Indiana hasn’t undergone any significant changes since last season. This makes them an easy team to discuss in the opening weeks. While players are certain to develop/decline and the addition of Augustin and Mahinmi and loss of Collison may impact the team’s performance, the Pacers should be roughly the same product as last season. The 2011/12 Pacers were a "scrappy" team that ranked in the top-10 on both sides of the ball with five good two-way players and a decent supporting cast. With the notable exception of Danny Granger, that should be what walks into the Target Center tonight.
Offense: Indiana is nothing special when it comes to shot creation. Last season they got to the rim 24 times a game (15th) and got 16.1 three-point looks per game (22nd). Nor did they make up for the lack of creation by scoring efficiently. In 2012 they had the 25th best FG% (43.8%) in the NBA. What Indy does do right is continue possessions (ORR of 29.25% 5th best in NBA) and get to the free throw line (FTR of 32.1% 3rd best in NBA). If we can collect defensive boards and challenge the Pacers to score from the field, this is a winnable game. If we can’t prevent second chances and get sloppy on defense things will get out of hand quickly.
Defense: Indiana does a good job of keeping opponents away from the rim. Only 7 teams allowed fewer rim attempts last season and all of those teams allowed at least 4% more of those attempts into the basket. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attack the rim though. Indiana’s 5th worst opponent FTR of 30.5% shows that they protect the rim at least in part by hacking everything that moves (consistent with the "eye test" to say the least). In addition, Indiana is vulnerable from range. They allowed the 7th most attempts last season and opponents converted those at slightly above league average. We don’t have a special three-point shooting team without Love, but we need to at least get Budinger and Ridnour stroking early.
Indiana spreads the ball around a lot on offense. Their highest usage player from last season (Granger at 25.92%) is out for this game, which should make the ball distribution even flatter. This makes every defensive matchup important, but no matchup critical (like Luke vs. Deron on Monday).
Our offense may be even more diverse until Love and Rubio come back. We don’t have any players who can successfully dominate the ball, but we also can’t be broken by any single defensive stud. Both teams’ strategy could go in nearly any direction this game. Whoever is hot will get a chance to strut.
George Hill vs. Frodo
Hill is one of the premier P’n’R guards in the league, and as disadvantaged as Luke is against bigger players, I think he gets even more abused by the quick ones. George Hill is licking his chops in anticipation. Things will be better if Barea is relatively healthy. He at least has the quickness to slot Hill down.
Luke struggled in the first few games, but really started executing against Orlando. Hopefully his solid play carries over. Hill is a very good isolation and solid P’n’R defender. This will make it difficult for Luke to create offensively. On the other hand, Luke is one of the better spot up point guards in the league which looks to be Hill’s Achilles heel on defense. Unfortunately, I would wager good money that has everything to do with height mismatches. I doubt Luke is capable of playing that card. Shved on the other hand…
Can we contain West?
I expect Indiana to go to West in the post early and often. Love is out, and good teams know to prod the wound. Neither Derrick nor Dante are especially vulnerable in the post, but neither looks able to completely neutralize West either. If our 4s can’t hold their ground, Kirilenko will need to start helping. The Pacers’ wings thrive on off-ball cuts, so spreading Kirilenko’s focus could cause major problems.
Neither Williams nor Cunningham should expect much success offensively tonight. Cunningham’s spot-up rating above is misleading. Last season was an aberration in his excellent career as a spot-up shooter (career 42.6% from 16-23 feet out on 5.7 attempts per 40). However, even assuming Dante is on target, West is extremely active and has a good track record against stretch 4s. William’s 2012 offense is an interesting case of anemic diversity. Few players get their looks in such a variety of ways, but most are better than Williams at scoring in at least one of them. West will be a very tough matchup for Derrick.
Clash of the Titans
Hibbert is going to get a chance to score on Pekovic. That is a height advantage Indiana will not pass up. Pek’s track record in post defense is probably below average for a center, while Hibbert is prolific and efficient in the post offensively. I think Pek’s defense has been improved this season, but this will be the first real test of just how improved it is.
