The Indiana Pacers have the best defense in the NBA when you boil it down to the bottom-line defensive rating which currently has the Pacers ranked atop the league giving up just 89.5 points per 100 possession. The Pacers are the only team with a defensive rating below 90 and the number is a full four points lower than the second-best defensive team (San Antonio).
The Pacers starting unit is especially stingy, combining high-octane effort and physical play with length, athletic ability and major wingspans across the board. This five is never too cool to spill their guts on the defensive end and that type of play begins to wear on the guys their defending.
Indiana has been overwhelming opponents in the second half and in particular, ambushing teams in the third quarter which wobbles the legs for an eventual knock out by the end of the game. A perfect example of this formula was on display in the Pacers' win over Memphis on Monday night.
While the Pacers appeared in control throughout, Memphis continued to hang around. But a vicious stretch of defense midway through the third quarter solidified a double-digit lead and also sucked what life remained in the Grizzlies' hopes to comeback.
Three defensive possessions in particular stood out during a three minute stretch which highlighted the Pacers fierce effort on the defensive end by generating turnovers from Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol -- three high basketball IQ player for the Grizz.
No help for Z-Bo
Taking the action in order, the first play has David West guarding a baseline drive by Z-Bo straight up, with Roy Hibbert sliding down to back up West and protect the rim. West initially deflects the ball and with a wall of Pacers greeting Randolph as he tries to save the possession, he tries to pass out to a teammate that isn't there on the perimeter.
The next play was a defensive highlight that will likely be among the top defensive team plays of the year. At the time, I remarked that the Pacers defense looked like a school of piranhas as they stymied Conley at the rim and then ravaged Gasol after he dove on the loose ball before eventually stealing the ball and turning it into a Lance Stephenson layup.
Seriously, this is a thing of beauty. How many times do you see ALL FIVE players on defense touch the ball on a possession with the final touch being a layup. West gets it started with a hedge, forcing Conley way out on the perimeter. With plenty of time to recover, the Pacers are ready for Conley trying to advance the ball to the rim off of a pick and pass from Gasol. Hibbert pokes the ball loose (one touch) in the paint, then Paul George bats it (second touch) away from a scrambling Conley. After Gasol dives on the ball back across the half-court line, George is all over him, allowing George Hill to come from behind and rip the ball (third touch) out of Gasol's hand. With the ball loose once again, David West picks it up (fourth touch) and fires to Lances Stephenson (fifth touch) who then converts the turnover into a layup.
Physical. Vicious. No mercy.
Gasol's had enough
The final possession in the series showed the impact of the constant pressure up to that point in the game, forcing Marc Gasol to repeat Randolph's turnover error and fire a pass out of bounds. Again, David West triggers the defensive advantage, hedging on the perimeter and pressuring Conley to disrupt the timing of the play and allow the defense to fully rotate. When the ball finds Gasol, he appears open for a 17-footer he normally enjoys knocking down.
Lance Stephenson may have been a bit late rotating to Gasol but when Lance popped up in his face before Gasol could fire a shot, it appeared to startle the Grizzlies' center. With the Grizz spacing mucked up and players scrambling for an open spot, they all zigged when Gasol expected a zag and his pass to the corner found no one, leaving the big man exasperated as Memphis continued to work hard just to get off a clean shot.
The Pacers went down to cash in that turnover with West knocking down a perimeter jumper via Stephenson's ninth assist which also put the Pacers up 15 points to leave the Grizz chasing them the rest of the night.
The key to all of these plays is the effort of five guys tied together on the defensive end. With Roy Hibbert hovering around the bucket, the other four players are scrambling to pressure on the perimeter and retreat to help when needed. Opponents have to seize their scoring opportunities quickly or they dry up in a hurry and if they aren't physically and mentally prepared to handle the constant pressure, they are sure to crack. Normally, some time in the second half.
That's a big reason why the Pacers have made 8-0 look relatively easy.