“Aww, do I have to? I was just starting to like this gig!”
Finishing just a few games above .500 might cost you a playoff spot out West. But in the Eastern Conference, the same record might be good enough to secure first-round homecourt.
The Indiana Pacers hope to do a lot better than that, as the low-flying Atlanta Hawks swoop in for a visit (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But the Pacers need more consistently sound contributions than they’re getting so far from the supporting cast.
Bojan Bogdanovic struggles on the defensive end, while Thaddeus Young seems to be wearing down. Darren Collison hasn’t provided steady shooting like he did last season (NBA-high 46.8 3FG%; 33.3% so far), while Doug McDermott and free agent pickup Tyreke Evans haven’t been useful when their shots aren’t falling. Myles Turner (2.5 BPG) chases blocks but often abdicates the paint to do so, taxing the other bigs on the floor. But certainly, nobody’s worried about what Victor Oladipo brings to the floor every night.
Building on a breakout All-Star campaign where he was awarded as the league’s Most Improved Player last season, Dipo is crashing the boards (career-high 6.9 RPG), expanding his range, and dishing the rock more effectively so far (career-high 4.9 APG), all while filling up the boxscore (23.1 PPG, 9th in NBA) and sustaining his tenacity as a defensive nuisance (NBA-high 5.8 contested 3FGAs per game; 4th in loose ball recoveries and charges drawn per game, as per NBA.com stats).
But coach Nate McMillan’s crew tends to get more done when Oladipo is tasked with doing less. Mark Monteith of Pacers.com notes that Indiana (9-6, t-3rd in NBA East) prevailed in 25 of the past 28 games where Victor takes no more than 15 attempts from the field.
The most recent example came here at the Fieldhouse last night, a 99-91 win over Miami where Oladipo went just 3-for-12 on field goals, tallying just eight points on the evening. He got the help he needed with Bojan’s threes, Turner’s rebounds and blocks, and Collison’s steals. But with Indiana falling behind 27-18 in the opening quarter, the reserves stepped it up and turned Friday’s game decisively around in the Pacers’ favor.
Cory Joseph added a team-high five assists off the bench, Indiana aided by free agent pickup Tyreke Evans’ five three-pointers (23 points and 10 rebounds) and a banner effort by The Sabonesaw (too soon?). Backup pivot Domantas Sabonis logged 15 points and 12 rebounds (all defensive), like Evans all in the space of just 25 minutes. If he can expand his range to the three-point line, Sabonis will keep pressure on McMillan to have him supplement, or supplant, the inconsistent rebounder Turner in Indy’s starting lineup. Both have been equally adept at setting productive screens, ranking 7th and 9th in the league for per-game screen assists, respectively.
Last night, the Pacers’ team defense was committed to neutralizing everyone on the heat not named Josh Richardson (7-for-10 3FGs, 28 points) in order to beat the heat. They hope to do the same with Trae Young (16.7 PPG, 2nd among NBA Rooks; 81.4 FT%, Rookie-high 8.0 APG) and the hapless Hawks (3-12) today, but it may prove to be a slightly tougher task.
That’s because John Collins is slotted as probable to make his season debut for the Hawks. Young has been great at setting up teammates for scores, but there has been no one on the floor to return the favor. Collins won’t be of much assistance as a secondary passer, but if he returns swiftly to his form from late last season (8.1 RPG, 35.7 3FG%), he can grant Young more room to roam by drawing a pesky defender off to the paint or at the perimeter.
Dewayne Dedmon (big poppa) returns from personal leave and should be active today in coach Lloyd Pierce’s rotation. Albeit not likely in time for this game, added reinforcements at the forward and center positions will alleviate the overburdened Hawks backcourt from carrying so much of the offensive water.
A big beneficiary could be Kent Bazemore, quietly enjoying, if you can call it joy, career-highs of 14.8 PPG and 1.7 SPG. Despite a clunky outside shot (31.4 3FG%) in the early going, Baze is doing a better job of finishing around the rim (64.5 2FG%, best since at least 2013-14), long a bane and a bone of contention among his critics.
When Oladipo, Collison, Joseph and Evans have their sights turned on Young and Jeremy Lin, Bazemore can have an impactful day playing off the ball. After not logging a steal or a block on Friday for just the second time this season, he’ll help the Hawks cause even more if he can get some stops and spark Atlanta’s transition game.
It’s a back-to-back for Indiana, but the Pacers continue their homestand after enjoying four calendar days off. Unlike the Hawks’ recent opponents, who didn’t mind free-wheeling tempo, the Pacers will prefer to grind out a victory (28th in pace), fouling where needed to ensure they control the clock (19.6 personal foul calls per game, 2nd in NBA). Neither the Pacers (70.6 FT%, 29th in NBA) nor the Hawks (73.1 FT%, 22nd) are strong free throw shooters, so the final margin could be affected by which team proves to be more consistent from the line.
Improved frontcourt support and a slower game pace, in combination, will contribute to a more palatable outcome today for the Hawks, one certainly better than Friday’s 138-93 debacle in Denver. The reduction of Pierce’s mix-and-match lineup permutations will give way to better stability for Atlanta on the floor and on the scoreboard, both in today’s game and in the long run.
Let’s Go Hawks!