by Kent Sterling
The Indiana Pacers have 14 games left in what fans hope will end in June with the franchise’s first NBA Championship, and while that is still a possibility, with every game since January 20th it has looked less likely.
That was the date the Pacers last played a game where they appeared to be a championship caliber team. Since then, they have gone 17-11, and have not looked like a team ready to win against playoff caliber teams.
Whether or not the Pacers can regain the mojo that led them to the 33-7 record on January 20th is why we watch the games night after night. Every night fans hope, and the Pacers clunk along, barely beating terrible teams like the Bucks, 76ers, and Pistons, while losing to decent teams like the Knicks last night.
And now the schedule gets tough – really tough. With 14 games left in the regular season, the Pacers play Chicago (38-30), Miami (46-20), San Antonio (51-16), Detroit (25-42), Atlanta (31-35), and Oklahoma City (49-18) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. There are eight left on the road against Memphis (40-27), Chicago (38-30), Washington (35-32), Cleveland (26-42), Toronto (38-29), Milwaukee (13-55), Miami (46-20), and Orlando (19-50).
For those too lazy to count, the Pacers have nine games remaining against teams with a winning record (three of whom are championship contenders) and five who’ve lost more than they have won. The last time the Pacers beat a team with a winning record was on February 7th.
What has caused this recent malaise for the Blue and Gold? Some fans point to the roster adjustments made by team president Larry Bird. Andrew Bynum was signed on February 1 when the Pacers were 35-10. They promptly went out and won their next four. Bynum has played in two games – both victories. If Bynum eroded team chemistry, the results don’t show it.
Danny Granger was traded to the 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen on February 20th. The Pacers won their next five, although they were against five of the worst teams in the NBA. Overall, the Pacers are 9-5 since the deal. Granger played only five games last year while the Pacers charged into Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals, so that seems a tough putt too.
Lance Stephenson was distraught over being snubbed by those selecting reserves for the NBA All-Star Game. Prior to the break, the Pacers were 40-12. Since, they are 10-6. How about Luis Scola – one of the keys off the bench early in the season. Through the first 40 games in which the Pacers were 33-7, Scola scored eight or more points 25 times. In the following 28 games, Scola has scored eight or more only 12 times.
There are statistics that show why the Pacers have been less successful – increased turnovers, decreased assists, and Paul George’s reduction in productivity (in games when PG has scored less than 20 points, the Pacers are 15-9. When scoring 20+, the Pacers are 35-9), but it seems that the problems are the cause of the statistical issues, not the other way around.
Sometimes numbers and mileposts aren’t enough to explain the successes or failures of a team over the course of an 82-game season, and this appears to be one of those times. The Pacers just don’t look right. The lovefest that appeared to be in full flower early in the season is over. There is occasional contention among teammates, as you would expect with highly competitive men earning millions as they all individually try to find the combination to unlock the level of play that came so easily three months ago.
Coach Frank Vogel tries to steady the ship through consistent management, which is the right course, but still the team is stuck in an morass of mediocrity.
The Pacers rallied after slumping at the end of the regular season in 2013, and the keys to this group are still very young, so there is still great hope the cause of the recent spate of slow and unsteady play will be resolved before the consequences become dire, but it’s hard to see a path clear to greatness.
Fortunately, the Heat have lost six of nine, and appear to be as tired as the Pacers. Pacers fans would have gladly accepted being up three games with 14 to play when this marathon of a season started, and that’s right where they are. The Heat have four back-to-backs left, and that’s not going to help them regain their legs.
The battle for home court between the Heat and Pacers will be one of attrition, and the two games between the rivals will go a long way toward determining the winner.
The answers will come during the last 14 chapters of this fascinating season, and the fun will begin tomorrow night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against the resurgent Chicago Bulls.