by Kent Sterling
In an 82-game regular season, championships are not won based upon the level of play in game 67 against a team trying to avoid losing its 21st straight.
There was no way the Pacers were going to lose last night’s game against the woefully inept Philadelphia 76ers, but after coming back from a 25-point second quarter deficit in Detroit on Saturday, radar to detect malaise has been activated.
It’s hard to gin up too much concern about effort for a team that has won 50 in 67 games after a 2012-2013 season when they won 49 of 82. The Pacers lead the Miami Heat for the top spot in the Eastern Conference by 3 1/2 games with 15 to play, and who wouldn’t have been pleased with that thought in October?
But is there trouble at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that the Pacers very successful regular season record doesn’t reveal?
The proof will be in the pudding of the next 15 games. Tomorrow night the Pacers will play the Knicks, and despite being a train wreck for the majority of the season, the team Phil Jackson will run beginning this morning has won six straight. Then the Pacers play Chicago at home, @ Memphis, @ Chicago, vs. Heat, and @ Washington over their next five games.
Whatever love the Pacers felt for one another and playing basketball appears to have waned. They have not beaten a team with a winning record since a 118-113 overtime thriller against Portland at home on February 7. That has as much to do with a schedule that hasn’t featured a lot of winners since then as it does with their level of play, but with the gauntlet of top teams awaiting them, it bears mention.
The 11-7 record over the last five-plus weeks is not nearly as troubling as the lack of affection the players show for one another during games. The extra pass isn’t being made, and there has been a recent lack of defensive chemistry and intensity.
The Pacers have done just enough to beat three of the worst teams in the NBA during their recent four-game winning streak. Early in the season, the Pacers were clearly the better team on the floor. Now? Not so much. Those great third quarters where the pacers put away opponents are now very ordinary most nights.
No one expected the Pacers to run through the NBA like the 72-10 1996 Bulls with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, but if the first quarter of the season showed fans the passion with which this team was capable of playing, the last month has given them the opposite.
The final 15 games will show the intestinal fortitude of this group, and will determine where a potential game seven will be held if the Pacers and Heat collide in the Eastern Conference Finals like everyone expects.
While each of the remaining 15 games are important, the final two games against the Heat will go a long way toward determining who finishes on top of the East. If the Pacers win, that would give them an almost impossible to overcome 5 1/2 game edge with 13 games left in the balance. Lose them, and the margin gets uncomfortably skinny.
Whether the Pacers can rally or not is impossible to predict, but this I know – watching them has been a hell of a lot less fun over the past month, and not because of the results. Basketball is like theater. When actors are more interested in listening to their castmates than delivering their own lines, plays become transcendent and magical. When only interested in their own activities, audiences get antsy and the reality of self-absorbed doofuses cavorting on a stage becomes obvious.
The Pacers are trying to recapture a rhythm that appeared natural and organic early in the season. Whether they are successful will determine the level of success they enjoy in May and June.