Dennis Velasco corresponds with his old colleague, Tom Lewis of Indy Cornrows, about the first game of a sure-to-be gritty match-up between the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets.
Dennis Velasco: Hey, Tom! Well, it's good to be working with you again after our brief collabo years ago for The New York Times' About Basketball site. Around that time, the Indiana Pacers were consistently getting about 30+ wins for a string of seasons, Rick Carlisle was the coach, then he wasn't, Jim O'Brien came along and it was an overall blah kind of period for the Pacers. Fast forward to the present day - what a turnaround from then to now where the Pacers are considered one of a few teams that could topple the NBA defending champion, Miami Heat, this season, and very well almost did it this recent postseason!
I think the answer was always there regarding how to beat the Heat - take advantage of their lack of size/interior - but to see it actually put into practice by the Pacers during the 2013 NBA Playoffs probably made that strategy a little more tangible. Perhaps, it's part of the impetus for the Nets getting Kevin Garnett, drafting Mason Plumlee, being thankful they have Andray Blatche as a back-up, Andrei Kirilenko's length and the "ceiling is still high, we just need him to play KG-angry" Brook Lopez. So, in some ways, thank you, Pacers.
The Pacers are coming into Brooklyn to face the Nets on Saturday night in a battle between two of the upper-tier teams in the Eastern Conference. As of this writing (Friday afternoon), the Pacers, who play the Toronto Raptors on Friday night, are the only undefeated NBA team this season at 5-0. Their defense is ranked number one in points allowed (84.4) and they are fourth in rebounding (45.8) - numbers that are consistent with their philosophy and personnel. A big dap is due to Frank Vogel, one of my favorite coaches right now. Can you elaborate on his influence on the team? It's obvious that he was a big reason for the Pacers turning it around after O'Brien was sent packing. Also, can you tell us three to five things that Nets fans should know about this season's Pacers team?
Tom Lewis: Hey Dennis! Great to chat with you again as the Pacers prepare to play New York City's best team in the Nets.
Frank Vogel's impact on the Pacers was almost immediate as he took over a brow-beaten team and took a positive approach that seemed completely over the top. Except somehow, all of his proclamations seem to come to fruition. Now his players are fully engaged and buy into what the coaching staff is selling. Oh, and those players bring a whole lot more talent to the court now than the team he took over from JOB.
Of course, it just isn't talk doing the work for Vogel. He made his way to the top chair by grinding away, cutting video tape and then preparing game plans as an assistant. He loves the details and working through the numbers to find advantages for his team to utilize their strengths while exposing weaknesses of opponents.
As for the team, here are a few things we've learned through five games:
is hungry! The young fella raised his voice in the Pacers final post-game huddle after losing to the Heat last year, imploring his teammates to commit to improving and taking the next step. He took his own advice. After signing a monster extension, PG has been nothing short of a beast at both ends of the floor.
Taking that next step is the overriding theme motivating the Pacers. As David West
mentioned before the season, they want to make sure any Game 7s they have to play in the postseason will be on their home floor. So far they've been able to approach each game as if it is critical to accomplishing that mission. We'll see if they can maintain that focus throughout the marathon regular season.
Lance Stephenson can shoot. "Born Ready" can go into beast mode with the ball in his hands. There is nothing more entertaining than seeing Lance grab a defensive rebound and start pushing the ball the other way. But knocking down spot-up threes has made Stephenson extremely valuable. He has knocked down at least two threes in each of the first five games and is shooting almost 54 percent from three land.
Injuries are still an issue. Pacers point guard George Hill
has missed the last three games with a sore hip. C.J. Watson
has played quite well in relief, especially against Derrick Rose on Wednesday
. But the ripple effect to the rotation has caused some dead spots throughout the game.
Also, Danny Granger continues to sit out with a calf strain while trying to return to the court. There was some thought from Larry Bird and the coaching staff that Granger would start, but the stellar play of Stephenson should change that line of thinking.
DV: Vogel falls into the category of not being a re-tread former NBA coach with a ton of experience that is lacking the enthusiasm and innovation of younger coaches. I hope that he eventually falls into this category though because it means he's had a long coaching career. Ha! In all seriousness, it's good to read that he paid his dues and earned his spot at the top. Well-earned.
