They’re about to step up in weight class.
Having played the NBA’s softest schedule to this point — a cumulative win percentage of .435, lowest in the league, and just one opponent (Memphis) presently over .500 — the Pacers suddenly head into a gauntlet of games against the rest of the league’s best.
They take a 15-1 record into a five-game road trip that includes dates with the four top teams in the Western Conference: the Clippers (12-5) Sunday, the Blazers (13-3) Monday, the Spurs (14-2) Friday and the Thunder (11-3) Saturday.
For good measure, they then return home to face the Heat (13-3) the following Tuesday.
Even with a date with the lowly Jazz (2-15) sandwiched in, the cumulative record of the Pacers’ next six opponents is 64-31 (.674).
“This will be a great opportunity to see where we’re at,” said Paul George. “We know how well the Western Conference is doing, so I think this will be a test for us early in our season. I wouldn’t say it’s a make-or-break trip but we’ll find out what this team’s made of.”
These venues have been particularly gruesome for the Pacers. They’ve dropped four in a row at Portland, six in a row in Utah, 11 in a row in San Antonio and seven of eight in Oklahoma City.“It’s a heck of a stretch. It’s a challenge,” Frank Vogel said. “Our guys have really stepped up over the first 16 games, taking care of business against a lot of teams with lesser records. Now we see what we can do against the big boys. I’m excited to see what we can do.”
The old axiom “defense travels” should be a comfort to the Pacers. They have the league’s best defense, ranking first in points (85.6) and field goal percentage (.387) allowed.
They have fared well against prolific teams, limiting Minnesota (fourth in the league in scoring at 105.7) to 84 points on .322 shooting. They have shut down red-hot players, the latest example being Washington’s John Wall, who entered Friday night averaging nearly 30 points in his previous four games but managed just eight on 4-of-14 shooting as the Pacers won 93-73.
“I feel like our defense will be able to hold up, which is key, particularly in some of these tough environments we’re going into,” said David West. “We’ve got to be prepared to fight. These games aren’t going to be easy. These are high-caliber teams with top-notch players. Every position presents a challenge for us, but I think we’re ready.”
The Pacers are 9-0 at home and 6-1 on the road, but this will be their first extended trip out West. They’ve established homecourt dominance under Vogel but need to fortify their road presence. They were 19-21 last season and have finished with a winning road record just three times in franchise NBA history.
“We don’t want to be a good team among the best. We want to be the best,” Vogel said. “I know one thing: forgetting the string of games we have ahead, our team expects to win every time we step into a building, no matter who we’re playing or where we’re playing. So if you have that mindset, you’ve got a chance to have a great trip.”
In Vogel’s tenure, the Pacers have gone 51-48 on the road, so his one-game-at-a-time approach, though hardly unique, has resonated with this bunch. As an example, he wouldn’t even answer questions about this trip until after the Pacers played the Wizards and told his players to avoid the topic, as well.
Once they took care of the business at hand, only then was the road trip on the table.
“This is going to be a great trip for us,” said George Hill. “It’s going to make us really figure out what we are as a team, bond us a little bit being so long together. It’s going to be a challenge we’ve got to be up for.”
Five games, eight nights. Individually, each presents its own challenge. Collectively, it represents an opportunity for the Pacers to affirm their standing as the league’s best.