The Indiana Pacers have turned into one big exasperated sigh of a basketball team, and while this isn’t exactly happening at the worst point in the season for that, the timing isn’t far off. Eighteen NBA squads in playoff contention are attempting to steady their rotations and develop rhythm before heading into the postseason in under three weeks, sussing out who exactly is available and who can be counted on most as the two-month playoff slog starts.
The Pacers, who boasted the league’s best record for most of the first half of the season, have lost nine of 15 games. It speaks to the team’s hot start that Frank Vogel’s club still has the best record in the East and could hold onto to that top mark even if the collapse deepens. But a frightening mixture of uninspired, whiny and just plain not-good-enough play has taken hold with the team that was just one win away from the 2013 NBA Finals.
This is all the more chilling because Indiana appeared to have righted the ship with a much-watched and much-discussed win over the Miami Heat last Wednesday. Indiana continued its superior home work against a team it has assumed since last June it would meet again in the Eastern Conference finals, potentially needing a seventh game, preferably in Indiana, to tip the scales. From that win, though, the Pacers fell badly against Washington on Friday, clearly not giving much credibility to a playoff-bound club that Indiana had already blown out twice this season.
Sunday afternoon was worse. With the eyes of the basketball nation looking at Elite Eight matchups in the NCAAs, the Pacers were downright bullied by a Cleveland Cavaliers squad that is desperate to salvage its own season, one working without All-Star Game MVP Kyrie Irving. Indiana scored under 80 points in both games, it was goaded into holding the ball and dribbling too much throughout, and the team failed to make any impact on the offensive glass despite ample opportunity to.
That’s a problem. Whether this is by design (more and more very good NBA teams are outright ignoring anything but the most obvious of offensive rebounds, in the hopes this stiffens a lineup’s transition defense), or because of lack of effort is left to the beholder – and even though center Roy Hibbert should still be considered a Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner, and even though big forward David West is to be respected, the team just isn’t grabbing boards as it did last season. Hibbert’s totals and rebound percentages are down sharply this season, and he’s managed just one double-digit rebounding game in March. A pairing with the San Antonio Spurs on the final night of the month of March doesn’t figure to change that stat.
Though the squad’s top-ranked defense has dipped a bit in recent weeks, it’s the team’s offense that is still the major concern. Indiana was never going to be confused with the 1970 New York Knicks in this regard, but the abject lack of ball and player movement is a distressing trend. Paul George’s start to the season was not overrated – he was playing at a level just below LeBron James and Kevin Durant because he made himself dangerous away from the ball, while initiating quick decisions with the rock when it inevitably found his hands.
That’s gone. And even when George does put up great numbers offensively, he does it in a style that leaves you wondering if LeBron can shut down George by his lonesome come May. George allows the defense to load up, he doesn’t go into his move quickly and his ball handling and shooting aren’t advanced enough to warrant such one-on-one endeavors.
That’s where the rhythm needs to return, but Indiana just can’t seem to again find the fluidity. Luckily for the Pacers, they do have two things going for them.
For one, the team still does have eight more regular-season contests to figure this out, starting Monday with the Spurs. Of course, the fact that Miami is just a game behind Indiana in the Eastern standings could put even more pressure on this frustrated Pacers club, something they haven’t exactly handled well while playing as frontrunners.
Secondly, once the postseason starts, the figurative slates are wiped clean.
It’s not just that the Pacers would be taking on an inferior team in the form of the Atlanta Hawks or New York Knicks. It’s that Frank Vogel can identify a cogent game plan heading into each series, hammering home smaller and more easily identifiable (and, presumably, executable) points, rather than dealing with travel and an 82-game windup. The shooting percentages and rebounds per game go back to nil, and the season starts anew.
Indiana’s focus coming out of the gate in 2013-14 was as impressive as we’ve seen in years. The Pacers truly were playing for a game that was played on June 3 of last year in late October, mindful of that homecourt advantage, undeterred by the fact that their hoped-for prize was still more than seven months away.
It’s understandable things would burn out, and the focus would dissipate. What can’t happen, though, is for a team to lose its nerve and develop bad habits when the inevitable pendulum swing happens, and that’s exactly what’s going on in Indiana’s clubhouse, despite talks of players-only meetings and all the usual hallmarks of a losing club running out of answers.
June is still two months away, but Indiana is running out of time. Rhythm is real, as is confidence, as is focus. The Pacers have come too far to enter the postseason running low on all three of those elements.
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