Heading into Wednesday night’s matchup of the regular-season conference champions from last season, only one looks remotely the same now.
The sub-.500 Indiana Pacers might not have one starter from the team that won the East as they visit the San Antonio Spurs, who are on a roll fueled by tough defense that could make them bigger favorites to repeat as NBA champions if it continues.
While San Antonio (9-4) enters off a three-day break having won four straight and seven of eight, Indiana (6-8) is playing better lately with five wins in seven games despite a depleted roster.
Injuries are a big reason the Pacers, who opened 16-1 last season en route to winning 56 games, are nearly a third of the way to their loss total from 2013-14. Besides All-Star Paul George (broken leg) possibly being out for the season, David West (sprained ankle) and George Hill (knee contusion) have yet to play. Lance Stephenson has moved on to Charlotte, leaving Roy Hibbert as Indiana’s only starter last season to play this fall.
Now the injury bug has also hit Hibbert, who sprained his left ankle early in Saturday’s loss to Phoenix and missed Monday’s 111-100 victory in Dallas. He’s questionable for this game.
Center Ian Mahinmi has seen the bulk of the minutes over the past two games in Hibbert’s place, averaging 11.0 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 8.5 rebounds. Donald Sloan, averaging nearly triple his career mark of 4.8 points while starting for Hill, had 29 points to lead seven Pacers in double figures Monday.
"They’re getting an opportunity," coach Frank Vogel said of his healthy players. "They’ve stayed confident, they’re working on their game and they’re taking advantage of that. They’ve been rewarded for their hard work."
Indiana is coming off its highest-scoring effort of the season, hitting 13 of 26 from 3-point range, but now faces a San Antonio team allowing a league-low 91.3 points per game.
The Spurs haven’t finished among the top five in that category since 2008-09 but have dominated their last six opponents defensively, allowing 86.3 points per game on 39.4 percent shooting overall and 24.1 percent on 3-pointers.
"We usually are pretty solid defensively but not at the beginning, it takes us 30 games, 40 games to get there," guard Manu Ginobili said. "It’s the reason why we still have a good record, because we’re playing good defense. … If we can maintain it and keep improving slowly, we’re in a good situation because we know offensively we’re not rolling."
Ginobili, for example, has totaled just 19 points during the Spurs’ win streak. Tim Duncan has scored 16 over the last two but had four blocks and 10 rebounds in each, not to mention seven assists in Saturday’s 99-87 home victory over Brooklyn.
Tony Parker, meanwhile, has 50 points in the past two games after totaling 13 in the previous two. Kawhi Leonard had 21 points Saturday – his second-most of the season – but is 2 for 18 from 3-point range over the past five games.
"I think we still got some room to grow," Leonard said. "… We’re not making shots, some of the shots we usually make. But it’s early and we’ll get it going pretty soon."
The Pacers’ only win in the past 13 meetings came in their last trip to San Antonio, 111-100 on Dec. 7 – though George and West combined for 48 points. San Antonio rolled to a 103-77 win in Indianapolis on March 31.
Duncan shot 3 for 10 in each meeting, totaling 19 points and 12 rebounds.