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2012-2013 Game 21 Preview: Thunder See Grangerless, Benchless Pacers at Home

After making the second round of the playoffs last season, the Pacers have stumbled out of the gate to a rather pedestrian 10-10 record. It seems like they're just a little extra oompf away from getting where they need to be. Where did that oompf go?

Nothing runs like a Deere, and nothing takes a charge like Nick Collison.
Nothing runs like a Deere, and nothing takes a charge like Nick Collison.
William Bennett Berry

2012-2013 NBA Season
The Indiana Pacers 10-10)
The Oklahoma City Thunder (15-4)
December 9th, 2012
Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
6:00 PM CST
Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Indiana
WWLS the Sports Animal (98.1), 1070 ESPN The Fan Indianapolis
Enemy Blogs: Indy Cornrows, 8 Points 9 Seconds, Pacers Pulse, Always Miller Time
Previous Meetings: None
Probable Starters
George Hill PG Russell Westbrook
Lance Stephenson SG Thabo Sefolosha
Paul George SF Kevin Durant
David West PF Serge Ibaka
Roy Hibbert C Kendrick Perkins

The Pacers are really struggling to make ends meet this year. After making the second round of the playoffs last season, they've stumbled out of the gate to a rather pedestrian 10-10 record. They haven't really dropped the ball against bad teams, but they haven't really impressed anybody, either. It seems like they're just a little extra oompf away from getting where they need to be.

Where did that oompf go? Well, the obvious answer is the injury of their primary scorer, Danny Granger. He won't be back for another two months or so while rehabilitating his knee. Without his presence on the team, the Pacers have become the league's second lowest-scoring club. Their only consistent assets are their rebounding and defense, but those are continually undermined by their lack of ball control.

When looking at the loss of oompf, you could also point to the off-season losses of Darren Collison, Louis Amundson, Dahntay Jones, and Leandro Barbosa, all significant contributors to the Pacer bench last year. They've been largely replaced by D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green, and Sam Young. While the team's old bench definitely wasn't spectacular, their new bench has no real leader or reliable source of offense, and as such, the team has gone downhill as a whole.

Indy Cornrows has a short column on the issue, and answers aren't immediately forthcoming. They've got a few rookies on the bench, and one already proposed is the replacement of D.J. Augustin with Ben Hansbrough, an undrafted rookie point guard out of Notre Dame. Not far behind is the discussion of a replacement for Tyler Hansbrough, who's heir apparent appears to be Jeff Pendergraph. The guys at Indy Cornrows are so desperate that they're throwing out the name of JaJuan Johnson, a current D-League double-double machine.

Would any of those changes make a difference? It's doubtful. I'm not going to lie and say I've seen a lot of Jeff Pendergraph action, but with how horrible the regular backups are playing, if there was a worthwhile change to be made, you'd think Frank Vogel would have made it by now. It's not that the guys on the Pacer bench are necessarily bad, per se. They're just guys who need a playmaker to set up plays for them, or a scorer to take pressure off of them. The Pacers have neither, and the bench suffers. Wherefore art thou, Darren Collison?

But, let's talk turkey. How are the Pacers going to fare against a team like the Thunder? Well, there's going to be a war of pace, I can tell you that much. And if the Thunder can keep the game moving briskly, it's almost guaranteed that they're going to win. The Pacers pretty much lost their game against the Nuggets on Friday that way.

That doesn't necessarily mean the Pacers don't like to get out in transition. Hill, Stephenson, and George are all capable of firing up quick jumpers and getting quick layups. But since the team plays so big, the struggle when the opposing team can speed up their offense.

Similarly, the Pacers will often settle for bad shots. Their scorers like to work in isolation and spot-up situations, going head-to-head with the defender. But they don't have the talent to pull that off on a night-to-night basis. George Hill is a decent passer, but he's no wunderkind, and he's undermined by the Pacer bigs, who, aside from David West, are downright atrocious at passing the ball off. Unless it's a simple chest pass or they're set up well, a Pacer big is almost guaranteed to screw the play up.

An element of this problem is perfectly illustrated in a recent article on 8 Points, 9 Seconds. In short, Pacer bigs are really struggling with the baseline cut that's a mainstay of Frank Vogel's offense. After passing the ball inside, the passer will cut along the baseline to, ideally, wait for an open opportunity on the other side of the basket while the cutters defender is picked by the big who received the ball. In practice, however, the cutter runs it badly, keeping his defender with him. This wastes time, invites pressure, and gives the opponent more time to bring help defense into the lane. Because of the failure of this cut, Hibbert's effectiveness has really been limited this season. I'd highly recommend hitting the link for the full breakdown.

Bringing that analysis to tonight's game, the Thunder will have little trouble keeping the Pacers from lighting up the scoreboard. They can make the Thunder pay from the three point line, but I just don't see them able to take advantage of the Thunder's tendency to pressure and protect the lane as well as other teams can, and the Thunder are more than well equipped to deal with them in the paint.

Where the Thunder can really seal this game, though, is the offensive end, The Pacers have a case for being the league's best defensive team, having only given up 100 points 4 times in this season's 20 games. They have big bodies and great help defense in the paint, obviously. But they also sport a perimeter core that doesn't pressure, yet stays with the defender and doesn't allow many open shots. The Thunder will need the increased pace to succeed, but they'll also need to rely on the individual play of their stars to clear out space, hit the tough shots, and pass for some open looks.

Tonight should be a good contest between two teams, but with how the Thunder have been playing lately, you have to give them the advantage. It's the leagues best offense versus the league's best defense, but even though defense wins championships, a bad bench can lose one for you, as well.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 97, Indiana Pacers 90.

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