Power vs. Power

Pistons paint muscle could meet its match in stingy Indiana Pacers

Greg Monroe
The Pistons will test their interior strength against a similar Pacers team Tuesday at The Palace.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
There aren’t many NBA statistics after three games that deserve your trust, but you can take this one to the bank: It’s no fluke that the NBA defensive leader in scoring and field-goal percentage in the first week is the one coming to The Palace on Tuesday night, the Indiana Pacers.

Indiana’s first three opponents averaged 83.7 points and shot 37.9 percent. In Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George, the Pacers have one of the NBA’s few frontcourts that won’t come into games against the Pistons this season fretting about being overpowered in the paint.

In fact, Tuesday’s game will be a classic case of irresistible force vs. immovable object. Through three games, the Pistons are No. 2 in the NBA in points in the paint at a whopping 55.3 points a game, just 0.7 behind the surprising Philadelphia 76ers. At the other end of the spectrum, Indiana is No. 1 in fewest points in the paint allowed, 30 per game.

Something’s got to give.

The Pacers and Philadelphia are the last unbeaten teams left in the Eastern Conference, both at 3-0 through Sunday, and nobody would be shocked if the Pacers wind up being the team that thwarts Miami’s three-peat bid after taking the Heat to seven games in last year’s conference finals.

“They’ve got two of the best bigs (Roy Hibbert, David West) on their team, Paul George, their guard play is great, too,” Andre Drummond said after Monday’s practice. “We’ve just got to continue to do what we do. Just because they’re a good team, we shouldn’t get away from what we’re doing.”

Detroit’s starting frontcourt is putting up gaudy numbers so far. Drummond (13.0 points, 12.0 rebounds) and Greg Monroe (18.3, 11.3) are both averaging double-doubles and Josh Smith isn’t far off (17.7, 6.7) while also averaging 4.3 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals.

When they played against another defensively formidable and beefy frontcourt at Memphis, the Pistons scored 56 points in the paint. They’ve been remarkably consistent so far: 56, 56 and 54.

“I like the way our bigs are playing with each other,” Maurice Cheeks said. “We take advantage of our big guys while they’re on the floor. We put the ball inside and our big guys have been scoring the ball. When they don’t have the opportunity to score, they pass it out and we run pick and roll. It’ll be a challenge playing an experienced, big lineup and guys who have been playing together for a couple of years.”

Hibbert, massive at 7-foot-2 and probably north of his listed 278 pounds, has emerged as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate over the past few seasons. West has long been a tough matchup for the Pistons who now becomes Monroe’s problem, and the Pacers picked up another Pistons killer over the off-season, Luis Scola, to anchor their second-unit interior.

“They have (good) defensive players as well as their team plays good team defense,” Cheeks said. “If you put a team of good defensive players and incorporate that within a team defense, you’re going to be pretty good defensively and that’s what they’ve done.”

The Pistons might look a little different on the perimeter when Tuesday’s game tips off. Cheeks played Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey together for the final 16:51 of Sunday’s win over Boston after getting both back from the injured list over the weekend following three-week-plus absences.

Cheeks demurred when asked who’d start, but after Sunday’s game he talked about how Jennings’ return allowed Will Bynum to revert to “his role” and said he liked the Jennings-Stuckey combination. On the other hand, Cheeks has maintained since early in training camp that he views those three plus Chauncey Billups as versatile enough to play either backcourt position and in any combination.

Through their 2-1 start, with the only loss in overtime against an acknowledged NBA title contender on the road, the Pistons have shown clearly promising signs. A little more consistent perimeter punch and a little better caretaking of the basketball and the possibilities become tantalizing. The Pistons are in a three-way tie with Indiana and Houston with 20 turnovers a game, ahead of only Boston.

“We watched film, make a point of the turnovers that we have,” Cheeks said. “We bring it to their attention. When it happens in practice, you stop and start all over again. You just have to be more selective with the ball. You have to be more conscious of and value the ball more. That’s the bottom line.”