What: Phoenix (6-3) @ Indiana Pacers (6-2)
When: 5:00 p.m. MST
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Listen: 98.7 FM
It was a fun first ~18 minutes for the Suns last night. Then the wheels fell off the wagon.
After a 12-17 shooting start from three-point range, the team proceeded to shoot 5-35 (14%) for the rest of the night after Detroit deployed primarily a zone coverage. The Suns failed to counter offensively, and now they find themselves taking on an even tougher opponent one night later.
The Indiana Pacers, despite their lack of on-paper “superstars”, pose a very serious threat. They are one of the only NBA teams to be top 10 in both offensive AND defensive rating. The Suns were included in that list until last night, when they got bumped to 11th in offense.
Phoenix: Chris Paul - Devin Booker - Mikal Bridges - Jae Crowder - Deandre Ayton
Indiana: Malcolm Brogdon - Aaron Holiday - Victor Oladipo - Domantas Sabonis - Myles Turner
Former Sun T.J. Warren is a notable loss for Indiana, having suffered a fractured foot. In his place, the 3rd-year guard Aaron Holiday slots into the backcourt next to Brogdon, but is not much of an offensive threat.
Jalen Smith is still listed as day-to-day for Phoenix.
Jalen Lecque is listed as out for the Pacers. Doug McDermott is probable.
EDIT (11:50 am): Cam Payne is now listed as OUT for tonight (right ankle sprain)
The Indiana Pacers
So how is Indiana the 2nd seed in the East? The answer is a combination of a balanced offensive attack, and a unique defensive approach from new head coach (and former Phoenix assistant) Nate Bjorkgren.
All starts with Sabonis
Despite making his first All-Star appearance last season, the public perception of 5th-year big man Domantas Sabonis is that he’s a good player, but not a superstar. Depending on how well the Pacers can sustain their record this season, that narrative may quickly change.
Sabonis comes into tonight’s matchup with averages of 20.8 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 6.4 assists per game. He averages the 2nd most touches per game in the league behind only Nikola Jokic, and Indiana’s offense increasingly revolves around him.
For a taste of what that looks like, here’s a clip of Sabonis doing everything himself.
The heliocentric Domantas Sabonis offense pic.twitter.com/RgeKf9r2gv— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) January 8, 2021
In addition to being both a low-post and high-post threat, Sabonis’ jumper has vastly improved over the years. He’s averaging both a career-high 2.1 3PA per game, and a career-high 53% from three-point range.
But beyond him, the Pacers have competent 2nd and 3rd options to keep their offense going without Warren.
Malcolm Brogdon is off to a superb start, averaging 23.6 points and 7.0 assists on an astounding 63% TS.
And even Victor Oladipo looks a little bit more like the old Oladipo, though his explosiveness isn’t quite what it once was. Oladipo is averaging 20.4/6.0/4.3, and is also shooting a career-high 41% from three-point range.
The only knock on what the Pacers are doing is the question of whether relying so heavily on these three is sustainable in the long-term. Sabonis and Brogdon both have injury histories, yet both are logging over 37 MPG. There are some sweet-shooting role players on this roster (like Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott), but nobody else who can truly handle the offensive load.
Still, that shouldn’t be much of an issue for Indiana tonight. If anyone’s going to look tired in this game, it’ll be the Suns.
An Aggressive Defense
Coach Bjorkgren is blessed with a terrific defensive personnel on this Pacers roster, one that has allowed him to play an extraordinary aggressive brand of basketball.
The Pacers come into this one ranking 2nd in steals, and it’s easy to see why. Malcolm Brogdon has a 6’11” wingspan, Oladipo 6’9”, and Justin Holiday 7’0”. Be prepared for Chris Paul and Devin Booker to get harassed after every screen, with a lot of help defense at the nail.
The only reason Indiana is emboldened to gamble this much, of course, is because of Myles Turner, the early favorite for DPOY.
Turner, in just 29 MPG, is averaging 1.6 steals and 4.1 blocks per game!
Most NBA teams recognize that because shots at the rim are efficient, you want to limit them as much as possible.
But Indiana has taken a different approach. They stay aggressive on the perimeter, with the understanding that Turner is as competent a final line of defense as you can ask for. So even though the Pacers can sometimes be overaggressive, and rank dead last in allowing opponent FGAs at the rim, they still have the 4th-best defense in the NBA. Either they generate the turnover, or Turner is there to contest at the rim.
In the words of Caitlin Cooper over at Indy Cornrows:
“Playing offense against the Pacers is somewhat like being shot into a pinball machine. Eventually, after ricocheting against several bumpers, be it a full-court pest, extra attention at the nail, or a defender rotating up from the corner, the ball will make it to the area of the floor inside five feet of the basket. However, just when it looks like it’s about to drop through the drain of the net, Myles Turner — and, on rare occasions, Domantas Sabonis — will be there on the drive to contest the shot like the machine’s flippers, either ending the possession with a rebound or starting the whole process all over again.”
The Suns desperately want to shake off the offensive rust from last night. But it’s a very tough opponent to accomplish that against.
Keys to a Suns Win
This is one of the most unique teams to gameplan for, because the Pacers are one of the only teams that still play big. The most important question: what to do with Sabonis?
You could put Jae Crowder on him, who is fairly strong himself, but can he really keep Sabonis from getting to his favorite low-post spots and generating easy putbacks on the offensive glass?
Instead, an Ayton-Sabonis matchup might be the key. Ayton was drafted specifically for these types of games where he has to walk the line between using his strength and his mobility, and tonight could give him the opportunity to put that versatility on full display.
That leaves you with Crowder on Myles Turner instead, which is not as debilitating as it may sound. Turner is primarily a floor spacer, taking 4.5 threes per game but shooting only 25% from that range. Turner is not a very good offensive rebounder either, even at 6’11”.
A disclaimer though, is that Turner is a better offensive creator than he gets credit for. Just look at a play like this, something we’ve never, ever seen from Ayton.
Researching the Pacers (apologies to Detroit but Saturday's matchup feels important):— Sam Cooper (@scooperhoops) January 8, 2021
Myles Turner is a more interesting offensive talent than he gets credit for. Can you imagine our reaction if Deandre Ayton did something like this? pic.twitter.com/3uSRIL0BO1
As for the wings, you probably want Mikal Bridges to stop Brogdon from generating offensive momentum. But then, is Chris Paul big enough to check Oladipo? If not, is Booker good enough to check him?
Again, the alignment between these two teams is just funky. Monty has some interesting decisions to make.
According to betting lines, the Pacers have a slight advantage tonight. My brain tells me that they deserve that edge.
But my heart isn’t going to predict a two-game losing streak, mostly because I don’t want to deal with the hot takes coming from Suns fans in comment sections.
Suns win, very narrowly.
Suns 106, Pacers 103