Pacers' Balance Leaves Opponents Shaking Their Heads

by Wheat Hotchkiss

November 12, 2013 | 12:30 a.m.

Mike Conley said it best. When asked his opinion of the 8-0 Indiana Pacers, the Memphis Grizzlies point guard shook his head as he spoke:

“They look like they’re on a mission.”

The Pacers cruised to another win Monday night, extending their franchise-best start by steamrolling the Grizzlies, 95-79. Indiana dominated last year’s Western Conference finalists in every phase of the game, imposing their will early and often.

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“They played harder, they were the aggressors,” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said. “And when a team does that, they normally win. I think they imposed their will early, I think they hit us in the mouth early, and we weren’t able to respond.”

The Grizzlies have lived out their Allen-coined “Grit and Grind” slogan the past few seasons, climbing their way into the top half of the West. But on Monday night, the Grizzlies’ mantra might as well have been “Groan and Grunt.”

“(The Pacers are) playing at a very high level,” Grizzlies head coach David Joerger said. “That’s an elite team in the NBA right now. And anytime, but right now they’re really, really good.”

Despite playing their fifth game in seven nights, Indiana controlled every element of Monday’s game. The night’s individual star was Lance Stephenson, who faced a stiff test being guarded by Allen, a first team All-Defense selection each of the past two seasons. Stephenson rose to the occasion, recording his first career triple-double with 13 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“Lance Stephenson has really come along,” Joerger said. “He’s really playing well. For him to basically go grab every defensive rebound that he wanted to and then push it up our you-know as fast as he could, and he got shots for other guys, he got to the basket off of that.”

But Stephenson was far from the night’s lone star. Paul George, whom Joerger said “is playing at an all-world level,” topped 20 points for the eighth straight game, scoring 19 of his game-high 23 in the second half. Luis Scola scored 10 points in just over 10 minutes in the first. George Hill and David West quietly combined for 23 points on 11-for-17 shooting.

Even with all that offensive production, the Pacers are making their biggest impact on the defensive end. They’ve managed to win eight straight games without topping the 100-point mark, thanks to an exceptionally stingy defensive front that’s held opponents to a league-low 84.5 points per game.

Pacers center Roy Hibbert may have finished with just three points Monday, but he controlled the paint, blocking five shots and teaming with West to limit the Grizzlies All-Star contain duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

“You’ve got Roy down there and David West is one of the better defensive pick-and-roll players in the league,” Conley said. “We tried to pound it inside early and they did a good job of clamping down. Then we tried to go to pick-and-rolls, they did an even better job of containing our guards.”

After Monday’s romp, Conley called the Pacers “the best defensive team in the league.” That’s high praise, considering last year the Grizzlies had three All-Defense selections (Allen, Conley, and Gasol, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year) and were the only team to best the Pacers in points allowed.

The Grizzlies and the rest of the league recognize that the Pacers are playing basketball at the highest level possible.

After Indiana throttled the Bulls 97-80 on Wednesday night, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said his club “got beat in every facet of the game.” After the Pacers rolled past the Raptors 91-84 on Friday, forward Rudy Gay praised Indiana’s defensive effort.

Yes, Indiana has benefited from facing a string of teams off to slow starts. The eight teams they’ve played so far are just 22-33, none of them has a winning record, and the best of that bunch are still adjusting to different surroundings – be it a new coach (Memphis), returning star (Chicago), or heightened expectations (Brooklyn).

But the Pacers have been through just as much turmoil. Indiana overhauled its bench and replaced two assistant coaches in the offseason. They have already played three games without starting point guard George Hill. And, oh yeah, former All-Star Danny Granger has yet to play a minute so far in the regular season.

There’s no question the Pacers belong in the NBA’s elite. And when they play like they have so far this season, there’s not much their opponents can do but shake their heads.

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