First things first: The Pacers were supposed to be pretty bad, but aren't cooperating with preseason predictions. They'll enter Sunday's game at Staples with a ho-hum but very deceptive 7-7 record. Indiana has five wins in its last nine games, but those losses aren't exactly steeped in shame: by three in Houston, four in Orlando, four in an overtime loss to the Thunder in Oklahoma City, to name a few.
In short, the Pacers have shown plenty of mettle away from Conseco Fieldhouse, and are best not trifled with. Based solely on their production, the computers would expect them to be 9-5. If a team with that sort of record rolled into town, we'd call it a test game. Treat this as such.
Here's what to watch:
1. Roy Hibbert. Lakers fans have, with good cause, been pumping up the early candidacy of Shannon Brown for the league's Most Improved Player award. Pacers fans have been doing the same for Hibbert. In his third season, the Georgetown product has blown up, averaging 15.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks, fairly prodigious totals for a modest 30 minutes of burn a night. These, needless to say, are all career highs. Importantly, though, Hibbert is also averaging 3.2 fouls a game versus 3.5 last season, despite spending more time on the floor. Not exactly blemish-free, but a big step for a guy who was extremely foul prone for the first two years of his career.
Clearly his presence has a major impact on Indiana's fortunes. By leaps and bounds, Hibbert has the team's highest plus-minus rating.
The matchup in the middle with Pau Gasol will be interesting. Hibbert is long and a load, and has a rapidly developing game. Still, he does most of his damage with jumpers, so Pau will need to respect his midrange game. On the other end, Hibbert is a great shot-blocker, but doesn't move well in space. How he covers Gasol out at the elbow or in the pick and roll (or doesn't do those things) will be a major key in determining L.A.'s success offensively. Off-ball movement from the whole team, limiting Hibbert's ability to roam freely for blocks, will also be a factor.
2. Rebounding. Call it the immovable force versus the irresistible object. No team in the league grabs more defensive boards than the Pacers, and meanwhile, their defensive rebound rate (77.1 percent), ranks third as of Saturday night. Hibbert, naturally, has been good in this regard, as has Josh McRoberts. The Lakers have been dominant on the offensive glass, the league's third best team when it comes to offensive rebound rate. Friday in Utah, they were held to nine, about four fewer than their season average heading in. Four fewer extra cracks at the bucket combined with a 4-of-15 mark from downtown and it's easy to see why the Lakers were held under 100 points for only the third time this season.
The Lakers ought to be able to hold Indiana off at the other end since the Pacers are an unremarkable offensive rebounding team, but the extent they can accumulate those second-chance looks is so fundamental to their system.
3. Danny Granger vs. Ron Artest. In his second season with the Lakers, Artest's role in the offense is shrinking rather rapidly. He's not committing quite as many crimes of basketball stoppage as the Lakers try to move the ball through the offense, but at the same time isn't making much of an impact on that side of the ball. Of course, offense isn't why the Lakers pay him. Defensively, Artest has yet to have the sort of signature moments helping define him last season. Some of it is health: Artest has battled a nagging back issue for a while, which obviously can impact his movement. More of it is the play of Matt Barnes and the rest of the bench, which has changed Phil Jackson's rotations and cut down Artest's minutes. So has Artest been less effective, or is he just a little less important right now? Hard to say.
Sunday, Artest will get a crack at one of those high-profile shutdown games. In Danny Granger, Indiana has a multipurpose, top-shelf scorer at small forward, the type Artest can make his singular focus.
4. Defense. L.A.'s offensive prowess is well documented. In the Pacers, they'll see a strong challenge. Indiana currently ranks fifth in defensive efficiency, allowing 101.9 points per 100 possessions. At 46.6 percent, the Pacers are second in opponent's effective field goal percentage, and eighth in points allowed per game with 96.6. Hibbert's shot-blocking ability helps. Granger is an active defender on the wing, and the addition of Darren Collison at the point has helped them on the perimeter. The Lakers won't be able to rely on mistakes from their opponent to pile up easy points.