Glamorous matchups like the Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder drive television ratings and draw attention from fans who wouldn't otherwise tune in, but that pairing can't top this dream. Yes, even though Kevin Durant and LeBron James would be watching from home.
Portland vs. Indiana is the dream.
Don't believe me now? You will in a few minutes, assuming you're a fellow hoop nerd.
The Hibbert vs. Aldridge Battle
Would LaMarcus Aldridge and Roy Hibbert end up battling against one another? Maybe for part of the game, though David West would take on the difficult matchup quite often as Hibbert stayed close to the rim and worried about Robin Lopez's limited contributions.
Still, we're talking about the potential for a historically excellent clash between two All-Stars from opposing conferences.
Aldridge's turnaround mid-range jumper is his signature move, and it's starting to move into the realm occupied by Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged flamingo fadeaway. Even though opponents know it's coming, they have an inordinately difficult time stopping it because Aldridge gets to his release so quickly and shoots the ball from a high point while falling back.
That's one of the few times I've ever seen Aldridge get his turnaround jumper blocked, and it's Anthony Davis doing the rejecting. You know, the guy with insane athleticism, ridiculous timing and lanky arms who's currently leading the league in blocks per game.
Then again, Roy Hibbert makes a living out of making plays like that one.
The man is a defensive genius, and no one in the NBA is better at protecting the rim. NBA.com's SportVU data shows that among players facing at least six shots per game at the rim, only Brook Lopez and Larry Sanders allow a lower field-goal percentage in that same area. And they're working with much smaller sample sizes while facing fewer attempts per game than Hibbert.
But it's about more than the clash between offense and defense to which these two players would treat us. They already have a bit of a history, stemming from Hibbert taking a shot to the groin in the last contest between the two:
Isn't that sweet, bro? Aren't you glad they were able to reconcile their differences, bro?
On a more serious note, these two decided they were going to meet in the NBA Finals back on Dec. 3. This was long before we learned with some semblance of surety that the Blazers would remain near the top of the Western Conference standings.
Let's make this happen for the two big men.
Clash of Styles
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
That classic question would be put to the test if these two teams matched up against one another in the NBA Finals. It would be quite similar to what happened in the NFL, when the No. 1 defense of the Seattle Seahawks squared off with Peyton Manning's No. 1 offense.
We all know what happened there, but would there be a similar outcome in the NBA world? Would defense still win the championship?
Right now, the Pacers have the league's top defense by a rather large margin. Basketball-Reference shows that Indiana's 96.3 defensive rating is the only mark below 100 across the entire Association. The Chicago Bulls are second, and they're allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions.
To put that in perspective, the gap of 4.4 points is nearly as large as the separation between the Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks rank 11th in defensive rating.
Indiana's offense has gotten better this season, though. The Pacers rank No. 19 in offensive rating, which still isn't anything to write home about, even if it is an improvement from the past.
Meanwhile, the Blazers are in the opposite situation.
Allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions, Portland isn't exactly a potent point-preventing powerhouse. Instead, they prefer a prevailing proclivity for porosity and penchant for perimeter penetration.
Early in the season, Terry Stotts' innovative system—one that revolved around shutting down the perimeter and leaving Aldridge and Lopez to play one-on-one defense in the paint—was working. But it's losing its luster as the season progresses.
Fortunately, Portland is really good at scoring points. Better than anyone else in the NBA, in fact.
They're posting 112.5 points per 100 possessions at this point in the season, and that's 1.2 points better than the Miami Heat, who check in at No. 2.
Like I said, it's a clash between the unstoppable force and the immovable object. Strength against strength.
Who doesn't love that type of battle?
Exciting Non-Star Players
You know about Paul George, the two-way machine who calls Indiana home. You've seen his lockdown perimeter defense, shooting abilities and penchant for ridiculous dunks.
Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson aren't new entities in the basketball world either. David West falls into the same category.
On Portland, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews aren't going to catch anyone by surprise.
But that's not where the fun ends. Those stars certainly help boost the profile of the series, but you're going to find star players in just about every realistic NBA Finals matchup. In this one, though, each team has a number of non-star players who are certainly worth watching, especially if you're a hoop nerd.
The Pacers may not have the greatest bench. Neither does Rip City. In fact, HoopsStats.com shows that both teams rank in the bottom four when playing without their starters, with Portland sitting at dead last.
Since both of our NBA Finals representatives are featured near the bottom, that means we'd get to see the starters play a lot. But that's beside the point. More relevant is the entertainment factor presented by a couple of guys.
For the Pacers, it's Luis Scola.
The backup big man is averaging 7.9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game, and he's doing so while shooting 46.8 percent from the field. Those aren't exactly stellar numbers, and Basketball-Reference shows his PER is only 13.1, well below the league-average mark of 15.0.
However, that doesn't take away from his watchability. The long-haired Argentine is one of the craftier players in the league, and he manages to overcome his lack of athleticism with creativity and fundamental excellence. Some of the shots he makes defy logic, and it's always entertaining to see him go to work with the ball in his hands.
On Rip City, the leading candidates are Robin Lopez and the bench as a whole.
For the latter, it's not about one player on this unit that largely fails to earn much playing time. Instead, the entire group is filled with the ability to explode on a one-game basis, thanks to the presences of young guys like C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson, Will Barton and Meyers Leonard.
But Lopez is the headliner for the unknown-but-fun-to-watch guys.
He has quietly become one of the more effective centers in the Association, and he's done so while playing absolutely fantastic defense. If it weren't for the long-haired big man, Portland would in no way be in the NBA Finals conversation.
Remember, we're talking about hoop nerds here. And they can look beyond the lack of glamour and appreciate the fundamental excellence Lopez puts on display when he's guarding pick-and-roll sets. Even though he's tasked with going mano-a-mano quite often, the former New Orleans big man has allowed roll men to score just 0.98 points per possession against him.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), that's the No. 55 mark in the NBA. It's a major step backward from last year's uber-elite mark, but you have to remember to take the situation into account.
Guys like Lopez and Scola might not get much press, but they're certainly entertaining to watch in the situations they specialize in.
Teams Built the "Right Way," Whatever That Means
Are you tired of teams that needed massive free-agent splashes in order to compete? Does the Miami Heat's Big Three make your stomach churn because of the way LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach?
Well, then a title game between the Blazers and Pacers would certainly be for you.
Just think about how many players on the two rosters rose to prominence while in either Indiana or Portland.
West may have signed on in free agency a few years back, and George Hill came from the San Antonio Spurs, but the Pacers have developed the rest of their big names. George was a draft pick out of Fresno State, and the front office gambled on the development of both Hibbert and Stephenson.
Neither of those players was highly coveted during his younger days, but the organization has nurtured them into All-Star candidates. The candidacy worked for Hibbert, and you can make a serious case for Stephenson's status as a snub.
But Rip City has followed a similar blueprint.
Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Matthews are all homegrown products, and much as is the case in Indiana, the bench is the source of the free-agent impact. A developed-from-within core was surrounded by bargains and players who fit with the mentality of the team.
The Blazers have depended on their coaching staff to help that quartet thrive, and thrive they have.
There are no Big Threes in these two cities. There would be no one saying a title by either team was bought.
These were two rosters constructed both naturally and masterfully, and now the teams are reaping the benefits of success at the front-office level.
What hoop nerd doesn't love that?
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