With the bearded wizard coming to town on Sunday, there's no better time for the Pacers to become defensive.
And that goes for all of them.
Who's going to defend James Harden when Houston comes to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday?
"The Pacers," coach Nate McMillan said.
He meant it. Without Paul George, the Pacers have no bona-fide stopper, just a collection of so-so defenders still learning how to help and play off one another. Victor Oladipo, Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young all are candidates to deal with the player who ranks third in the NBA in scoring (29.0) and assists (10), but none of them can be expected to do it alone.
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George used to have as much success against Harden as anyone in the league. Over the course of his career, Harden has shot just 38.2 percent against the Pacers, less than any other team in the NBA. Last season, he scored just 15 points on 3-of-17 shooting when the Rockets visited The Fieldhouse, and 25 points on 5-of-17 shooting when the teams met in Houston. The Pacers won both games, highlights in a season in which they barely made the playoffs.
The Pacers are likely to miss George today, just as they'll miss the best wing defender on their current roster, Glenn Robinson III. That's why it's going to take a communal effort. Not just from the variety of people assigned to Harden, but the weakside defenders and rim protectors who will need to give help.
In other words, the Pacers.
"James (Harden) is very crafty, he's sneaky, he's an unbelievable playmaker," McMillan said. "Not only does he score the ball, he gets to the free throw line - he does it all. Our bigs and the guy guarding James have to be connected."
Or, as Thad Young puts it: "He brings a lot of stuff in his bag."
Young probably has been the Pacers' best individual defender through 13 games. That's not necessarily saying a lot on a team that ranks 29th in points allowed (108.4) and 27th in opponents' field goal percentage (.476), but he's taken care of his business. He ranks second in the NBA in deflections with four per game (George ranks first at 4.8) while averaging 14.6 points on 50 percent shooting. His ability to defend on the perimeter as well as near the basket enables the Pacers to switch everyone on screens except the center, a boost to the team defense.
The primary defensive challenge for the Pacers is to dry up the paint. They rank 29th in the league in points allowed within the foul lane (50.6), 11 more points than they permitted last season. Their struggle is a reflection of both the perimeter defenders failing to contain the dribble and the interior defenders. The absence of Myles Turner, who has missed seven games with a concussion, and Domantas Sabonis, who has missed two with a bruised calf, has contributed to that. Both are available now, but that alone doesn't resolve the issue.
"We've still got a lot of room to grow," Young said.
"(We need to) make them take long contested twos. I think that's the biggest thing. We're not making teams take the shots we want them to take. When we get to that point, we'll win a lot more games."
The Pacers accomplished that in Friday's win at Chicago, allowing the Bulls just 38 points in the paint – and 16 of those came in the fourth quarter, after the outcome had been decided. It's clear that had been a point of emphasis, because McMillan knew off-hand how many paint points had been allowed, and Bojan Bogdanovic rattled off the first-half number: 16 points.
"We collapsed in the paint," Bogdanovic said. "Our shell was great (in Chicago). But we've got to stay together. We've got to play together again."
Sunday, more than ever. The Pacers have been generous defenders of some of the NBA's greatest individual threats. They gave up 30 points to Brooklyn's D'Angelo Russell; 28 to Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns; 31 to Philadelphia's J.J. Redick; 40 to New York's Kristaps Porzingis; and 37 to Anthony Davis and 32 to DeMarcus Cousins of New Orleans.
And now comes Harden, no doubt relieved to see a George-less Pacers team. The Pacers got a scheduling break when the Rockets came to The Fieldhouse last season at the end of a five-game road trip. They get another on Sunday, when the Rockets will be playing their second game in less than 24 hours following Saturday's home game against Memphis.
They'll take every break they can get, but need to learn to make their own on defense.
"We've shown flashes of it," Young said. "It's a matter of putting together a 48-minute contest."
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