The Cleveland Cavaliers conclude a brief two game homestand by welcoming the Indiana Pacers to the Q this evening. The Cavs throttled Brooklyn on Wednesday and had Thursday off; over the next month, rest days will become a common luxury for LeBron James and company, because they don't play a back-to-back until April 12 and 13. The Pacers are coming off a rough three game stretch, as they dropped games to Boston and Toronto at home before getting blown out in Chicago on national television.
Indiana is fighting tooth and nail to make the playoffs, and Cleveland would probably rather keep them out and further solidify its own payoff seeding. Something's gotta give.
Who: Indiana Pacers at Cleveland Cavaliers
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
TV Coverage: Fox Sports Ohio
Enemy Blog: Indy Cornrows
Music: "No Rain," by Dayton, Indiana's own Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon
About a month ago, Kendon Luscher and I published a conversation on potential playoff matchups for the Cavaliers. To my surprise, he was adamant that he wanted no part of the Indiana Pacers in the first round. I was a bit confused by the fear, as Indy was just 21-33 at the time. While they'd won four of five games heading into the All-Star Break, they were still a sad shell of the team that made the Conference Finals a year ago, missing Paul George (broken leg) and Lance Stephenson (to free agency) and relying too heavily on guys like Solomon Hill and C.J. Miles.
But that mini-run prior to the All-Star Break carried over for awhile, and nowadays I'm inclined to agree with Kendon, even if the Pacers have struggled during the past week. Between February 1st and March 12th, Indiana won 13 of 15 games. From the beginning of the season through January 1, the Pacers had the second worst offense in the NBA. Since the calendar flipped to February, Indiana has been seventh best. Their defense, which had been keeping them afloat (11th overall) through the season's first three months has improved as well, as it has been second best since February 1st.
What changed? Why the sudden improvement?
George Hill got healthy, that's what. Hill missed the first 28 games of the season with a torn left quad muscle, returned for five games, then had to deal with a groin injury that kept him out for another 11. He returned for good on January 23, and once he found his groove, the Pacers really took off.
Indiana is 18-10 when George Hill plays and just 12-27 when he does not. When Hill is on the floor, the Pacers score 106.4 points per 100 possessions. When he's off, that number dips all the way to 97.9. While his individual stats have never been (and will never be) particularly sexy, he's a damn good point guard.
The reason Kendon wanted the Cavs to avoid the Pacers was because they "play a physical brand of defense, rebound well and get back in transition." True, true and true. David West, Roy Hibbert, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi - there are a lot of smart veterans on that team who would simply refuse to lay down and accept defeat. Now that Hill is back running the show, they have the makings of a competent offense, too.
Unfortunately for Indy, it really doesn't sound like Paul George is coming back this season, even if the team sneaks into the playoffs. If that were the case, this would be a whole different conversation. Without him, the Pacers chances against the Cavs would be zero - but that doesn't mean they wouldn't be a giant pain in the ass in the process.
As for tonight, nbody besides Anderson Varejao is on the Cavs' injury report, so they ought to be at full strength. For the Pacers, Ian Mahinmi is questionable as he deals with a head injury. If Mahinmi does sit, getting Roy Hibbert into early foul trouble would be ideal for Cleveland, as that would force Frank Vogel to choose between LaVoy Allen, Shayne Whittington or (dear God) Luis Scola as the backup five.
FEAR THE SWORD FEARLESS PREDICTION
I really, really suck at making these. How about Cavs 110, Pacers 98. Sure. That sounds good.