Five days after the Bucks gave the Pacers a bit of a battle at the Bradley Center, Indiana takes its turn to play host with a chance to make it six straight home wins over the Bucks on Thursday night. Meanwhile, the Bucks get their 11th chance to notch their first two-game winning streak of the 13/14 season, a chance we might charitably describe as a longshot given everything we know about these two teams. To summarize:
The Bucks are the league's worst team; the Pacers are its best, both overall and at home (27-3).
The Bucks rank 29th in both offensive and defensive efficiency (hey, they're not last!). Meanwhile, Indiana boasts the league's best defense by a wide margin.
The Pacers have Paul George and Roy Hibbert; sadly, the Bucks do not.
So yeah, I'll call Indy the favorite tonight.
Sixers refugee Evan Turner made his Pacer debut in Indiana's 118-98 win over the Lakers on Tuesday, scoring 13 points and adding six boards in 26 minutes off the bench. George struggled from the field (6/18 fg) but still led Indiana with 20 points, one of seven Pacers to crack double digits.
Indy's better half. Indiana led L.A. by just three at halftime on Tuesday before blowing the game open with a 34-16 third quarter--standard practice for a Pacer team that has made a living dominating clubs after halftime all season. Via NBA.com/stats, the Pacers outscore opponents by less than 3 pts/100 possessions in the first half, but boost that to over 20 pts/100 in the third quarter and +9 pts/100 in the fourth. As for the Bucks...well, let's just say their quarterly splits don't speak well of the Milwaukee's pre-game preparation or ability to make halftime adjustments.
Go West. My enduring memory of Saturday's game: David West destroying Ersan Ilyasova repeatedly on the block en route to 30 points and some key buckets down the stretch when the Bucks repeatedly had narrowed the deficit to six. Jeff Adrien fared slightly better, but ultimately the Bucks didn't have any answers for West, who along with George (32 points) and Lance Stephenson always got buckets when Indy needed it. On the plus side: West's dominance came in stark contrast to Roy Hibbert's struggles (1/9 fg), as Zaza Pachulia and the Bucks' help defenders did a surprisingly admirable job in preventing the Pacers' big(gest) man from finding his comfort zone down low.
You'd guess the blueprint for tonight will be similar. Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo will have the tall order of containing George, Larry Drew will have to find ways to hide Ilyasova's inability to handle West, Stephenson will look to outmuscle and outhustle the Bucks' smallish backcourt defenders, and Zaza and John Henson will try to replicate the job they did on Saturday against Hibbert.
In the backcourt, the Brandon Knight/Nate Wolters starting pairing has produced respectable results while Ramon Sessions and O.J. Mayo have looked like solid complements to one another off the bench, and all of them can be mixed and matched within games based on hot hands/matchups. At small forward it seems like we may finally see the straight-forward Middleton/Giannis combo that we've been hoping for all season, while Zaza/Ersan and Henson/Adrien have been the primary big man combos the past two games.
That's left Miroslav Raduljica and Ekpe Udoh on the outside looking in of the big man group, though Udoh's absence has been in part due to knee and ankle injuries over the past few weeks (he's supposedly questionable tonight). Raduljica deserves to play more regularly given the offensive skill he's shown to date, though his lack of footspeed also makes him a matchup problem against more mobile big men. Tonight could certainly be an exception, especially if Pachulia and/or Henson get into foul trouble.
Ekpe. Speaking of which, I was surprised that Udoh's name never really came up in rumors around the deadline. You may not love Ekpe's game, but he's a serviceable big who can defend both big spots and occasionally make a 12-foot jumpers, which is a rather useful skill set for an already-good team looking for depth. In a world where Kendrick Perkins actually gets minutes for one of the league's best teams, surely there's a place for Ekpe, right?
I suppose it's possible there are some scenarios (Dumping Ilyasova? Trading Henson on draft night? Moving Sanders this summer?) where the Bucks might actually want to keep the restricted free agent this summer, but I can't help but think the time to get something for him may have already passed.
Henson and Zaza. Tonight's matchup against Hibbert is one where Zaza's bulk and shenanigans may actually come in handy, but generally speaking can anyone provide a compelling rationale for starting Pachulia over Henson? I realize Henson's positional defense can be flaky, he can't hit a free throw anymore (1/12 over his last four games) and his bulk isn't ideal for the center position. But he was averaging 15/10 as a starting center in December, his shot-blocking (2.09/game, still 5th in the league) would be a big boost next to the athletically-challenged Ersan, and unlike Pachulia he might actually be good enough to be an NBA starter over the next five years. Heaven forbid he plays a bunch over the last six weeks of the season and increases his value heading into the summer, right?
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