What Happens to the Pacers on the Road?
There’s a stone-cold fact in NBA life: teams are better at home than they are on the road. Whether it’s the home cooking, sleeping in their own beds, the familiarity with the rims or the lack of travel, every single team in the league had a better record in their home gym than on the road.
The Pacers’ splits are as dramatic as any team in the league. Indiana was a below average offensive team overall in the regular season, with an offensive rating of 101.5 for the season, according to NBA.com. The difference from home to road is quite noticeable. They were a passable 103.9 at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, but that dropped down to 96.7 on the road for a negative differential of -7.2.
The splits on defense are even worse. Even through their inexplicable slump, Indiana still led the league with a smothering defensive rating of 96.7. At home, you’re simply not scoring on the Pacers. They locked teams down with a 92.6 DRtg. Teams shot a pathetic 40.4 percent from the field. Indiana’s opponents did everything worse in Indianapolis than they did when the Pacers took the road. In fact, that superhuman Pacers’ home defense turned very pedestrian when they donned their road unis, and took a steep dive from their home numbers - an 8.3 point dive, to be specific. On the whole, their net rating of 11.4 at home drops down to -1.8 on the road. That just doesn’t compute.
Part of the Pacers’ offensive downfall on the road could very well lie with Paul George, who started the season looking like an MVP candidate. The problem with that start was that it masked the hard truth that George just isn’t an efficient scorer or reliable shot creator. After setting the nets on fire from midrange to start the year, George regressed to hitting just 39 percent from that range by season’s end, per NBA.com. When his usage rate jumps two points to 29.2 on the road, it becomes more of a problem that he’s chucking 5.2 mid-range jumpers per game. George’s shoddy ball handling comes back to bite him more than usual on the road as well, as his turnover rate jumps from 9.6 at home to 12.0 in enemy territory.
Is there a solution for George? Well, maybe. It would make sense for the swingman to start attacking the rim more, where he’s shooting nearly 75 percent in the postseason, but that’s not as easy as it sounds against Washington. The Wizards start two bigs more than capable of clogging the lane in Nene and Marcin Gortat, and whichever of them is guarding Roy Hibbert rarely has to stray far from the hoop. But considering that George shooting 28.3 percent from mid-range in the postseason, driving into the forest seems a better option.
Lance Stephenson was groomed in the Pacers cocoon. When he was making choking gestures at the Heat a few years ago, few imagined he’d be one of the hottest free agents in the summer of 2014, yet here we are. The good with Lance is that he can spaz and go for a triple-double (four of his five trip-dubs were at home), but he's just as capable of having one of those 33 percent shooting, 6 turnover nights (7 of his 11 worst shooting performances of the season came on the road).
Lance is actually not as unreliable on the road as you’d imagine. The high-stepping, highlight-seeking Stephenson actually drops his turnovers by 0.4 per game on the road, while upping his 3-point shooting percentage by nearly 2 points. The only problem with trusting Lance with the ball - other than trusting Lance with the ball - is that he can’t shoot free throws on the road, where his percentage drops from 76.8 to 65.7.
You’re rolling the dice with Stephenson basically every night. But the Pacers, especially if they drop Game 3, are going to need some magic. They’re 14-7 when Lance shoots better than 50 percent on the road, and he did sink a dagger to seal their Game 2 win. So why not let Lance be Lance?
There are jabs galore to throw around when it comes to Roy Hibbert, but facts are facts: the man still anchors the best defense in the league, and opponents hardly even try to take it at him. NBA.com’s player tracking shows that he only faces 4.4 attempts per game at the rim, and allows buckets on 32.5 percent of them. And it’s not like the team gets significantly worse on the road: they allow league-low percentages in the restricted area for both home and away games, although at the rim opponent shooting percentages did rise by about 5 percent, per NBA.com. In the postseason, though, they have dropped to third in rim protection (53.8 percent) at home, and that jumps to 58.7 percent on the road.
So why the defensive fall off on the road?
There are a few not-so-small factors that come into play. One is the foul rate; the Pacers commit two more fouls per game on the road, leading to 2.5 more free throw attempts per game for opponents. With teams generally shooting better from the line at home, that resulted in three more made free throws per game for opponents, per NBA.com.
The Pacers’ once-vaunted offensive rebounding, a major strength of last year’s Eastern Conference finalist, drops by about 3 percent on the road, and the Pacers’ hosts grab an average of about three more rebounds per game on the defensive end than they do in Indiana. That’s three fewer offensive opportunities for the Pacers, and for a team that plays as slowly and inefficiently as they do (20th in pace, 23rd in offensive rating) that can have a major impact on both ends.
What the Wizards Do
Washington deserves plenty of credit for turning into a top-flight defensive unit. They finished at number eight in regular season defensive rating, and have dropped their mark under 100 in the postseason, right there with the stingy Pacers. When Gortat and Nene share the court together, as they’ve done for about 23 minutes per game in the playoffs, they drop their defensive rating down to 97.9, which would be tops in the postseason. Those two present some unique problems for the Pacers. Obviously, at this point, Hibbert doesn’t require any sort of double teams. A crucial component of Indiana’s offense has been David West's ability to draw some extra coverage, either due to his proficient mid-range shooting or bullying guys in the post. But Washington can throw two guys at West that can handle his bulk, clogging up the rest of the already-clogged Pacers' offense.
With guys like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza causing havoc for the Pacers’ guards and wings with their speed, length and athleticism, it’ll be tough for Indiana to have any more success on either end when they walk into the Phone Booth on Friday.