During the offseason, several NBA experts expected the Indiana Pacers to run away with the Central Division this season over the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls. What many didn’t anticipate, however, was Pacers leader Danny Granger’s extended absence due to an injury in his left knee.
Despite some early struggles to come out of the gates, the Pacers have come full circle with fulfilling their potential, thanks in large to the consistent play of veteran forward David West, who is having an all-star year, and point guard George Hill. The Pacers are also benefitting from the improved play of third-year guard Paul George, who was named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the second week of December and is slowly becoming one of the league’s best two-way players.
After going 7-8 in November, the Pacers have crept back up on the Central Division standings by going 8-4 in December and take aim at the top spot when they host the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.
Riding on a three-game winning streak, the Pacers are gunning to make it four in a row for the first time this season, and hope to repeat their 90-86 win over the Bulls back on Dec. 4, when the two teams renew their rivalry at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
A lot of the load falls on the Pacers’ frontcourt to contain the Bulls’ trio of Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, who have been carrying the load in Rose’s absence. George will need to replicate his 34-point performance when these two teams first played each other, with Gerald Green likely missing his second game in a row with an ankle injury, and Granger still in street clothes.
Through it all, the Pacers have done it with their commitment to being the best defensive team in the league.
“When you defend like we defend, you’re definitely never out of the game,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel after their recent win against the Hornets. Vogel has preached defense all year long, even when his team has struggled on the offensive end and in closing out games.
The Pacers have definitely bought into the notion that “defense wins championships”, and have been limiting their opponents to 40.9 percent shooting from the floor and 30.9 from behind the arc, and are third best in the league in allowing only 90.4 points per game. The second best team in that category also happens to be the Bulls, who are allowing only 90.3 points per game to their opponents.
Though both teams are still knocking on the door to be considered as legitimate championship contenders, each hope to get there by shutting down their opponents as they await the return of their star players from injuries.
Follow Dennis on Twitter @dRealSource