Paul George, Lance Stephenson

The Extra Pass: Indiana’s Strange Success

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme that could use another glance. Today, we swing our attention to Indiana, where the Pacers are putting together one strange season.

I wish there were a more aesthetically pleasing comparison available, but the Indiana Pacers are the cockroaches of the NBA. They are an ugly team, scattered about on the offensive end, waiting for the shot clock to tick down to the skinnier numbers so they can rush to the rim for scraps. There is very little sex appeal or sophistication here — just resiliency.

You chop off their head, and they live for 35 games and counting. Last year’s leading scorer Danny Granger hasn’t played a single minute.

You take away what they’re looking for, and they find something else. 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is shooting 40 percent from the field and averages less than 10 points a game.

You eliminate the new addition to their ranks, and they still keep coming. Gerald Green has an 8.2 PER, good for fifth worst in the league of players who average more than 20 minutes a night.

The Pacers are 29th in offensive efficiency, 28th in field goal percentage and 29th in points per game. They should be finished already, planning their trip to Secaucus, New Jersey to watch lottery balls bounce around with the rest of the inept offensive teams in the league.

But instead, the Pacers are 21-14, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and just three games back of a Miami Heat team they vanquished last night. Three games out of first place. The Indiana Pacers. With all that going on.

How?

The best defense can be a slow offense

The Pacers have evolved in the best way– they know that they’re terrible offensively without Granger (and with Hibbert missing layups), so they’ve adapted by helping themselves on the other end. The offense, as brutal as it may be, serves a purpose for the defense by playing purposefully slow.

The Pacers play at the league’s 25th slowest pace, but they also rank 10th in offensive rebounding percentage. The victory over Miami was a wonderful example of how these two things work together. The Pacers absolutely bled the clock with the lead, and combined with their 22 offensive rebounds, they made that 8-10 points feel like 18-20 instead. The opportunities for Miami to come back in the fourth quarter were extremely limited.

Of course, taking the air out of the ball, so to speak, would mean nothing if the Pacers weren’t defending the way they are. For as every bit as bad as they’ve been offensively, the Pacers have been even better defensively.

It starts inside

Hibbert has used his own struggles at the rim as a way to exact revenge on his opponents, blocking the third most shots in the league (2.7 a game) and altering countless others. From 9-feet and in, the Pacers hold their opponents to the league’s lowest shooting percentage.

Although Hibbert isn’t fleet of foot, he’s a space eater for a defense that rarely gambles (26th in turnover percentage). The Pacers as a whole are very conservative defensively — their guards like to go under screens, and their big men rarely hedge or trap on pick-and-rolls. As a result, the Pacers are rarely scrambling to recover or asking their bigs to make lightning quick rotations.

And although he’s not noted as a defensive force, David West uses that thick chest of his as the wall to Hibbert’s sentry tower arms — opposing power forwards notch a PER of 12.2 against West, and the Pacers are about 2.4 points better defensively per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (and a whopping net 13.5 points overall).

Thanks to West and Hibbert, and the crazy size of Paul George, the Pacers are also the 6th best defensive rebounding team in the league. Opposing teams go one-and-done offensively quite a bit.

Length on the perimeter

Another thing the Pacers do extraordinarily well defensively is defend the 3-point line. The average team this year shoots around 35.7 percent from behind the arc, but the Pacers hold their opponents to a stingy 31.6 percent shooting. That’s the top number in the league, and the length of guys like George Hill (who owns a ridiculous 6-foot-9 wingspan), Lance Stephenson (6-foot-10 wingspan) and Paul George (near 7-foot-wingspan) play into that heavily. According to Synergy Sports, the Pacers are the number one defense in the league defending against spot-up jumpers — a testament to the ability of their wings to get a hand up and contest every shot.

Coach of the Year?

There’s a reason Frank Vogel just got a contract extension, folks. The Pacers have a lot of plus individual defenders, but no one in their right mind expected them to have the league’s most efficient defense 35 games in. This is a core that has benefitted a great deal from playing together, and give Vogel credit for allowing Indiana’s starting five (Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert) to play the second most minutes together of any unit in the league — even if Indiana’s bench has been a question mark ever since he grabbed the big seat. If Tom Thibodeau can win a Coach of the Year for the defense he brought to Chicago, Vogel should at least be seriously considered if this keeps up.

Thank you, David

And here’s the reason why it might not keep up. Indiana’s Dr. Jekyl defense and Mr. Hyde offense is unlike anything we’ve seen, but a very soft schedule certainly has played into that a bit. Indiana’s strength of schedule is dead last in the league, and their SRS, a rating that factors point differential into that equation, is just 15th. Although more recent wins against  Memphis, Milwaukee and Miami are impressive, their wins prior to that came against sub .500 clubs almost exclusively. Some regression should be expected as the quality of opponents spikes back up.

But even with that said, it’s tough to deny the staying power of the league’s most resilient team to date. Things can’t possibly get worse offensively, especially since Stephenson has made such a positive impact lately. With Granger targeting a February return, there is hope on the horizon.

It’s not often we see a contender so painfully one-dimensional, but if this defense holds on to the distinction of being the best in the league, the Pacers will be awfully hard to ignore any longer.

