The Indiana Pacers entered tonight's game with Detroit as the only undefeated team left in the NBA this season, and they maintained that status after a closer-than-it-should-have-been 99-91 victory over the Pistons.
Again, good and bad things tonight. First and foremost, it was good to get a W on the first night of a back-to-back and the first of four games in five nights. The Pacers responded well under pressure last season during these kinds of stretches and they will have to again as they face the Chicago Bulls tomorrow before taking on Toronto and Brooklyn after a single day of rest.
Secondly, Paul George -- what can you say about this young stud? PG put up 31 points on 12-18 shooting tonight to lift his season scoring average to 27 points a game on 50%+ shooting. He also happens to be leading the team in rebounds, assists and steals. And the crazy thing is that his defense might have been even more impressive than his offense tonight, holding Josh Smith -- who is really a PF -- to 16 points on 5-16 shooting.
Thirdly, Roy Hibbert, who continues to make an early statement for Defensive Player of the Year by adding to his league-leading block tally with another 7 rejections tonight to go with 10 rebounds. He only had 8 points on 3-8 shooting, missing some very ugly shots in the process (he was honestly just tossing them up there), but Roy is earning his contract on the defensive end where the Pacers need him the most.
As a team, the Pacers shot really well (52.1% from the floor, 9-21 from 3-point range) and played lock down defense on Detroit's monster-sized trio of Smith, Drummond and Monroe. This game was supposed to be the team's biggest test to date (against an opponent widely expected to climb towards a playoff spot) but from early on it appeared obvious that the Pacers are by far the better team.
On the other hand, the Pacers did make things a lot harder for themselves than they should have, which is the start of my dissection of the negatives from tonight. After racing off to a 15-point lead in a first quarter that made it look too easy, the Pacers allowed the Pistons to get back into it with some horrible plays which sapped the energy out of the entire team. They actually trailed by 3 at the half before steadying the ship in the third quarter, and appeared to be heading towards a blowout (and some early rest for the starters) in the fourth until more sloppiness allowed the Pistons to stick around and keep in interesting. As a result, Frank Vogel was forced to keep most of his starters in the game until the final minute or so, which could come back to haunt them tomorrow night against Chicago.
The turnover situation is still pretty bad -- the Pacers had 18 tonight -- and they made life difficult by missing a whole bunch of free throws (they shot just 14-23). This kind of performance won't cut it against the elite teams and the Pacers know they have to clean things up if they want to be a serious contender with a shot of capturing the top seed in the East.
Another concerning issue is George Hill's hip, which caused the Pacers' starting point guard to miss his second game in a row with his status against the Bulls uncertain. Hill practiced the other day but is apparently still bothered by the injury which has been around on-and-off since last season. The good news is that the Pacers now have CJ Watson to back him up instead of DJ Augustin, but Watson, as solid as he is, is no George Hill. Watson had 15 points tonight be he struggled in my opinion, throwing away some bad turnovers, taking a few poor shots and and missing a bunch of wide open ones. He's still better than Augustin though.
Lance Stephenson came back down to earth a little tonight after his blistering start, finishing with 10 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists (excellent numbers) but shot just 4-12 from the field, missed both free throw attempts and had 5 turnovers. The Pacers can live with that if he can continue to bring the energy and push the ball, but he has to find a way to stay under control. He even picked up a flagrant foul today (which was rubbish, but still...).
One other observation I will throw in is on Luis Scola, who I am a huge fan of but hasn't quite blown the roof off the building like I expected. He has shown what he can do on the offensive end, hitting open 16-footers and converting on nifty post moves, but his defense is a bit of a concern. There was a handful of plays out there today where he looked kind of lost and left his man wide open, and he didn't even try very hard to chase him down. I am hoping that is just part of the learning process and he'll get better as he becomes more accustomed to the Pacers' defensive sets.
Overall, still a quality win. The Pacers will need to play outrageously good for the rest of this month as December is looking like an absolutely nightmarish part of the schedule with a 5-game west coast road trip to start things off plus 2 games apiece against the Heat and Nets. I'm probably jinxing them right now, but finishing November 12-3 or even 13-2 might not be out of the question if they keep it up on the defensive end and keep improving on the little things like careless turnovers and free throws.