Originally Published: December 2, 2013

1. Surprise First Date: Blazers Edge Pacers

By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

Monday night, especially during football season, is usually a lull night in the NBA. The league purposely avoids scheduling major matchups because none of the national networks are showcasing games.

That's what the Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers game was back in the summer when the schedule was put together, a generic matchup on a night when most of the Pacific Northwest was going to be glued to the Seattle Seahawks on "Monday Night Football."

Yet it turned into perhaps the defining game of the first six weeks of the season, not only because it ended up pitting the teams with the top records in each conference against each other (Portland is tied for first with the San Antonio Spurs), but it signified just how unexpectedly this season has continued to play out.

Robin Lopez
Steve Dykes/USA TODAY SportsTrail Blazers center Robin Lopez and Pacers center Roy Hibbert took part in a mesmerizing duel between the conference leaders.

By the time it was over, not only had both teams proven their worth and displayed their star power, they'd left those that had the opportunity to see it craving more. While the big-market teams with the huge payrolls and the banged-up big names continue to wheeze along, these two small-market teams made up of mostly homegrown players staged a beautiful display of playmaking.

The Blazers ended up with the 106-102 win, giving themselves a statement victory and showing off the offensive firepower that has carried them to a 15-3 record as probably the biggest surprise team of the young season.

The Pacers (16-2) had their seven-game win streak snapped on a night when they were at times frustrated with officials, seemed to run out of energy in the second half and saw their top-ranked defense succumb to the Blazers' smart game plan. But they also got a career-best showing from Paul George, whose 43-point output that was loaded with clutch shots in the fourth quarter, instantly qualifying it for one the performances of the season.

The individual details aside, both these teams entered fighting a bit of a perception that they were a little overrated because they'd enjoyed favorable schedules over the first month. Yet there was simply no way you could take in that game and not believe they are among the class of the league.

The final five minutes were a clinic in counterpunching, with George nailing contested 3-pointer after contested 3-pointer to keep the Pacers in it. At one point Wes Matthews, who spent most of the fourth quarter trying to defend George, fell to his knees in surrender after George used his lanky frame and now more polished release to fire in a triple with Matthews in his lap.

A season ago when the Pacers struggled coming out of the gates it was partially because George was not ready to lead an offense. That is a dead issue now as his summer work aimed at learning to use his size to create space for the type of shots a star is expected to make at the end of close games is paying off.

The Blazers, though, survived it. They came in with the third-best offense in the league because of their scoring balance and their terrific teamwide 3-point shooting led by Matthews, who is having the best season of his career and started the week with the league's best shooting numbers across the board. Same with LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging career bests of 22 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game.

The Pacers have the league's best defense and have excelled over the past few seasons at defending the 3-pointer by keeping their perimeter players on the outside and letting defensive ace Roy Hibbert take care of the middle. The Blazers have even mimicked the strategy, and both teams are in the top five so far this season in defending the 3-pointer.

To combat that, Blazers coach Terry Stotts had his quick guards, Damian Lillard and Mo Williams, go to work in the midrange, taking advantage of the space the Pacers are willing to give up because they are not typically efficient shots. But Williams, who had 13 points, and Lillard, who had 26, are both experts from that area and their strong nights contributed to the Pacers suffering just their second loss in 18 games.

Then Aldridge went to work on Pacers big men David West and Hibbert, attacking Hibbert in the rim area and picking up fouls. The Pacers were furious that officials let Aldridge, who had 28 points, get away with using his knee repeatedly to create space when battling Hibbert but it certainly was effective (Hibbert took exception on Twitter). An Aldridge fallaway shot over the top of West and a Lillard 3-pointer as he peeled off a screen in the final two minutes ended up breaking the Pacers' usually stout defense.

The Pacers have another three games on this West road trip, with visits to San Antonio and Oklahoma City coming up followed by their first meeting of the season with the Miami Heat next week. The Blazers have gotten fat early on by going 8-0 against the woefully weaker Eastern Conference, the most of any Western Conference team to this point. Portland has 11 games against the tougher West coming up in December.

So it's hard to predict how long either will stay on top of their respective conferences. One thing that is not in doubt, though, is the next meeting will not sneak up on anyone. Its Feb. 7 in Indianapolis. After Monday's showing, that has already morphed into a schedule highlight.

Dimes past: November 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | December 1

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