Matt Gade, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The comparisons between the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers, and between the two teams' up-and-coming stars, Gordon Hayward and Paul George, are inevitable.
Both teams are so-called "small-market" NBA franchises that, way back in the day, formerly fielded championship teams in the old American Basketball Association.
Now they're both trying to somehow, someday find their way to the top in a league in which championships generally wind up in much bigger markets like Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston or Detroit.
In fact, over the last 30 years, all but four NBA titles have landed in one of those seven cities.
The exception to that unwritten rule? San Antonio, which has taken home the top prize four times since 1999 and gives teams like the Jazz and Pacers hope that, maybe sometime, it can happen for them, too.
This season, that dream could definitely be turned into a reality for Indiana, which brings the NBA's best record (16-2) and one of its best all-around players, George, into town Wednesday night to tangle with the Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.
Indeed, the Pacers have emerged as the small-market championship threat that the Jazz were back in the Stockton-Malone glory days of the late-1990s. And George has become the difference-making player that the Jazz hope Hayward might be someday.
One thing that makes the Pacers so tough to beat is their defense, which leads the league by allowing opponents an average of just 87.6 points per game — the only team in the league that's giving up less than 91.8 ppg. The Pacers have also limited their opponents to a league-best 39.5 shooting percentage from the field.
Utah coach Tyrone Corbin is certainly impressed with the way the Pacers are playing. And who wouldn't be?
"They're one of the best in the league right now in the way they play," Corbin said. "They play more traditionally and have two big guys on the floor most of the time.
"They control the paint. They're physical on the perimeter. Their guys get up in you and have their hands on you. They do a great job of communicating with each other, and they trust that if they get up in you, they trust that if they make a mistake then the next rotation the guy's gonna continue to come and the big guys, (Roy) Hibbert and the guys in the middle, are gonna control the paint for them.
"So offensively, you have to be really sharp in what you're doing because they try and take you out of what you want to do," he said.
Hayward, too, gives the Pacers plenty of credit for being a fierce defensive force.
"They are good all-around defensively, and that's why they're so good," he said. "If you get past the initial guy, then you've got another guy waiting on you.
"I think it's gonna be key for us to make sure when we get into the paint we're looking to kick out and looking to find other people that maybe might have a better shot, because they're good at contesting shots at the rim obviously with Roy Hibbert and some of the other players they have."
The Pacers suffered just their second loss of the season on Monday night at Portland, but it certainly wasn't George's fault.
After all, he poured in a career-high 43 points, including 15 — on five 3-pointers — in the last three minutes of the game. The 6-foot-9 George is averaging 24.9 points, the fourth-best figure in the league, along with 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game. He is shooting 47.6 percent from the field, including 41.2 percent from 3-point range, and 83.5 percent from the foul line.
The fourth-year swingman from Fresno State has scored 20 or more points in 15 of his team's 18 games.
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