The Indiana Pacers have been perhaps the NBA’s most impressive team through the season’s first month.
They might learn exactly how good they are over the next nine days as they navigate what could be the most difficult portion of their schedule.
Indiana continues its five-game road trip Monday night against a Portland Trail Blazers team that has only lost once over the last three weeks.
Though the Pacers (16-1) continue to extend the best start in franchise history, Sunday’s 105-100 win over the Los Angeles Clippers is their lone victory over a team currently above .500. They’ve beaten New Orleans and Memphis, which are both 8-8.
Having taken down the Clippers, Indiana is about to get several more opportunities against some of the league’s elite, starting Monday against the 14-3 Blazers. While they’ll follow Wednesday against league-worst Utah, the trip ends with a back-to-back set against San Antonio and Oklahoma City — teams with a combined 26-6 record. The Pacers then have a day off before hosting 14-3 Miami on Dec. 10.
“It’s a good challenge for us. We’re embracing this trip,” David West, who is shooting 58.1 percent over his last six games versus Portland, told the team’s official website. “We have a whole different animal going to Portland, but we’ve got to be prepared to let this one go, leave this one in Los Angeles, and prepare for a tough, tough game.”
They continue to be led by a suffocating defense, limiting teams to league lows of 86.5 points per game and 39.0 percent shooting. Sunday saw just the second time Indiana has allowed an opponent to reach 100.
However, the offense — averaging 97.5 points on 44.8 percent shooting — is not near that elite level.
“We can become a lot better. We’re still nowhere close to where we want to be offensively, and that’s the next step for us,” said Paul George, who scored 27 versus Los Angeles.
George is 17 of 34 from 3-point range over his last six games. He scored 22 in both meetings with Portland last year while going 7 of 17 from beyond the arc, though he recorded as many turnovers (seven) as he did assists. Second-leading scorer Lance Stephenson (12.6 ppg) totaled just four points while going 2 for 9 from the field.
The Blazers, who have won four straight meetings in Portland, come off a 114-108 road win over the Lakers at Staples Center, just hours after Indiana had knocked off the Clippers there. The finish was a little closer than they would have liked after entering the fourth quarter with a 20-point lead.
“When things are going well, we tend to ease up instead of tightening up and putting teams away,” point guard Damian Lillard said.
Despite the close call, Portland is also playing some of its best basketball in years, having tied a franchise record with 13 wins in the month of November and earning 12 victories in its last 13 contests.
Conversely from the Pacers, the Blazers have been successful with one of the league’s better offenses, particularly from 3-point range, where they’re hitting 41.4 percent of their shots. Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum each average more than two made 3-pointers per game.
LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging just shy of a double-double with 22.4 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He shot 34.1 percent from the field in his three previous matchups with Indiana before going 12 of 17 with 27 points in the clubs’ last meeting, a 100-80 home win on Jan. 23.
Lillard averaged 21.5 points on 58.1 percent shooting in two matchups last season.