Gotta love Paul George; dude is my new man crush in the league. I’ll stop gushing about him, but you look at how he’s elevated his game this season, then look around the league, there are maybe 2-3 players you’d trade him for: LeBron and Durant, maybe Chris Paul, Harden doesn’t do anything for you on the defensive end, maybe Rose/Irving…Love? I dunno, considering he’s still on a rookie contract and contributes across the board, the Pacers are good for franchise players.

Tim Donahue and Jared Wade of 8 Points, 9 Seconds and PG were kind enough to answer some questions about George, Stephenson, Granger, their championship goals, and tonight’s game:

In my mind, Paul George is a top-10 player in the league. He has improved across the board, and more importantly, his efficiency has gone right through the roof with his PER improving to 27.17 from 18.85 last season. What’s his ceiling?

Tim: On Media Day, David West said one of the coaches from the Team USA workouts this summer had texted (West), telling him that, “Paul is a Top 5 talent in this league and can be an MVP candidate.” George is such a complete player, and a complete person. Intelligent and well-grounded, he has met every success and obstacle impressively. Beyond the contributions on the court, he’s been instrumental in Lance Stephenson’s development.

Side note: This is David West’s media day presser. Some great stuff on PG at about the 6 min mark. The whole thing is worth watching.

Jared: Ceilings are tough to judge, but he definitely has first team All-NBA potential. We tend to think of LeBron as more of an entity than a someone we would ever call a two-way player, but nobody but him has the potential to be better than Paul George on both ends. Don’t get me wrong, Kevin Durant will always be better than PG, but in this day and age we are learning that having a complete game is crucial, and Paul George brings almost everything you could want onto the basketball court. In baseball terms, he is a true five-tool player. The total package.

Lance Stephenson has also taken a quantum leap this season. Can you talk about the toughness he brings alongside George on the wing?

Tim: Is there such a thing as a “Power Guard?” Stephenson is such an intriguing player, because he represents both shining opportunity and fatal flaws. Lance is a physical player who brings elements this Pacer team lacks otherwise. His ability to change ends with his bull rush breaks takes pressure off a largely plodding squad. This team – as a whole – is not lacking for confidence, but where players like David West, Paul George, and George Hill have the sureness of professionals, Lance has a swagger with an edge. Lance makes life interesting for all concerned.

Jared: Paul George is supremely confident in his ability and we are hearing him be a little more outspoken this season. But he still speaks like a politician, and never wants to ruffle any feathers. Lance Stephenson, on the other hand, is his own personality. He is rambunctious, volatile and eager to express his emotions on the court. Really, I think it’s as much a wonderful personality balance as it is a basketball balance. In both senses, they fill the gaps in the other guys comfort zone. It’s calm and the storm.

I’m watching these guys play, and they have an attitude and toughness that we haven’t seen since the late 80s, early 90s. How are teams going to respond to that grit when the playoffs roll around and each possession becomes a mini battle?

Well, you might be selling the Pistons from the last decade short, but that’s OK, because I hate them. In any case, I think the key for teams who hope to beat the Pacers in a playoff series is to not respond. Or, more accurately, to respond by sticking to their game plan. As you note, Indiana is something of an outlier, which very few, if any teams have the same comfort zone in terms of style and pace. Before Wednesday night’s game against Chicago, Coach Frank Vogel was asked if he expected a physical game. He grinned like a 13-year old, and said, “I hope so.” Miami beat the Pacers, the last two seasons, because they were a better team. (Well..and, you know, LeBron.) However, they didn’t like playing the Pacers.

This Indiana organization is about culture. This is Larry Bird’s vision. During the preseason, I asked Bird how close this team was to the one he had in his mind’s eye back in 2008, when the “Three Year Plan” was announced. “Some of it was opportunity, no doubt,” Bird responded, “but with the additions we’ve made this summer, I think this could be the team that I was envisioning when this all started. All good guys. They all get along well. My point to them tonight will be to stick together and to do things necessary to win together, because not every night is going to be roses.”

(Would now be a good time to mention that the very first move in Bird’s Three Year Plan was to trade Jermaine O’Neal to Toronto for T.J. Ford and the pick that became Roy Hibbert?)

Jared: The few teams in the NBA that may have more talent will have to rest on that. And that list may be just one team (Miami). Otherwise, it’s really difficult to match up with Indiana. They are so physical off the ball that it really leaves a mark on the game. In this finesse era, it really is a throwback. With Hibbert and West bruising guys inside and the long-arm trio of Hill, Stephenson and George on the perimeter, there really aren’t any teams that will be prepared to deal with this defense.

You cleared out your bench, and added under the rader players like Scola to strengthen the second unit. The final piece seems to be moving Granger; what are you expecting in return?

