During the first game of their four-game West Coast road trip, the Indiana Pacers caught a surprising curve: playing the Los Angeles Lakers on the day Kobe Bryant announced his official plans to retire at the end of the season. The Lakers gave them a semi-inspired effort –– albeit mostly from Nick Young –– but the Pacers ultimately got off cleanly when Kobe whiffed on a long fadeaway three with the game on the line.
Following the weird Bryant retirement game, Indiana faced the more traditional challenge of a West Coast back-to-back, posting up in LA for a couple days before playing the Clippers then heading up to Portland to take on the Blazers the following night. That also proved to simply be a more challenging challenge, and the Pacers showed off some of their best and worst tendencies during the pair of games: a 103-91 win over LAC and a 123-111 loss out in Portland.
The Pacers caught some injury luck against the Clippers, as Chris Paul missed the game and J.J. Redick had to leave on the very first play after an ankle injury. Without the pair, LA’s spacing shrunk noticeably, as Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford didn’t exactly inspire the same kind of outside regard from the Indiana defense.
The result was ugly for the Clippers, but great for the Pacers, who took advantage of Los Angeles’ limited arsenal. Indiana coach Frank Vogel has been working to sculpt a fast, swarming defense out of the team’s new personnel in order to take advantage of their small-ball inclination. A wilted LA squad offered an attractive opportunity to turn up the intensity on defense, and Indiana was able to effectively harass the Clippers’ big-time frontcourt of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Griffin was held without a rebound until the fourth quarter, and while that was partly because he spent more time away from the paint to catalyze the offense, the Pacers were able to effectively neutralize all parts of his game with him as LA’s only real individual threat. Indiana packed the paint and forced the Clippers to rely on jump shots without its best catalyst. Jordan felt a more direct impact in Paul’s absence, as his opportunities on offense virtually disappeared, and he finished without a field goal.
The performance was an impressive one of Indiana, even considering LA’s depleted team. A win on the road is a win on the road, and this year’s new squad hasn’t looked faster on their rotations and closeouts. While Vogel tried to match Griffin’s size with Lavoy Allen as much as possible, the Pacers still got a quality performance out of their spread lineups with C.J. Miles at the 4, and those lineups even helped them pull away from the Clips during the second half. Indiana’s lack of size always puts the team at risk on the boards, so even though LA is one of the league’s worst rebounding teams, it’s good to see the Pacers keep a lesser rebounding squad like the Clippers off the glass the way they should.
As always, it helps that Paul George had another huge game in front of his hometown LA crowd, with 31 points, five threes, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a nasty block on Blake Griffin. After playing 41 minutes against the Clippers, however, he looked tired against the Blazers on Thursday night and had his worst game of the season so far, finishing 4-17 and 0-9 from three –– a crater compared to his other sky-high performances recently. The Pacers were able to weather a bad performance from George for a half, leading 59-56 at half with PG shooting 3-8.
Unfortunately, where George got better after halftime against LAC, his game wore down during the second half in Portland, shooting 1-9 while settling for jump shots after appearing to get frustrated with his lack of calls going to the rim.
That’s not new for the small forward, but his inability to play through it was, and after the game, George admitted to Indy Star’s Candace Buckner that the back-to-back may have gotten to him and his teammates.
Indeed, the whole team looked that way following the break, and the Pacers succumbed to some of their worst tendencies late in the first and into the second half. After the break, Portland missed only 19 of its 43 shots, and it grabbed offensive rebounds on seven of those misses, a near-37 percent clip that resulted in 13 second-chance points for the Blazers after halftime.
After a night of crisp, disruptive rotations and effective communication against LA, the Pacers looked a step slow on defense against Portland’s scrappy attack. Between their tired legs and lack of effort, they lost critical rebounding opportunities down the stretch and ceded some open shots to good shooters –– C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard, Allen Crabbe –– following half-hearted closeouts.
Games like this happen, though, and although they’re not necessarily encouraging, they can be a learning experience for teams with budding aspirations. Buckner also wrote how Monta Ellis urged the team prior to Portland about the need to find an alternative to the jump shot on nights of back-to-backs –– and yet the team still failed to do so. Ideally, the Pacers will learn from such an experience.
These two games underscore both the work that Indiana both has already accomplished and has yet to do. In a remarkably short period of time, the Pacers have remade their defense to imitate the type of squad they want to become, effectively maddening the lessened Clippers, but they also still have some work to do. Portland is a better rebounding team than Indiana or LA, and beat the Pacers up in that aspect during the second half. Their youth and athleticism also helped to remind Indiana of the value of a total team effort, especially on defenses that rely on aggressive, force-the-issue schemes.
But again, these games happen, and unless they start happening regularly, Vogel and his squad have no reason for alarm. He’s still juggling a half-madeover squad that plays two different styles between its starters and its bench, and the starters have only been playing this way for a couple months. The offense hummed in both games, which is great, and it’s understandable that Indiana’s defense is taking some lumps as the team goes.
The NBA season is lengthy; games like these can offer teams a direction to focus their efforts to improve. The Pacers still look like a team with the potential to get better and the talent to do so.