The Lakers are finally back at Staples Center tonight. After nearly two weeks on the road and a 2-5 record to show for their time away, they at least get to sleep in their own beds and see their families. This may be one of the only rewards, however, considering the team they have waiting for them tonight.
Tonight’s opponent, the Indiana Pacers, just so happen to be one of the best (if not the best) teams in the entire league. They have yet to even lose 10 games on the year and boast the league’s best win-loss record. They win on the strength of their defense, grinding teams down with a balanced scheme that smothers perimeter players on the wing with Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill and then crushes them inside with Roy Hibbert and David West. No other team in the league has a defensive group like the Pacers and that bears out with how much ahead of the pack they are in terms of defensive efficiency compared to the rest of the NBA.
Offensively, Frank Vogel has coined the term “smash-mouth basketball” and wants to punish teams in the paint with Hibbert and West and then use the athletic and all court games of George, Stephenson, and Hill to fill in around them. George, of course, takes on more of a scoring load and is very good all over the floor as a shot creator for himself and teammates. Many consider him an MVP candidate as the top performer from one of the league’s best teams and while I think he’s behind Durant and LeBron, he certainly deserves his due.
But make no mistake, while George is extremely important, the Pacers really do exemplify the term “team”. The rely on their full rotation to perform each night and each player is slotted into a role that is meant to help the larger group excel. On a night to night basis, it is usually the key (read: best) players who carry the load, but without their depth — and this includes summer pick-ups like CJ Watson and Luis Scola — this team simply doesn’t win at the level they have this year. They are, basically, the perfect example of what can happen when talent, coaching, and a hunger to win (especially coming off their conference finals loss last year) come together.
For the Lakers, then, winning tonight will be extremely difficult. The Pacers have not been playing their best ball on their own extended road trip (they’ve had close games against the Kings and Warriors with losses against the Suns and the Nuggets), but that should not be mistaken for playing to a low enough level where the Lakers are even approaching a scenario where they can be reasonably expected to win. No, even if the Lakers play to their ceiling, they would still need the Pacers to play well below their average to have this game be close.
The Lakers, however, can close the gap a bit and that will be dependent on their ability to rebound and defend well. These, of course, have been weaknesses for the Lakers all season but that is what it will take. Key will be slowing Paul George on the outside and limiting the dribble penetration of him, Stephenson, and Hill. If those three can be kept from getting the basket so easily, the Lakers can stay home on the Pacers’ bigs and that will hopefully lead to better work on the glass.
Slowing down West is also a major key since he is the rock the Pacers often lean on when they need to try and create a good look at the basket. West is a beast in the post and has a very good mid-range game that allows him to play a lot of pick and pop with any of the Pacers’ perimeter players. When he operates from the foul line extended, he has a great ability to hit the open shot or use the threat of that shot to take a power dribble or two to get into the paint and get an even better look 8 feet and in. Ryan Kelly will have his hands full with West, so I would really like to see Jordan Hill or even Sacre get some minutes on West to try and keep him under wraps as much as possible.
Offensively, I’m interested in seeing how Pau fares against Hibbert and Mahinmi down low. Hibbert remains one of the best defensive bigs in the league and Pau will have a hard time moving him when operating out of straight post ups. This is actually a game where Pau being able to step away from the basket and use his jumper to set up his work off the dribble might be the better approach. Hibbert has improved greatly when defending in space, but he’s still most comfortable hanging around the restricted area and contesting shots around the basket. If Pau can effectively score from 15 feet and out, it could be a very good way for the Lakers to generate the openings they’ll need against a stingy Pacers’ D.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.