Tim: I do not expect Granger to be traded, though it’s never wise to say “never.” There are three overriding factors that mitigate against the Pacers feeling the need to move Danny. The first is the fact that they are (or at least appear to be) a very good-to-outstanding team without him or a replacement. The second is that not only is he not disruptive to the team, but he fits well in the culture and locker room. I wrote about his potential return last year (http://www.eightpointsnineseconds.com/2013/02/chemistry-and-a-common-goal-why-the-pacers-think-danny-grangers-return-will-make-them-better/) , basically saying the Pacers didn’t believe they could get something better than what Danny had to offer.

The third – and perhaps most important – factor is next year’s cap situation. With the large contracts of Roy Hibbert, David West, and now Paul George, the Pacers will have only around $6 to $8 million in space under a tax threshold that both owner Herb Simon and Larry Bird have both repeatedly said Indiana will not cross. Indiana needs Danny Granger’s expiring contract, because the organization’s goal is to contend “for years.” Put another way, any Granger trade that brings back salary commitments beyond this season could effectively cost the Pacers Lance Stephenson.

Jared: Over the past two years, the Pacers have had one of the top two or three starting units in the NBA by the numbers. (They are right there with Miami and OKC.) The Achille’s heel has been the bench, which has hemorrhaged leads that they starters build. The Scola pickup was obviously a great fit from the day it happened. He isn’t exactly David West physically, but his affinity for the midrange and nifty finishes makes him a great second-unit replica. And while I wasn’t big on the C.J. Watson signing, he has already shown the type of grit and blue collar workmanship to fit in perfectly. Throw in Danny Granger (I think Lance stays starting when Danny’s healthy), and we’re starting to talk about one of the more-potent top eights in the NBA. Orlando Johnson also isn’t bad, and Ian Mahinmi, while limited, is a very good poor man’s Hibbert that allows that allows the reserves to play very similarly, defensively, to the starting five.

What can the Raptors do to keep this game competitive?

Tim: The Pacers are undefeated, but not invincible. They remain a dominant defensive team, but still are not yet scoring even a point per possession. They’ve trailed at the half in four of their five games. Orlando, New Orleans, and experienced a lot of success (especially in second quarters) by pressuring the Pacer ballhandlers and turning them over. Toronto will need to disrupt Indiana’s offensive flow, and maximize their opportunities when the Pacer bench unit is on the floor.

Jared: Pray? I don’t know. These teams are so far apart at the moment, and Indiana is playing better than any team in the NBA. Unless something weird happens, the Pacers should handle the Dinos.

Scouting Report

Point Guards
With George Hill out with injury, CJ Watson has been playing shockingly well, and should be pesky enough to keep Lowry on his toes based on his stats. I don’t know C.J. Watson, didn’t pay any attention to him until I had him on my fantasy team where I dropped him to pick up Kyle Korver on Sunday…didn’t work out for me. The Raptors are deeper with Hill injured, and might be able to wear down the Pacers pg’s throughout the course of the game.
Edge: Raptors

Shooting Guards
No denying that DeRozan and Ross can score, and they’ve done a good job so far this season. While DeRozan’s scoring is up, his efficiency and trips to the line are down (PER is up to 15.07 from 14.81). Considering his usage is up to 25%, that’s a whole lot more jumpers than beelines to the rack. They will need help from Fields on the boards if they are to have any chance at keeping Stephenson in check on both ends. Oh, defense, they need to pick that up too; Stephenson pops 5.2 threes a game, connecting on 54% of them…yikes.
Edge: Pacers

Small Forward
I don’t wnat to give Paul George the edge, since I’m such a Rudy Gay apologist, but I have too. Gay needs to take better shots, play with a fire lit under him and get to the rack. His speed and length will go a long way in keeping George in check, but the heart needs to be there.
Edge: Pacers

Power Forward
West is a scary dude; starting PF on Jalen Roses’ “I want him in my corner in a dark alley” team. Replacing Hansbrough with Scola is an upgrade in the skill department, but the Raptors can throw a series of different looks at these guys, and hope to wear them down over the course of the game. Not sure how much longer Amir’s three-point prowess will stick around for, but if he keeps this pace up for another 5 games, I wont cringe everytime he puts one up (for the record, he’s shooting better than Bargnani 40% to %33 lolz)
Edge: Even, leaning to the Pacers, but I’ll call it even

Center
31, 18, 16, 27, 28…those are Valanciunas’ minutes played over the first five games; anyone see anything wrong? There is no reason JV shouldn’t be in the 35 minute range a night considering the depth at forward/center this team has. He’ll have his hands full with Hibbert, who’s averaging 5 blocks in 29 minutes of play…yup. Very excited to see how JV does in his first real test of the season.
Edge: Pacers

Line

The Pacers are 9 point favorites (over/under = 187.5)  with 59% of analysts picking Indiana to stay undefeated. It’s a safe bet in my books. Look for Casey to save his starters if this gets away from them early with the Jazz coming to town tomorrow night. Speaking of the Jazz….

FREE TICKET ALERT: Enter here for your chance to win two tickets to tomorrow’s game against the Jazz; we’ll contact the winner tonight by 9pm.