The Pacers are one of those franchises we don't spend a lot of time thinking about. They play their home games somewhere called "The Indiana," which I can't locate on a map but I assume is a kind of preindustrial badlands. The Pacers haven't been in any way interesting since Ron Artest was clocking fools at the Palace, and they haven't been directly relevant to Lakerdom - which, let's face it, is the only part of the basketball world that matters - since the 2000 Finals. The past four years they've been trapped in the NBA's Phantom Zone, where teams go when they're neither good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to draft Derrick Rose.
This season, though, the Pacers are looking weirdly, unexpectedly competent. They arrive at Staples Center tonight with a 7-7 record and a per-game point differential of +3.6, eighth best in the NBA. Back on November 9th they nuked the Denver Nuggets with a 54-point third quarter, and this past Monday they stomped the Heat in Miami. Well played, Indiana Pacers! Not so well played were losses to the 76ers, Bucks and Rockets, but suffice it to say, Indy's resemblance to a down-bracket playoff team is one of the surprises of the early season. What pagan sorcery is responsible for this?
Defense is how the Pacers are getting it done. Their scoring is basically flat relative to last year. After posting an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 105.5 in 2009-10, ranking 26th in the league, they've managed only a 105.7 mark this season. But check out the defense on these cats: last year they were about league average with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 108.6, but this season they've ratcheted down to 101.9, fifth best in the NBA. They've also become more of a half-court team. For three straight seasons they've ranked in the top three in pace, but this year they're only 11th, five spots behind the geriatric Lakers.
They key to the Pacer defense lies in how well they control the paint. Center Roy Hibbert anchors a frontline that challenges shots aggressively and protects the defensive glass. Indy opponents have made less than 45% of their two-point shots, the lowest rate in the league, and the Pacers' defensive rebounding rate is better than all but two teams. Starting power forward Josh McRoberts, who picked up a starting gig after the trade departure of Troy Murphy and a back injury to Jeff Foster (so... many... white bros), has given the Pacers some ruggedness at that position. It helps that they have very good size at the wings. Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and James Posey all check in at 6'8" and Brandon Rush is 6'6", so even though Posey is the only one of the four with a good defensive rep, at least they're not giving up inches to shooting guards and small forwards.
The Pacers do seem to enjoy fouling. Their opponents are averaging nearly 30 free-throw attempts a night, a promising sign for a Laker team that's been cash money from the stripe. When the Lakers have the ball, I'll be keeping my eye on Pau Gasol's matchup against Hibbert. Pau will have to get creative. If he tries just shooting little jump hooks, he'll get swatted, as happened against Darko and Joakim Noah. He should instead set himself up 12 to 15 feet from the hoop. If Hibbert tries following him out, Pau can go to the dribble and use his superior quickness and footwork. If not, he can knock down the jumper. It's all about getting Hibbert out of his comfort zone and into foul trouble.
One imagines that Kobe Bryant will see plenty of James Posey, as none of the other Indiana wings are qualified for Mamba-containment duty. At this stage of his career Posey probably isn't either, but he's the best of the Pacers' bad options. Lamar Odom as well will have a mismatch to exploit. Both McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough can bang, but neither has the foot speed to keep up with Lamar. He's been great lately going to the hole off the pinch-post handoff, a play that should be readily available tonight.
As I foreshadowed earlier, the Pacer offense tends toward the meh. They turn the ball over a lot, they don't get to the line much, and they don't generate many second-chance points. The main weapons are Granger, Hibbert and Darren Collison, with Dunleavy and Rush operating as spot-up options. Granger will have to deal with Artest, who chewed him up pretty well last year. Hopefully Jim O'Brien hasn't seen the tape from the Lakers' debacle in Utah. If he has, he knows the formula for breaking down the Laker D: dribble penetrayshe by the point guard, followed by dump-offs to the bigs when the Laker frontline scrambles to help. Collison isn't in D Will's class - no shame there - but he the jets to get by Derek Fisher and Steve Blake, and he's become much better this season at converting looks near the basket.
This is a good opponent to get the Lake Show back on track. The Pacers are decent enough to get the champs' attention but not really strong enough yet to pose a major threat. I expect Kobe to do a lot of damage on these guys and for the Lakers as a team to enjoy a tasty advantage at the free-throw line. Vegas lists Indy as a nine-point underdog, which sounds about right. The Pacers are shaping up to be a decent road team - you know about their win in Miami, and on Friday night they took the Thunder to overtime in OKC - but taking down the purple and gold in their own sandbox is a whole ‘nother thing. They've never beaten the Lakers at Staples Center before, and I shan't think they'll be starting tonight.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore. Thanks to Basketball Reference for the numbers appearing in this piece.