(right) scored a career-high for the Pacers
in a win over the Blazers. (Ron Hoskins/Getty Images)
The Pacers defeated the Blazers 118-113 to even the season series at one game apiece. Indiana improved its league-best record to 39-10 with the victory. Portland dropped to 35-15 with the loss.
• George Hill turns in a career night. Although Portland and Indiana have a combined four All-Stars on their rosters, the action in this game was dictated largely by the non-stars. Together, LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy Hibbert and Paul George shot an unsightly 16-for-55 (29.1 percent), and a 38-point effort from Damian Lillard -- the first time he's cracked 30 points in a month -- wasn't enough to get the job done for the Blazers.
Why not? George Hill matched nearly matched Lillard's output, scoring a career-high 37 points (on 12-for-19 shooting) while grabbing nine rebounds and dishing eight assists. This was simply a matter of Hill doing more because more was needed. Lance Stephenson, Indiana's do-everything two guard, was sidelined with an injury, George was blanketed well by Nicolas Batum throughout much of the game and Hibbert was essentially a non-factor offensively all night. This certainly wasn't a solo effort from Hill, as David West chipped in 30 points (on 13-for-15 shooting), but the Pacers' point guard did more than his fair share of damage.
The most direct way to beat Portland's defense is to hit mid-range jumpers, and Hill did well in that regard, finding soft spots to hit three jumpers in the second half after doing most of his damage near the basket area early. Really, though, there wasn't an area in which his offensive game was lacking: Hill hit 11 of his game-high 12 free throw attempts, a product of his off-the-dribble aggression, and he sank a game-tying three-pointer with just eight seconds remaining in regulation. Indiana will surely welcome Stephenson back with open arms, but they will also appreciate the pick-up-the-slack showing they received from Hill in his absence.
• Pacers spring a surprise double team to get crucial stop. Playing elite defense requires quality personnel, clear schemes, great chemistry, length and versatility, commitment ... the list goes on and on. Indiana has been the league's best defense, by a substantial margin, all season long, and they showed it again on Friday. This game was a grind-fest, even if the final score might indicate otherwise.
While the Pacers possess all of the necessary qualities listed above, their game-turning defensive attribute here was their unpredictability. Needing a stop on the final possession of regulation to force overtime, Indiana surprised Portland with a double team that led to a difficult shot (and the stop they needed).
Portland is 20-9 (.690) in games that are within five points or less in the final five minutes, the third-best mark in the league. Much of their late-game success has been produced by their All-Star tandem, Lillard and Aldridge. The Blazers like to go to Aldridge in isolation late or put Lillard in high pick-and-rolls to let him create the best scoring opportunity for himself. Just last week, Lillard hit a go-ahead lay-up in the closing seconds to beat the Raptors by knocking down a short floater after turning the corner on the high screen. Lillard is very comfortable with the game on the line; he's knocked down multiple game-winners this year, and he has a strong pull-up jumper and lots of range when he turns the corner. He can't be ignored, but sending extra attention his way opens up opportunities for Aldridge or others.
Indiana's defense on the final play was a calculated risk and it appeared to catch Lillard by surprise. Lillard was initially guarded by Paul George. Aldridge came up to set the pick and Hibbert showed out high to force Lillard toward the sideline as George initially switched onto Aldridge. As Lillard struggled to turn the corner, George left a rolling Aldridge open in the middle of the paint to rush at Lillard, creating a trap situation and preventing Lillard from stepping into a jumper at the right angle. With two defenders now on him and less than two seconds on the clock, Lillard finally sent a crosscourt pass to Batum, who had no choice but to hoist up a fall-away, off-balance, contested long two that rimmed off at the buzzer.
Here's a look at the play.
The defensive design and execution was brilliant for multiple reasons: 1) Hibbert did very well to delay Lillard's ability to turn the corner, providing George enough time to get back and narrowing the window for a potential pass to Aldridge. 2) West was in good help position if Lillard had been able to squeeze a pass through the traffic to Aldridge, so George wasn't in an all-or-nothing spot when he left Aldridge. 3) The timing, speed and angle of George's double kept Lillard from finding anything easy on the strong side, using up precious seconds on the clock. 4) The only truly open player on the court during the double team and ensuing scramble was rookie guard CJ McCollum, who was located in the far left corner, some 50 feet from Lillard. There's no way for Lillard, or anyone, to reasonably fire a skip pass over both George and Hibbert to make the defense pay in that situation.
Finally, and perhaps most important, Lillard simply isn't accustomed to teams leaving Aldridge, a three-time All-Star in the midst of a career year, with the game on the line. When Lillard put his head down to turn the corner, he surely expected to find some degree of daylight, and maybe a help defender coming from the right corner. Teams so rarely leave Aldridge unguarded as he moves from the three-point line to the protected circle that George's help surely came as a surprise. Lillard had a split-second where he could have found Aldridge open but he wasn't prepared to exploit the brief opening, and it closed ever so quickly. This was a nice chess move by the Pacers that paid dividends, forcing a low-percentage look from Batum, who shot just 1-for-8 on the night.
Indiana's surprise tactic took the game out of Lillard's hands without putting themselves at risk of an Aldridge game-winner and without giving up a clean look to one of Portland's tertiary threats. It doesn't get much better than that.
• "Never save the ball under your own basket." It's one of the sport's oldest maxims. If presented with the choice of falling out of bounds or trying to make a risky pass underneath your own basket, young hoopsters are taught from an early age to opt for the former, or take a timeout, because the latter option can often lead to disaster in the form of a cheap basket for the opposition.
The turning point in this game came with just under two minutes remaining in overtime and Indiana clinging to a two-point lead. Portland managed to get a defensive stop as Aldridge tracked the ball down near the right baseline. Hovering on one foot and somewhat off-balance, Aldridge attempted to pass the ball across the key to Robin Lopez near the left elbow, even though both Batum and Wesley Matthews were closer options. West snared the ill-advised pass and quickly dunked the ball, making it a two-possession game. Portland wouldn't get closer than three points the rest of the way.
Aldridge appeared to tell Batum that he hadn't seen him as the two players walked off the court, and George was in the vicinity of Matthews, which likely contributed to Aldridge's decision-making. To make matters worse, Portland had multiple timeouts remaining, so a pass wasn't even necessary.
This was a rare brain fart for Aldridge, a high IQ player who usually does a very good job protecting the rock. As noted by ESPN.com's Bradford Doolittle this week, few NBA players can match Aldridge when it comes to using lots of possessions but committing very few turnovers. Over the last 10 NBA seasons, only two players have played at least 1,000 minutes and posted a usage percentage of 29 or greater while also possessing a turnover percentage of less than eight. Those two players: Aldridge this season and Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki in 2006 and 2009. Considering those numbers, referring to Aldridge as "trustworthy" would be a significant understatement.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, Aldridge's uncharacteristic mistake came at the worst possible moment, and the Pacers wasted no time in making him pay. Coaches across America now have another "What not to do" example to use as a teaching tool for their players.
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