Hibbert plays good defense and blocks a lot of shots with only an average foul rate. He will be a tough matchup for Pek. Pek’s post game was very good last season, but where he really shined was the P’n’R game. That may have had as much to do with Ricky as anything. During the first two games, "Quick Draw" Luke and "Hero" Barea struggled to get Pek going consistently in the P’n’R, but it seems like they are starting to develop a better rhythm. Roy also seems to have learned to value of feeding the ball to a rolling Pekovic. Hibbert has a very good record against the P’n’R as well, so we will see if the squad can get Pek going.
My heart says Pek, but Hibbert is a very good two-way center and ideally built to give "The Godfather" troubles.
Shooting guards who create offensively are a problem for us. As much as I like Paul George, that really isn’t his game. He is assisted on about a league-average percentage of his looks, and converts his on-ball possessions with mediocre efficiency. He works best off-ball and running in transition. He will be an occasional problem, but I don’t expect him to be a focal point of Indy’s offense even with Roy and Shved being outclassed physically.
The sample size is pretty small for Green and Stevenson (who has received a surprising number of minutes this season), but I don’t worry about AK47 containing them. Green relies more on his post game than most wings. I don’t see him trying that against Kirilenko.
If everyone else does their job, the Pacers’ wings shouldn’t make much noise on offense. However, if things start to break down elsewhere, George and Green will be there to twist the dagger.
It will be interesting to see whether Roy can maintain his impressive assist rate against the extremely athletic Pacers’ wings. Making a few shots would also be a plus. Budinger’s impact on the game will flow from Ridnour, Roy, and Shved’s ability to win their respective matchups. Kirilenko’s unique combination of garbage-man scrap collecting and creative wizardry is a constant. He will find a way to impact the game no matter who is on him.
Here are how the two teams look using Z-scored PA100 offensive numbers from 2011/12 (and weighted 2010/11 numbers) and RAPM defensive numbers. Three major contributors are sitting for this game (Love, Rubio, and Granger). Minute projections for healthy players are based on the games thus far in the 2012/13 season. I am going to be optimistic and assume that Barea get at least limited minutes tonight. I am treating Roy as an average offensive player with a half standard deviation deficit on defense. I am treating Shved as an average player all around. Both of these rating are probably pretty generous.
Aggregating the individual players, our average lineup is .52 SD above average on offense and 1.31 SD below average on defense. The Pacers look to be 0.45 SD above average on offense and 0.86 SD above average on defense. After sporting the league’s best defense in preseason and continuing to play excellent defense in our four regular season games, I suspect that the above numbers underrate our defensive prowess.
Andrei Kirilenko is looking more like a young deer every game. Also, I wager our two centers are underrated defensively by RAPM. Given that Stiemsma played one short season with limited minutes backing up the best defensive player of the decade, his RAPM shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I think Pek’s RAPM numbers are closer to reality, but he also seems to have improved in the offseason. In support of this skepticism, both players’ counterpart production numbers tell a more optimistic story. I am going to soldier forward as if the RAPM numbers are gospel, but feel free to subjectively tweak our defense up a notch in your own expectations.
Converting these ratings and minute distributions into offensive and defensive efficiency projections we get 102.5 for the Wolves and 110 for the Pacers every 100 possessions. Home teams win 60.8% of NBA games (cite). The expected advantaged tonight is even better than that because the Pacers will be playing their third consecutive game away from Indiana. The home team takes 62.8% of the games in this scenario. A 62.8% win percent converts to almost exactly a four point advantage in efficiency differential (cite). Applying those four points equally to offense and defense the new expected efficiencies are 104.5 and 108. The Wolves have a pace of 93.4 possessions per game and the Pacers have a pace of 94.5, for an average pace of 94. Applying that pace to the efficiencies we get an expected final score of 102 to 98 Pacers over Timberwolves. That equates to a 39.7% chance of Timberwolves victory.
That said... any numbers that don't identify the Wolves as an unstoppable juggernaut are probably bullshit, so let's just win this one.