On the Road Again: Pacers Prepare for Western Conference Swing

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This is not a test. This is not when we find out if the Pacers are “legit.” This is not when we find out if Indiana is good enough to handle the Western Conference.

This is just a Western Conference road trip.

Indiana is ready to embark on their second five-game road trip of the year today, opening up with the Golden State Warriors. Last time around Indiana went 3-2, beating the Clippers, Jazz, and Spurs while dropping games in Portland and Oklahoma City.

This time, they play the Warriors (26-16), Kings (14-24), Suns (22-17), Nuggets (20-19), and Lakers (15-25). It isn’t quite the same “test” as December’s for many reasons.

First and foremost: the schedule

This time around only one of their opponents is a serious playoff contender despite the three teams with winning records. This isn’t the Eastern Conference, but Golden State is the only assumed lock for the playoffs and they’re a sixth seed right now. The quality isn’t the same considering last time they played the top four seeds (and bottom of the barrel Utah). If the Pacers can open up the trip with a win at the Oracle, then it isn’t crazy to think they could win all five, though a back-to-back against the Kings and Nuggets isn’t a gimmie on the road, especially when the second game is being played a mile above sea level.

As mentioned the trip starts of with the Warriors and their deceptively strong defense, ranked fifth in the league in defensive rating (at 99.6 points per 100 possessions). The pace Golden State plays sometimes skews the numbers as their opponents regularly score over 100, but they don’t give up points easily per possession. The matchup to watch might be George Hill versus Stephen Curry, depending on how coach Frank Vogel chooses to defend the All-Star point guard.

Additionally, considering that Roy Hibbert’s production sometimes suffers against talented power forward/center combos, Golden State’s mix of David Lee and Andrew Bogut are something to keep an eye on. Hibbert’s worst nights on both ends of the floor have came when he’s been forced to worry about more than just guarding the rim. The Pacers have got in trouble when Roy is forced to help out David West when West struggles defensively. This didn’t change against the Clippers, so I’d almost bet on another so-so game from Hibbert, leaving it up to Lance Stephenson and Paul Geogre to make sure Indiana is scoring enough.

With all due respect, the rest of the road trip opponents are teams Indiana “should” beat. Two have losing records and the other two don’t have the weapons to match up against the Pacers, to put it simply. The only real complication for Indiana is the Kings/Nuggets back-to-back as the Pacers are 6-5 with no rest in between games.  The Suns have had a good season, but without Eric Bledsoe, Indiana should win if they play well. And other than Golden State, only the Lakers have an offense in the league’s top 12, and none of them have a defense in that range. The Pacers played the Kings just last week and won by 24, so the front part of the back to back shouldn’t be a problem.

For Indiana it will be a case of taking care of business, but that isn’t to say a loss (or two) on this trip is unacceptable. Realistically, a loss at Golden State and in Denver would be almost expected, or at least unsurprising. Too often small sample sizes, or in this case, a small group of games, get judged without context. A trip like this is more about how the Pacers keep or lose focus. Do they sleep walk through opponents they can beat, or do they put in the work to possibly win all five? Picking up wins in the other three games matter as much now as they will in the final weeks in the regular season if the Pacers want to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

The other difference between this road trip and the December trip is Danny Granger. Granger’s first game back from injury was well after the Pacers returned home and now, after 14 games with him, we are starting to see what he does to the Pacers line up.

So far, so good, according to Tim Donahue.

Be sure to read Tim’s fantastic article in full, but the short version is this: Granger returned 14 games ago and since then Indiana has won 10 of those games by double digits. Granger has helped turn a bench that was sadistically bad (and statistically bad) a year ago into one that is in the top half of the league. The bench is no longer recreating a basketball version  of “Old Yeller” when they are called upon; they are adding to the lead now.

The additions of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and others are also part of that transformation, but before Granger’s return the bench’s +/- was just around even. Granger has given more flexibility to how Vogel can manage the game and as the Pacers showed against the Clippers after West got ejected, Granger can fill in for a starter without disrupting the flow of the game for Indiana. On this road trip Granger will give Vogel the choice to rest players and manage their minutes more. Granger’s been nothing but positive for Indiana so far since his return, and especially now that he’s getting back into playing shape, he’s been looking more like Pacers fan’s hoped while providing solid defense as well.

Don’t look at this trip as a test for Indiana.

Look at as a field study. Look at it as an ongoing experiment for the Pacers, because the new variable of Granger is only making Indiana more explosive.

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