Last Man Standing

Pistons hosting NBA’s last unbeaten team, Indiana, after 3 fall on Monday

Will Bynum
The Pistons battle the Pacers at The Palace tonight.
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
And then there was one.

After Monday night losses by Philadelphia, Minnesota and Houston, the NBA’s lone remaining unbeaten team – the Indiana Pacers – puts its record on the line tonight.

At The Palace.

The Pacers, who took Miami to seven games in last spring’s Eastern Conference finals, are led offensively by Paul George, a fourth-year player who received a five-year maximum contract extension over the off-season in keeping with his emerging superstar status. George comes into tonight’s game tied for fifth in the NBA in scoring at 25.7 per game.

But it’s the defensive end that makes the Pacers a legitimate NBA title contender. The Pacers are No. 1 in the league in scoring defense (83.7), field-goal percentage defense (.379) and blocked shots with a whopping 12 per game. Three of the top seven individual shot-blockers are Pacers: Roy Hibbert, No. 1 at 4.7, David West No. 5 at 3.0 and Ian Mahinmi No. 7 at 2.3.

“They’re long, they take away your first option and they make extra-effort plays defensively,” Chauncey Billups said. “They contest all shots, they rebound and try to give you one shot and they’re locked in. They know that’s how they eat and they’re locked into that.”

To put Indiana’s shot-blocking in perspective, its 12 a game is slightly more than double the Pistons’ rate of 5.7 – and the Pistons expect to rank as one of the league’s top shot-blocking teams given the presence of Andre Drummond and Josh Smith. They currently rank No. 11 in the league. New Orleans is second to Indiana but nearly three blocks per game.

It’s not just blocked shots that the Pistons rely on as a lynchpin of their defense. They’re No. 3 in the NBA in steals at 10.3 a game. All three of their frontcourt starters – Drummond, Smith and Greg Monroe – have five steals apiece. Rodney Stuckey has four in two games and Brandon Jennings four in his only game played.

“We’re just trying to be active,” Smith said. “We’re trying to use out athleticism, our wing span, to be able to try to deflect balls. Each and every time we play and each and every time we practice, we always focus on creating deflections and what can we do in order to keep guys out of our paint and we’re making a conscious effort of doing that.”

Both teams also rank in the top 10 in rebounding percentage, the Pistons at No. 4 and the Pacers at No. 9.

“It’s a good measuring stick,” Smith said. “This is a team that won the division last year, a team I played in the playoffs last year. They’re a talented bunch. They have multiple guys that made the All-Star team at some point in their career. We have to try to focus in on matching their physicality – they’re a very physical team – and try to be able to create some turnovers and be able to step up the challenge.”

“I really think they’re one of the elite teams in the game right now,” Billups said. “They’ve got everything. They had a great season last season and they bring everybody back. Very good defensive team. They know who they are. It will be fun to play against them tonight.”

Billups has started the first three games of the season while the Pistons waited on Stuckey and Jennings to return from injury. Stuckey now has two games under his belt and Jennings one, all of their appearances coming off the bench. But they played the last 17-plus minutes together in Sunday’s win over Boston and it’s up in the air who’ll start against Indiana.

Billups says he’s good either way.

“We’re getting everybody back healthy and kind of whatever the coaches feel is best is what I’m going to be able to do,” he said. “Whether I start of not, my minutes are going to probably be around the same, so there’s really no preference for me.”

He said he hasn’t really talked with Maurice Cheeks about an optimum number of minutes for him in his 17th NBA season, but thinks the situation will monitor itself simply because the Pistons have quality backcourt depth.

“I would think probably 24 minutes will keep me where I can pretty much stay healthy all year, barring any crazy injuries,” he said. “I think that’s very feasible for this team. We have a lot of depth in the backcourt.”