Opponent: New Orleans Pelicans
Starting Lineup: Lonzo Ball - Jrue Holiday - Brandon Ingram - Zion Williamson - Derrick Favors
Second Unit: E’Twaun Moore - J.J. Reddick - Josh Hart - Nicolo Melli - Jaxson Hayes
Leading Scorer: Ingram (24.9 PPG)
Leading Rebounder: Favors (10 RPG)
Leading Assists: Ball (6.7 APG)
Biggest Strength: Transition offense
Once the Pelicans traded Anthony Davis for Ingram, Ball and Hart and drafted Williamson and Hayes, this team had a new identity: they were going to play as fast as they can. They’ve stuck to that philosophy, as they are second in the NBA in pace and fifth in fast break points per game, with those numbers even higher since Williamson returned to the lineup. The Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis pairing has struggled defending in transition at times, so this could end up being a difficult task for the Indiana Pacers.
Biggest Weakness: Interior defense
Overall, the Pelicans struggle defensively, but their biggest area of concern is in the paint. This has improved slightly since Favors has returned from injury, but they still rank 28th in the NBA in opponent’s points per game in the paint. Hayes struggles to maintain position when defending the post because of his lean frame, and the Pelicans often go small with Ingram at power forward, which is another time for bigger bodies to exploit their lack of size and strength. As the Pacers continue to play double-big lineups with Turner and Sabonis, this could be an area they can separate themselves.
The X-Factor: Williamson
This seems like a cop-out answer, but it’s the truth. The Pacers haven’t played Williamson yet, and how they go about neutralizing him might decide this game. It’ll likely be Sabonis who starts on him, which is an especially difficult task to ask in transition. What might help decide the game is how well Williamson is hitting from deep. He’s been good this year, hitting over 44% of his shots from deep, but that number is a little skewed from his hot 4-4 game in his opener. If he’s hitting his shots and brings his defender out to the perimeter to guard him, that might unlock a lot of his point-forward potential. If not, that will allow Sabonis to sink in the paint and stop any penetration.
The Pelicans find themselves near the bottom of the Western Conference and further and further out of playoff contention as the Memphis Grizzlies keep winning. That doesn’t mean this is an easy game by any stretch of the imagination. They’re a young, fast and innovative team with playmaking ability from their guards (Ball, Holiday), wings (Ingram) and bigs (Williamson). Their bench has some good shooters (Reddick, Melli, Moore, etc.), but their success starts and ends with the pace of play from their starters. In a fast-paced offense with freedom and space to work, Williamson and Ingram look like perennial all-stars and Ball is an improved player from his years in Los Angeles. Favors has been a solid defender, but the team, as a whole, struggles on defense, especially in the paint. Can the Pacers neutralize their transition offense and exploit their lack of interior defense?