Report: Spurs to sign Joel Anthony after Pau Gasol injures hand

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Joel Anthony #50 of the Detroit Pistons dunks over James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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The San Antonio Spurs will be without Pau Gasol after he injured his hand during warmups against the Denver Nuggets this week. In light of a roster in need of a big man, the Spurs will reportedly move to sign veteran Joel Anthony to a 10-day contract, according to Yahoo! Sports.

Anthony, 34, played in 16 games last season for Detroit. He was in training camp with San Antonio this season, so he will have some familiarity with both their offensive and defensive schemes.

Via Twitter:

There’s no word yet on whether Anthony will actually see much playing time or if he’s simply slotting in as a backup.

Spurs fans no doubt want to see Davis Bertans move up the depth chart with Gasol out, so it’s possible that Anthony will simply slot into his space.

It’s also a possibility that Anthony supplants Bertans, who is playing just 9.9 minutes per-game this season.

Devin Booker scores 26 as Suns edge Knicks 107-105

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 13:  Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns shoots in the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest during NBA All-Star Weekend 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 13, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) The Phoenix Suns had more reason to feel good about their future, while the New York Knicks just missed a chance to escape their frustrating present.

Devin Booker scored 26 points and made a go-ahead 3-pointer with 31 seconds left, and the Suns beat the Knicks 107-105 on Saturday night.

“It was just an excellent pass by (Eric) Bledsoe,” Booker said. “I’m thinking he’s going to come off the screen but I’m always shot ready. He made a perfect pass, hit me in the hands and I just shot it with confidence. Ended up being a big shot, the last points of the game.”

Carmelo Anthony‘s attempt at a winning 3-pointer rimmed out as Phoenix snapped a two-game losing streak and handed New York its second loss in a row.

“That was a tough one to digest right there,” Anthony said. “We got the play that we wanted, got the shot that we wanted, got the look that we wanted, did everything but went in.”

Bledsoe added 23 points, while P.J. Tucker and Marquese Chriss each had 15.

Anthony led the Knicks with 31 points but was scoreless in the fourth quarter. Derrick Rose had 26 and Kristaps Porzingis scored 14.

Rose made a layup to give the Knicks a 105-102 lead, but Booker responded by drawing a foul on Courtney Lee and sinking both free throws to cut the deficit to one. Rose missed a jumper from the top of the key, P.J. Tucker missed a point-blank layup and Ron Baker missed a driving layup to set up Booker’s 3-pointer from the wing.

The teams traded misses before Anthony took the inbounds pass after a timeout and launched a 3 that spun around the rim before falling out to give the Knicks their 13th loss in 16 games.

Anthony scored 12 points in the third quarter, which ended in a 90-all tie. The Knicks eventually opened a 103-98 lead, their largest of the game, but couldn’t hold on as Jeff Hornacek fell to 0-2 against the team he previously coached.

Anthony led all scorers at the half with 19 points, but Booker paced Phoenix with 15 and the Suns took a 61-55 lead into the locker room.

TIP-INS

Suns: Coach Earl Watson praised Tucker’s defensive ability. “The thing about defense is there’s no perfect technique. It’s all on intensity, passion, toughness and a lot of heart. He plays with that every time he touches the court. He’s one of our best players. To me, he’s the most underrated defender in our league, especially on isolations.” … Derrick Jones Jr. was inactive.

Knicks: Hornacek reflected on the first half of the season. “It’s been an interesting year, I’d say. It was a tough beginning with Derrick Rose missing a bunch early, part of putting in the offense and getting a new group of guys together as familiarity and he wasn’t able to be there for a big part of that so we were trying to win those first few games on the fly, Joakim with his hamstring early. There have been some distractions that we’ve had to keep the guys kind of together, the losing, minor injuries here and there. Overall, I think the guys have done a pretty good job of staying together. We still look at it when we have all our guys we still have a good chance.”

LINE THEM UP

New York went back to its original starting lineup of Joakim Noah, Porzingis, Anthony, Lee and Rose for the first time since Jan. 12 against the 76ers.

CELEBRITY ROW

Actor Hugh Jackman and Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show” sat courtside during the game.

UP NEXT

Suns: Visit Toronto on Sunday.

Knicks: Visit Indiana on Monday.

Lakers G D’Angelo Russell out 1-2 weeks with knee sprain, calf strain

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 14:  D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on against the Brooklyn Nets in the second half at Barclays Center on December 14, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES (AP) Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell will be sidelined for one to two weeks with a mildly sprained right knee and a strained right calf.

The Lakers announced the diagnosis on Saturday night after their point guard had an MRI exam. He will be re-evaluated in one week.

Russell was hurt on the second possession of the Lakers’ victory over Indiana on Friday. His leg slipped while making a cut around teammate Julius Randle‘s screen, and he nearly did the splits while falling.

Russell is averaging 14.3 points, 4.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds during the second NBA season for the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft. A sore left knee kept him out for 12 games earlier in the season.

The Lakers open a road trip at Dallas on Sunday.

Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum carry Portland to OT win over Celtics (VIDEO)

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BOSTON (AP) Damian Lillard had a three-point play with 47 seconds left in overtime and finished with 28 points to lift the Portland Trail Blazers to a 127-123 victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night, snapping their four-game losing streak.

CJ McCollum scored 35 points to lead Portland, which lost in the closing seconds in Philadelphia on Friday night. Lillard added seven assists.

Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 41 points, his 14th time this season with 30 or more points. Marcus Smart and Al Horford each scored 17 for the Celtics, who have lost two straight after winning 13 of 16.