The Indiana Pacers, perhaps you’ve heard of them, are in the middle of a rough week.
The team escaped a minor Indiana snowshoeing in order to jet into New York and the city’s latest colossal crush of a snowstorm, only to be surprised with the news that the NBA would not be suspending Tuesday night’s game against the Knicks. Good news, as the Pacers’ schedule to finish the season is rather packed, no need to squeeze in extra contests on a would-be day off during the playoff race, the Knicks do indeed suck and sometimes they suck on purpose.
And the Knicks are tanking. And they lost Kristaps Porzingis to what would be a season-altering thigh contusion early in the fourth quarter. And Carmelo Anthony overreacts to months of a too-warm winter with hats like this.
And the Pacers lost, only scoring 79 points.
And Nate McMillan, first-year Pacer coach yet longtime NBA know-all as either a player or a coach, went in on his team a bit in front of the press:
“There is no excuse for (the performance). It is not playing the game the right way,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said with a sigh. “And when you don’t play the game the right way, you look like that. Stop moving the ball, start taking quick shots, stop screening. Stop defending. Stop playing together.
“When you don’t play the game the right way, you show up looking like that.”
Here’s the issue. We’re just a month removed from the end of the 2016-17 regular season, and even after 67 games (34 of them wins, good for No. 6 in the East) we still don’t know who the Pacers are. We don’t know what “that” is, and if what we saw on Tuesday (for a team that struggles on the road, ranked 18th offensively) is closer to what we should expect from “that” than what coach McMillan and president Larry Bird expects.
Maybe you should drop McMillan from that scenario:
If you think the Pacers have a badly constructed roster, that makes it hard to blame Nate McMillan.
— 8 Points, 9 Seconds (@8pts9secs) March 15, 2017
Bird: Oh, here are more lamps.
McMillan: They work fine, but why do I need 4 of them?
Bird: Build me a go-kart.
— 8 Points, 9 Seconds (@8pts9secs) March 15, 2017
It’s especially tough when your top … lamp (? Or go-kart?) in Paul George has his tail handed to him repeatedly by Carmelo Anthony down the stretch of Tuesday’s road loss. This nearly four years removed from the Indiana/New York playoff meeting that was supposed to serve as a baton hand-off between the aging Anthony and emerging George.
Many would have scoffed at that position at the time, spying the defense-averse Anthony alongside the (still) critically tough Paul George, thinking George the better all-around (and, by extension, overall) player. What would seem to be agreeable is that a Tuesday night between PG and Carmelo was never supposed to be a draw in 2017. And if you value Anthony’s clutch play (20 points in the last 14 minutes) over George down the stretch, Anthony actually outranked a draw in this Pacer loss.
The good news is that the Pacers have another quick turnaround against Charlotte on Wednesday in order to help forget the entire thing ever happened. The worst news is that the team has been terrible on the second half of back-to-backs this year, despite a cadre of young players, and that the Hornets (despite losing three of four) are battling to avoid their own Plexiglas shame in missing the playoffs again in 2017 after making it in 2016.
Charlotte is at the low end of a spectrum that (kindly) includes them among six teams attempting to make the final three playoff spots in the East. Indiana ranks above that list at sixth, five games ahead of Charlotte, a game up on a Detroit team that was just pantsed by Cleveland, and a No. 8 Milwaukee club that has star power on its side in the game-shifting Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Stinky Chicago and ascending Miami take up the other spots, just out of the ring. The Bulls have the league’s easiest schedule to go through, and surprisingly the Pacers have just one game (April 6, at home against Milwaukee) left in its schedule against the other five in this race, following whatever happens on Wednesday at home in Charlotte.
Then again, and this goes for any playoff discussion we’ll have over the last few months, any planting on strength of schedule during the last week of the regular season will reveal itself as a pointless exercise. We have no idea how the day-to-day roster layout and minutes allotment will look for each team, good, bad or middling. Too many teams have far too many disparate motivations (could this be the year we see a playoff team tank for the low lottery?) entering those last few games, so call off most sincere prognostications.
The Pacers aren’t thinking about the season’s last slate of games (following the Bucks game: at Orlando, at Philadelphia, home against Atlanta) when the immediate road beyond the Charlotte game is so alarming: at Toronto, Utah, at Boston, and then at home to play a Denver team fighting for its own playoff future on March 24. Dropping three of five could drop them out of the bracket with just 10 to play.
All for a team that has split its last 10 games. In a year that has seen the squad answer a four-game losing streak with a five-game winning streak, a three-game losing streak with a five-game winning streak and a six-game losing streak before this ten-game stretch of .500 play. This team can’t even work up wins and losses at a consistent rate.
This is a weird team, but this was always going to be a weird team. This was always a restructuring season, something to build on for George’s 2017-18 free agent year, but by now you’d at least hope that George, Myles Turner and others would have given us something to hang our tam o’shanter on.
Pleas to “play the right way” don’t typically result in a turnaround just 21 hours later, but McMillan (as “angry as he’s been” as a Pacer coach in front of the media, according to longtime observer Mark Montieth) apparently drew on his decades of NBA experience in order to find something for his players to latch onto. When asked what his coach meant by “play the right way” on Tuesday night, George responded with “play the right way,” before thankfully moving on to elaborate:
“They were allowed to be physical and that is what changed the game. We got out of our comfort (zone). We have to play a lot more consistently.”
It is good that both coach and star mentioned offensive principles that led to the team’s undoing, a familiar refrain even after McMillan committed to more guard-heavy rotation choices around the beginning of the month.
The club, created by Bird with an offensive bent, is 18th in offense and only managed 79 points against the (still) hated Knicks. Those just opening their sports pages to the tune of March Madness in the area might note that the swapped out Indy-for-Indy point guard move involving George Hill and Jeff Teague hasn’t moved the needle much for Indiana’s side, and that Hill (and Butler product Gordon Hayward, forever a future free agent and local legend) will be in town on Monday when the Jazz face the Pacers.
Big free agents, unless you count Al Jefferson, Al Harrington or Sarunas Jasikevicius, haven’t come to Indianapolis yet. The team’s biggest free agent draw remains the great David West, who still left $11 million on the table to join a championship hunt in San Antonio in 2015. Meanwhile, Paul George (the man who has been lamenting his lot all season) is a free agent in 2018, and he just copped to his coach’s assertion that he and his teammates haven’t been playing the right way.
All some five months after training camp hit. That, like the Pacers, can’t be great.
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