Granger troubled by a left knee injury that eventually required surgery, the team moved on with Paul George as their starting small forward.

George repaid coach Vogel’s confidence by making consistent improvements on various aspects of his game. In comparison to last season’s performance, his points (12.1 to 17.4), rebounds (5.6 to 7.6) and assists (2.4 to 4.1) have all improved with increased court time (29.7 to 37.6 minutes).

Let us not forget his consistency on forcing turnovers from steals. George averaged 1.8 steals per game this season, good for 8th in the league (1.6 and 9th spot last season).

To cap it off, Paul George made his first All-Star appearance this season, and is a candidate for Most Improved Player – what a breakout season! Without a doubt, the third-year player has stepped up to the challenge and performed admirably.

Will his season translate into playoffs success though? George averaged 33.7 minutes last playoffs, but only scored 9.7 points per game. We can see the number dipped from his season average (12.1), despite an increased 4 minutes per game.

Great players put up bigger numbers when the stakes grow increasingly high; and what better example of this than the Boston Celtics’ Rajon Rondo? The brilliant point guard is maligned for being a poor shooter, but is known for consistently upping his play to a whole new dimension in the playoffs.

Check out Rondo’s numbers last season:

  • Season average: 11.9 points, 11.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals. Shot accuracy 44.8%.
  • Playoffs average: 17.3 points, 11.9 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 2.4 steals. Shot accuracy 46.8%.

This level of elevated output is exactly what Paul George needs to achieve this playoffs. Forget the season, the post-season is a brand new game altogether. It is time for Paul to push himself and thrive in the intense environment, where every possession is a veritable battle.

Elite defense

The Pacers are a real menace when it comes to defense. Indiana is 2nd in the league on opponent points scored (90.5), because they excel at forcing opponents take bad shots. Opposing teams shoot a mediocre 41.9% from the field, and very poorly from deep (32.6% from 3 point range). Add the fact they grab 74.6% of their defensive boards, and you have a team that gets a lot of stops.

How do they do it though? The Pacers are not be the Miami Heat, who excel at defensive rotations designed to hedge and recover at breakneck speeds. Indiana, however, has length. Length, as in guys with some really long arms.

“Every single player within this starting five has a wingspan that greatly exceeds the average for something their respective heights. Hibbert (7’4”) is the only person who has a relatively normal wingspan considering his size.

After that, you have the 6’8″ Paul George with a 6’11” wingspan, the 6’2″ George Hill with a 6’9″ wingspan, the 6’5″ Lance Stephenson with a 6’10” wingspan and the 6’9″David West with a 7’4″ wingspan.”

– Indiana Pacers Defense: Why So Stingy?, Indy Cornrows

The absurd length of the Indy players helps disrupt passing lanes while minimising their own movement. Add the well-honed defense the Pacers have against pick-and-roll plays, an intimidating 7 ft 2 center in Roy Hibbert (2.6 blocks per game), the fact that three Pacers average more than 7 rebounds per game (Hibbert, George and West) and it becomes no surprise at all.

Once again, we have to ask: will the Pacers be able to utilise this advantage in the coming weeks? We have all heard the phrase “defense wins championships”, and Indy certainly seems to have their D in (missed) buckets. Keep the stifling pressure up with their slow-paced game, and success could very well be theirs for the taking.

The Assassin

The Pacers offense is placed 22nd in the league; are they truly abysmal at scoring? Possibly. Do not however, forget about David West. Among players this season who took at least 12 shots and shot 49% or better, West ranks 9th (James, Durant, Wade being top 3) while averaging 17.1 points, the mark of an efficient offensive game.

Should the Pacers do well this playoffs, West needs to keep his hand hot, and have his crafty mid-range/paint game going. When the Assassin is on the roll, he is virtually unstoppable.

Round One

(This preview was written before the final season game, which is why you are looking at a Chicago first rounder, when it should have been an Atlanta series preview.)

Indiana likely faces Chicago in the first round of the playoffs. Coached by Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls are a tough defensive team that handle pick-and-roll plays by forcing either ball handler or screener to take a tough shot while isolating the remaining three offensive players. Expect nothing else but a grit-and-grind series; one with low scoring, brutal defense and ugly possessions.

Will Indy emerge the victor though? It all depends on how Bulls center Joakim Noah plays. Noah is currently incapacitated with a right foot injury (plantar fasciitis). Will he play through pain while struggling with mobility issues?

Another wildcard point would be point guard Nate Robinson – could the stocky shooter produce enough scoring for the Bulls and win them a game or two?

Onwards!

The playoffs are oft-unpredictable; while Indiana will likely survive the first round, anything can happen after that. One can hope that Indiana’s elite defense, paired with George and West’s (hopefully) improved performances will be enough to bring the Pacers into a deep playoff run this year.

Never forget, a top-level defense and middling offense can produce magic. The 2009/2010 Boston Celtics had the same qualities in their unlikely journey to the Finals back then. NBA is after all, the land “Where Amazing Happens”.

(I much prefer this old slogan to the BIG thing they keep putting up these days.)

Go Pacers!

What do you think about the Pacers and their playoff hopes?

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