The Indiana Pacers are good at basketball. They’re one of two teams in the Eastern Conference who appear to have a shot at winning it all, the others being the defending champion Miami Heat. Hot off a thrilling barnburner between these two teams, the Pacers now have to host the Houston Rockets, an upstart young contender in the making. The good news is that the Rockets put paid to the Pacers twice in the preseason, and looked comfortable doing it. The bad news is that the Pacers aren’t just good at basketball; they’re as good as it gets in the league this year.
As with last season, this matchup promises to be a battle between extremes. The Rockets feature a top offense, and the team is calibrated to create open looks inside and at the three point line. No team is as set up to oppose that onslaught as the Indiana Pacers, the ultimate defense-first team in the NBA today. Whichever team can define the pace and the tone for this game will come away with a signature win against a quality opponent. Whoever loses will have a lot to learn from in their fight to contend.
The shadow of Ömer Aşık’s trade request still looms large over the Rockets. The shadow of the Ömer Aşık trade deadline seems to be passing, but that still leaves a sizable shadow to be addressed. Aşık is now a huge question mark for the team, a player who doesn’t want to be there and seems to be doing anything he can to get out. If Aşık is willing to play solid basketball off the bench while general manager Daryl Morey finds a trade package he’s willing to accept, the Rockets have a chance to pick up their win total in a big way. If that were to improve Ömer’s trade value enough to find a better trade, all parties come out ahead. If not… well, the Rockets are in the same situation they’ve been in for a week and a half.
Ömer Aşık’s injury status is still in the air, as according to the team he has a leg bruise and has been getting his knee drained. Whether this is entirely true or if he was being held out partially for trade purposes is unclear. In either case, the door is open for him to play against the Pacers. Jeremy Lin is in a similar boat, experiencing painful back spasms, similar to the ones which have plagued Chandler Parsons for weeks now. Aşık and Lin are both game time decisions, and having one or both would give the Rockets a much better chance to beat a team that almost seems built to destroy them.
Parsons and James Harden round out the M*A*S*H unit, both suffering though their own issues. Parsons seems to be determined to keep playing through his back spasms. During his absence, it was clear just how much the team needed his contributions, making the injuries to other players even scarier. James Harden is also mission critical, and his nasty ankle sprain doesn’t help matters. He seems able to play through it, but it clearly bothers him. As with many ankle sprains, as long as there’s no bone damage (and there is none), playing on the injury doesn’t particularly exacerbate it, which informs Harden’s decision to keep on trucking. This sort of determination can do wonders in the playoffs, as long as players don’t push themselves past their limits.
Unfortunately, the Rockets might need to exceed their limits against the Pacers. The two games they met Indiana in the preseason (in Asia, both times), the Rockets looks crisp and engaged. In fact, the Rockets looked more locked in during those preseason wins than any time in the regular season, barring perhaps the win over San Antonio. The value of these showings still has yet to be seen, however, and a win in Indiana would go a long way toward establishing the Rockets as a legitimate threat.
As with many things, this game comes down to health and execution. Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard are probably the two best centers in the game today, and to see them face off is always fascinating. Paul George has established himself as one of the best wings in the league, something which James Harden has something to say about. Watching these two matchups should be informative and exciting, no matter what the outcome of the game. Hopefully this will be a showdown of two elite teams at full strength, though considering the condition of the Rockets, all we can do is hope we get the full team.