It's a clash of titans as the Indiana Pacers set out to uphold the Eastern Conference's honor against one of the best squads the West has to offer. While Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the rest of the blue-and-yellow-clad standouts sit atop their conference with a three-game lead over the Miami Heat, the Portland Trail Blazers are still battling for positioning.
Rip City, an upstart contender, has started to fall back to earth, though. Its Icarian plunge down to No. 3 in the Western Conference has involved a 5-5 record over its last 10 outings, including dropped games to the Washington Wizards, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors.
That said, there's not much to be worried about.
Portland still boasts two All-Stars and a host of qualified starters. The offense continues to post points in bunches, although it'll be attempting to snap a two-game skid of double-digit outings.
Speaking of having nothing to worry about, how 'bout those Pacers?
There are signs of complacency, namely in the form of careless dribbling and passing, as well as a tendency to get knocked off by speedy teams. But they haven't reared their ugly head too often, as Indiana used a hard-fought victory over the Atlanta Hawks to extend its winning streak to three games.
Portland got the better of the Pacers last time these two teams clashed, winning 106-102 despite a 43-spot from Paul George. After a Twitter conversation between LaMarcus Aldridge and Hibbert punctuated the tough nature of the outing, this next contest is sure to be intense.
Even though both squads remain positioned well above .500, each victory counts. Indiana must stave off the Heat in the quest for home-court advantage, and Rip City isn't done trying to move back up the standings.
|Tale of the Tape|
|Indiana Pacers||Portland Trail Blazers|
|Field-Goal Percentage Allowed||41.3||45.7|
Time: Friday, Feb. 7, 7 p.m. ET
Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Lance Stephenson, questionable (back)
Portland Trail Blazers
How Indiana Wins
It's all about controlling the pace, because Indiana can't afford to get caught in a shootout with the league's best offense. Controlling the rock and milking each possession for all its worth is the best strategy Frank Vogel's squad can possibly use, especially because it's had so much trouble against speed in recent weeks.
The Phoenix Suns were able to hand losses to the Pacers twice because Goran Dragic, Gerald Green and the rest of the desert-based team turned on the nitrous from start to finish. They played like they were holding down the turbo button during a video game that had fatigue levels set as low as possible.
During the season, the Pacers have played an estimated 93.3 possessions per 48 minutes. That's good for the 12th-slowest pace in the NBA, which stands in stark contrast to how Portland plays ball. With 95.1 possessions per 48 minutes, Rip City ranks No. 11 in pace.
That 1.8-possession difference might not seem like much, but the mentalities will be taken to an extreme by each team. Portland will inevitably emphasize its penchant for uptempo basketball whenever such an opportunity arises, and it will happen often if the Pacers continue handling the ball without much care.
|Coughing it Up|
|Opponent||Result||TOs||PTs off TOs|
|Season Average||N/A||8.2-point win||14.6||15.2|
|Jan. 25||Denver Nuggets||13-point loss||17||18|
|Jan. 28||Los Angeles Lakers||12-point win||4||5|
|Jan. 30||Phoenix Suns||8-point loss||15||17|
|Feb. 1||Brooklyn Nets||1-point win||24||36|
|Feb. 3||Orlando Magic||19-point win||9||9|
|Feb. 4||Atlanta Hawks||4-point win||19||24|
The games that are resulting in losses or closer-than-they-should-be outcomes are largely the results of carelessness. Stephenson is trying to get too fancy, George is getting too nonchalant with his passes, and the rest of the team is largely indifferent to maintaining possession.
"We struggled, and we lost games when we turned the ball over," West told Candace Buckner of IndyStar.com after he helped hold off the Hawks, "And we got to do a better job of just protecting that basketball and doing whatever we can to get a shot on goal."
Fortunately for the Pacers, Portland is absolutely terrible at forcing opponents to cough over the rock.
Not only have the Blazers' opponents recorded the fewest turnovers in the league against them, but the opponent turnover percentage of 10.9 ranks dead last throughout the entire Association. It's a clear weakness, the result of a defense that has been taught not to gamble incessantly.
The Pacers can't afford to do Portland's job. Unforced errors will prove to be a death knell, especially when points are going to come at a premium.
Problem is, they've gotten to the point that even the management is talking about turnovers.
"Turnovers," team president Larry Bird told Buckner after he was asked about how Indiana can still improve. "Turnovers will be their downfall. If they go down this year, it will be because they turn the ball over too much."
