The Indiana Pacers only scored 81 points last night, but they still managed to beat the Carmelo Anthony-less Knicks by five. The Pacers are ugly to watch, and their highest-paid player is a seven-footer that’s shooting less than 40 percent from the floor, while averaging just 9.6 points per game. They can’t score, and their bench is awful. But their defense has given them an identity. They won nine of their last 11, and in the process pulled themselves back into contention in an increasingly homogenized top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Currently, the Pacers are just two games back of Miami after the defending champs dropped another one against Portland last night, and 1.5 behind the Knicks. Defense isn’t sexy, and neither are the Indiana Pacers games, but they’re getting victories, and that’s all Frank Vogel wants from his team. Yes, Paul George is emerging with Danny Granger out so far this season, but it’s the Pacers’ league-leading defensive efficiency that has them back in contention.
It all starts with how poorly teams are shooting against the Pacers. They’ve held opponents to a league-leading 44.25 percent effective field goal percentage, which in turn has led to them holding opponents to just 89.1 points per game, second in the league. They play defense on the perimeter, and even though Hibbert is unquestionably in a shooting slump this season after signing that new contract, their post defense is strong as well.
When Danny Granger went down before the start of the season, Vogel knew the Pacers had to tighten up on defense. He told The Indianapolis Star‘s Bob Kravitz:
“…part of Danny being out, we knew we had to tighten up defensively even more because we might struggle offensively. So maybe that enhanced our commitment.
I thought we finished last season as one of the league’s best defensive teams. And once we figured out the puzzle of guarding the spread offense while still staying big and keeping our edge on the glass, that enabled us to stay who we are regardless of the team we were playing.
I think we built this coming out of training camp. Week after week, we kept looking at the rankings and we were becoming a suffocating defensive team. Three weeks in, we started talking about being the first Pacers team ever to lead the league in field goal defense.”
They’re at that point already, holding opponents to 41.2 percent shooting, but it’s best if they don’t rest on their laurels, even if they just held the defending NBA champion Heat to 77 points on Tuesday night, and the high-scoring Knicks to 76 points last night. They’re a dreadful offensive team, ranking second-to-last in points per possessions, per NBA.com, and like Hibbert, many on the team are struggling to score at an efficient clip.
David West is struggling with his shot recently, falling below 50 percent in each of the last five games, including last night’s 3-for-11 outing. Despite the recent setbacks, West is still second on the team in field goal percentage at 47 percent on the season (surprise: Lance Stephenson leads the team at 48 percent). But out of Indiana’s starting unit of George Hill, Lance Stephenson (having taken Gerald Green‘s spot with his improved shooting and less frequent turnovers), Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert, only Stephenson and West are shooting better than 45 precent this season, and even Ian Mahinmi — who dropped a surprising 13 points on 6-for-7 from the field in their win last night — is at 44.3 percent from the floor, despite taking the majority of his shots at the rim.