It started with Lance Stephenson’s “choke” gesture. Actually, it started about a minute before that, when Danny Granger tugged on Superman’s cape. During Game 3 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, with the Indiana Pacers up 66-55 over the Miami Heat and 1:32 left to play in the third quarter, Granger tried to stop LeBron James from a breakaway play after a steal by grabbing the reigning MVP’s jersey. LBJ surreptitiously threw a cheap elbow, sending Granger into a rage. Refs doused the fire before it got completely out of control, but when James bricked a technical foul free throw, Born Ready flashed ’Bron the patented Reggie Miller choke sign from the sideline.
The Pacers won the game, and before the Heat took the series in six, Indiana showed toughness that hadn’t been seen since the artist formerly known as Ron Artest was their most feared defender. They showed that they know how to scrap, get rough and refuse to bow down when teams come to their town. They brought a Bad Boys-inspired nastiness. They’re the anti-Heat, made up of players that know how to get damn near Rick Mahorn-ian.
Fast forward to 2013. After Granger went down at the start of the season with patellar tendinosis in his left knee, the Pacers got even more gully. Head Coach Frank Vogel got his team to band together like roughnecks with collective effort and intimidating defense—enough to lead the Central Division with a 30-19 record, which includes a 15-game winning streak at home. That’s right. Thinking about bringin’ that weak sauce into Bankers Life Fieldhouse? Fuggedaboutit. Not happening. Their offense may look like Precious doing squat thrusts in biker shorts (at 92.82 ppg, they’re damn near last in the L), but their defense is a classic like Illmatic.
“Our defense is a beast,” Vogel said to Fox Sports Indiana. “We’re leading in a number of different defensive categories. We have great length and these guys are committed to trying to be the best defense in the NBA.”
So far this season, Indy has allowed opponents just 90.39 points per game, good for second best in the league. The Pacers also lead the league in field goal percentage defense and defensive efficiency. Indy’s pulling this off for two reasons: brute physicality and, thanks to Vogel, shrewd defensive schemes.
Despite standing 7’2 feet tall, with a 7’4 wingspan, Roy Hibbert’s no Dwight Howard. But Vogel’s taken to using Hibbert like Stan Van Gundy used Howard in Orlando: preferring that the former Parks and Recreation guest star occupy real estate below the foul line on all pick-and-rolls. Hibbert is a virtual shot-blocking machine at 2.6 per, but more than that, his mere Goliath-like presence in the lane changes mad shots, resulting in ridiculous amounts of high-degree-of-difficulty FG attempts by any man that dares enter the Terrordome.
Hibbert & Co. take their restricted airspace seriously, too. Pacers opponents attempt the third-fewest shots in the league when they make it into the restricted area and only hit 52.8% of them when they do. This is also a byproduct of David West’s ability to rush guards on the wing when they target him in the pick-and-roll. Vogel uses this defensive strategy against the pick-and-roll to perfection, holding teams like Miami to below 90 points on two occasions this season.
Bad blood aside, even LeBron gives credit where credit is due.
“Have they improved?” James asked after the Pacers crushed the Heat 102-89 last week. “Yes, they've improved. The biggest improvement is with Paul George. That’s why he’s an All-Star.”
This season, Paul George put on his big boy pants and channeled Muhammad Ali, raising his production across the board, floatin’ and stingin’ in the lane for 17.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 3.8 apg. He’s becoming an elite wing defender, putting on a show good enough for the big ticket to Houston. Rumble, young man, rumble.
And D. West? He’s still the team’s backbone, putting vet shoulders in chests to create space for that mid-range J. The former All Star’s still putting up All-Star numbers: 17 points and 7.7 boards per contest. Even Born Ready’s doin’ more than just trash-talking. He’s getting his groove back like Stella running the point.
All things considered, Indiana looks good for making noise in the postseason. It’s written that defense wins championships. The Pacers got that covered. Now, all they need to do is step their game up on offense. Vogel hopes that Granger’s return, slated for before the All-Star break, will do just that. He’s hoping the sharpshooter, who is obsessed with all things Dark Knight, will come back hot and ready to drop three-point bombs. Because it’s gonna be a battle in the East. A bone-crushin’, head-knockin’, gut-wrenchin’ slugfest. And you can bet on this: when it comes time to step into the arena, the Indiana Pacers will give new meaning to the phrase, “Let’s get dirty.”