Perhaps I'm reading into that quote too much—especially because it's just one in a series of negatively spun statements made by the former Boston Celtics legend—but he said it "will" be the downfall. Not it "could" be the downfall.
And that's what needs to change immediately, especially if the Pacers hope to take down Portland.
George, Stephenson—if he's healthy enough to play after the hard spill you can see above—and George Hill should have no trouble driving the lane against Portland's perimeter defense, and they'll need to do so often in order to keep pace with Rip City's point-scoring machine. But most importantly, they have to do so without letting the ball fall into the wrong hands.
How Portland Wins
The Blazers have to establish themselves on the interior as early as possible, and that's easier said than done against a front line that prominently features guys named West and Hibbert.
Portland's offense has become such an unstoppable machine because it's filled with deadly three-point shooters and guys who can grab offensive rebounds to create second-chance opportunities. Not only does Rip City have more made triples than any team in the Association, but it trails only the Detroit Pistons in offensive rebounding percentage.
Fortunately, Hibbert isn't much of a rebounding threat. He's just ridiculously good at stopping drives to the basket, which makes connecting from downtown even more important to the winning effort.
Robin Lopez is averaging an insane 3.9 offensive boards per game, and Aldridge isn't too far behind, checking in with 2.4 each contest. Throughout the NBA, there are 40 qualified players averaging at least a couple offensive rebounds, and Portland boasts two of them.
Even more impressively, the Blazers lay claim to No. 4 (Lopez) and No. 25 (Aldridge), which gives them a clear leg up on their competition. Not to mention, many of the other starters are competent players on the boards as well.
As The Columbian's Erik Gundersen wrote much earlier in the season, "While the Blazers have been lauded for their shooting, Lopez's offensive rebounding has played a big role in the team having the best offense in the NBA."
It's no less true now than it was earlier, especially with a team like Indiana looming.
Indiana's No. 1 defense is no secret at this point. The Pacers' defensive rating leaves the rest of the NBA in the dust, and the entire goal of the organization is to win by allowing as few points as possible. Offense is just gravy for Vogel's squad.
And, of course, that makes each possession all the more valuable.
Portland has spent the 2013-14 campaign scoring almost at will, but it'll be in for a new kind of challenge on Friday night. Not only will shots be contested more heavily, but turnovers will be forced, and plays will be interrupted.
The more possessions this team can generate, the more success it will have on the part of the court that must lead to victory.
Offensive rebounding isn't all that matters, though.
The Blazers should be considered the underdog in this matchup, both because they're the less-experienced elite team and because they just don't have quite as much star power as their opponents. Both teams boast two All-Stars—Aldridge and Damian Lillard for Portland, George and Hibbert for Indiana—but George is the biggest star of the bunch.
No disrespect meant toward Aldridge.
But Nicolas Batum can at least partially contain George, and the Hibbert-Aldridge battle could be called a wash. That's why a lot of the responsibility will rest on the shoulders of Lillard, who must win the individual battle with Hill by a large margin.
He took on a large scoring burden in the first meeting, dropping 26 points thanks to a promising knack for getting to the charity stripe. A similar attack-first mentality must be employed during the follow-up contest.
"I like the big games. It's always fun playing against tough competition, and we felt like we had an opportunity to win in Portland," George told NBA.com as he geared up for the showdown. "We know we've got our work cut out for tomorrow night. This is a team that is going to be a great challenge for us, but we feel like we can take them down as well."
Yes, it will be a challenge.
But ultimately, it's a challenge that can be overcome and used as a stepping stone toward maintaining—or even growing—the lead in the Eastern Conference's race for the No. 1 seed.
Although the Pacers dropped a few games recently, they're the hotter team coming into Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the hometown faithful should be worked up into a frenzy. The fanbase knows this is the shot at redemption from the early-season loss, after all.
Indiana is one of the few teams equipped to handle Portland's offense, simply because it has a shot-blocking big man, a suffocating scheme that is understood by all players and a bunch of lanky defenders who can close out on Portland's long-range shooters.
Well, maybe that isn't simple.
Expect a hard-fought game filled with runs. Every NBA game seems filled with spurts by one team after the other, but this will be taken to even more of an extreme when the unstoppable force (Portland) meets the immovable object (Indiana).
And in this case, it'll be the object that squeezes out a narrow victory during the game's waning moments.
Pacers 103, Blazers 99