Paul George scares me. I remember when he was showing flashes of being as good as he is now, the comparisons to Tracy McGrady were abounding. However, while it may be a fair comparison, I think PG is going to end up being a way better defender than T-Mac. Do you think this will be his breakout superstar season? The key for George thus far has been his ability to shoot a higher field goal percentage - 48.3 percent this season versus a 43.3 percent lifetime average - and making a whole trey more than last season (3.2 makes from 2.2). Do you think this shooting display is sustainable for a whole season?
Regarding injuries, Hill was such an important piece to the Pacers' run last season and so was Watson for the Nets... until he missed that stupid dunk versus the Chicago Bulls in the first round. HATE YOU, WATSON! In any case, how important is Hill and the still-injured Granger? Will the latter even make a difference this season since the Pacers have depth at the wing? And where does Luis Scola and Chris Copeland fit in? Would you consider Scola a disappointment thus far relative to the hype and promise placed upon that acquisition during the offseason?
Finally, final score for the game and how does it happen?
TL: The Paul George breakout is going full throttle. After making the NBA All-Star team last year and winning the NBA Most Improved Player award last year, PG is already hearing M-V-P chants at the Fieldhouse. If he maintains this level of play throughout the year he will be in the conversation with the most elite wings in the league because he's doing it on both ends. Kevin Durant is a ridiculous offensive talent, but PG is at that level on the defensive side. Then you throw in scoring 25 points and grabbing 8 rebounds and there aren't many players doing more for their team.
PG's handle and shooting have improved, but they were trending that way last season and now he is so much more confident and comfortable in the primary option role that I do think he can maintain this level of play. His shot is coming so easy, he will find ways to score consistently.
As for George Hill, he helps set the tone for that starting unit and is often overlooked because he doesn't always put up numbers. Still, he remains the point guard on one of the most productive starting units in the league. Hill doesn't consider himself a true point guard and he is more of a Jason Terry-type player when he has his shot rolling. Last year, D.J. Augustin
didn't provide much help off the bench, but with Watson and Stephenson's ability to play some point, Hill can play more like a wing player in certain five-man units.
Granger hasn't been a factor in all of the Pacers' recent success, so it is hard to say they need him to take the next step to the NBA Finals
. But if he can add an extra offensive punch and more flexibility to the playing rotation, then his return can only help in the long run.
has struggled shooting the ball so far, but he had a breakout performance in the win over the Bulls. He and David West play a similar style and are a nice tandem to throw at opponents and all of the other players LOVE being on the floor with Scola.
Chris Copeland shot himself out of the playing rotation in preseason. Simply couldn't make a shot and that's what he was signed to do. Since his defense isn't real strong, Copeland will have to take advantage of any opportunities he gets, whether it be in garbage time or due to injuries, to show he can contribute. One thing about Vogel, he usually finds a way to give players like Copeland an opportunity when you least expect it, so Cope will have to be ready to seize the moment when it happens.
I must admit, at the start of the week I penciled in an L for the Pacers in Brooklyn, mainly based on it being the Pacers' fourth game in five days, but I can't go against the Blue and Gold while they still remain unbeaten. The challenge will be for Roy Hibbert
to maintain his impressive defensive play of late to at least neutralize Brook Lopez. From there the Pacers will stay on the attack and try to win a battle of wills at both ends. With a few friendly bounces OFF the rim from shots by Deron Williams (the other key player that could flip the game in the Nets' favor) the Pacers gut out a 92-88 win.
DV: When you talk about Granger and Copeland basically not being as essential, that the Pacers have been okay without Hill, it makes me think of the depth the Pacers have and it gives me the shivers. I think the Nets are one of the deepest squads in the L, but the Pacers are right up there as well.
I think the Nets are so consistently inconsistent right now, they'll take the W at home after a disheartening loss to the Wizards
on the road. The Nets lose, then win, then lose, then win, then lose... time to win. Symmetry aside, this will be a great test for the Nets now that they're facing adversity so early in the season. I have to have faith that they can man-up. It'll be a close game, but in the end, the Nets win 87-86 on a Paul Pierce elbow jumper.
Tom, it's been great throwing down some words with you. Can't wait to do it again!