For one second, put yourself in the shoes of the Indiana Pacers.
You’re walking off the court in South Beach on June 3, 2013, ready to board a plane back home. One quarter short of reaching the NBA’s treasured destination, Indiana experiences a bitter Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Eastern Conference alpha-dogs, LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Nobody fully expected them to be there, or be that much of a physical strain on Miami. The loss may have sent Frank Vogel’s young bunch back to the drawing board, but above all else, it provided a seven game glimpse at how formidable they’re capable of becoming.
In sports, teams encounter obstacles that set up three types of outcomes: One, they don’t have the financial luxuries, or luck, to acquire youth and star power to overthrow larger NBA stallions. Or, gathering all the talent in the world in hopes of “fighting fire with fire,” just doesn’t pan out (i.e. 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers or 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets). Then there’s the most intriguing and patient process, that requires three or four years of building chemistry, adherence to certain principles, and minor tweaks, which ultimately sends a unit over the top and allows them to meet their goal.
The most prominent example of the third path with always be Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls who, led by Doug Collins and eventually Phil Jackson, were forced to muster enough improvement and determination to knock off the Detroit Pistons. Isiah Thomas and the “Bad Boys” weren’t stepping off the pedestal without a fight, and that’s exactly what Jordan had to give them year after year. Eventually, the door separating the eventual 6-time champion and the Mo-Town adversaries was blasted down with the Triangle Offense, opening the way for Chicago begin their 1990’s dynasty.
These Pacers sure are mirroring a similar approach.
After a calm, neighborhood boy knock on Miami’s door in the 2012 Playoffs, entering as a three seed and falling to the Heat in a six-game series, Indiana was forced to try again without Danny Granger (knee surgery). Their second run in the 2013 Playoffs resulted in an outcome that Jordan could relate to, being ousted by the same team for consecutive seasons.
Realizing his future stardom and learning how to translate his raw athletic skills into basketball abilities, Paul George took charge this offseason and set his goal in stone; finding the best formula to send the two-time defending champions home a bit earlier than usual.
It’s been two seasons since we’ve had the chance to see a defense as stout and aggressive as the Pacers are illustrating each night in 2013-14. The 2011-12 Boston Celtics, statistically, were comparable with their veteran forwards, lengthy point guard, and mastermind coach. Those Celtics accumulated a defensive rating of 98.2, and allowed just 89.3 points per contest. As we know, they too pushed Miami to the limits in a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals before heading home. As for the year the Boston Three-party brought home the 2008 title, their defensive rating was still marvelous, at 98.9 and allowing 90.3 points per game.
How do the Pacers stack up to those respected, well-coached defenses?
Every opposing coach that steps foot into Bankers Life Fieldhouse never fails to issue complete praise and admiration for how focused Indiana is on the defensive end. Majority of Vogel’s speeches to his guys surely revolve around defensive intensity, and you can also credit each member of the team for respecting Assistant Dan Burke and his outspoken personality when it comes to getting stops. This season, through 59 games, the Pacers have allowed 91.2 points per game (1st) and also own the league’s best defensive rating at 97.0 much as pundits praised the defensive will-power of the Celtics and Bulls (largely due to Tom Thibodeau’s presence with both), Indiana is likely to enter the history books above both of those recent forces.
Without their game plan of “we’re going to shut anyone and everyone down once they attack the paint,” it’s inarguable that Indiana would currently own the top seed in their conference. The ability to be offensive geniuses each night isn’t there yet for this specific group of guys, ranking just 20th in offensive rating, so perhaps their efforts as rim-protectors are still monumentally underrated when put into context of today’s NBA.
You’d be foolish to argue the league isn’t evolving into an athletic repository, with current (and future) generations producing athletes with gifts this league has never witnessed (glance at LeBron James if you think otherwise). With that in mind, it’s becoming an offensive player’s league more and more by the year. That trend can be a direct effect of the joining of two or three elites on a single team (glance at Boston and LeBron again if you’d like), but the league is heading to a point-driven culture. In fact, it’s already there …. to the point of younger generation fans only caring about who’s pouring 40 points on the stat-sheet, while not ever remembering Joakim Noah or Roy Hibbert changing a team’s entire demeanor near the basket for four quarters.
Instead of dwelling on the rough night one may have and publicly blasting a team for appearing a bit lethargic in March, take a step back and comprehend that these Pacers have been spoiling their fans with phenomenal defense since the end of October. As we stand now, they’re substantially more polished and complete on the defensive end than anyone else in the upper-echelon of NBA units.
Falling at home to Golden State
Suffering just their fourth home loss of the season, Indiana fell to Mark Jackson‘s Warriors 98-96 after the Pacers tried to launch a defensive showcase in the fourth quarter.
After trailing by as many as 13, the Pacers were able to hold six Warriors to 4-of-12 shooting in the fourth. Nevertheless, it didn’t include Klay Thompson‘s eruption, as the 3-year guard executed on a variety of buckets to torch the Indiana defense for 16 points in the fourth on 6-of-10 field goals. Indiana happened to storm back within the final five minutes, due to Paul George attacking the rim instead of settling for tons of outside shots, which he could’ve easily done being in a double hole. George drew contact in the middle, and received four trips to the line, knocking down all four. Put that on top of his critical 3-pointer directly after Golden State extended it’s largest lead, and the All-Star was ready to go back-and-forth with any member of the “best shooting backcourt in NBA history.”
The Pacers were impressive in another area during the fourth; containing Stephen Curry, who had it in his desire to put the game away during the debacle. Curry (once again) struggled with keeping possession late in a game, coughing up three turnovers in the fourth quarter while also coming up scoreless. Thompson and Coach Jackson didn’t mind the setback, however, as Thompson appear as confident as ever taking the final shot to escape Indiana victorious. Thompson, guarded by George Hill, connected on a turnaround jumper in front of the Pacers’ bench with 0.6 seconds remaining, placing Golden State up two along with a dent in that precious home record.
Sitting at 29-4 at home, Indiana couldn’t do much about an underrated player hitting a great shot. After all, Thompson has been heavily criticized for only being a “catch-and-shoot guard,” while he has always sought to prove he can put the ball on the floor or even create his own jumper. Everyone knows better than to make those silly statements again after Tuesday.
Perhaps, above all else, the Pacers became aware that even a bottom-seeded team in the Western Conference can give them trouble. The defensive strategies are still consistent with what we seen from Indiana earlier in the year, it’s just minor screws to tighten and Evan Turner finding ways to be effective each night instead of scoring just eight points in his last two games. Since the 17-point performance in Boston (which had every Pacers’ supporter raving), Turner has shot 2-of-14 from the field and came up scoreless in the entire showing against Golden State.
Roster changes get a bit strenuous when still trying to win enough games to lock a one seed, but it’s nothing the Pacers can’t do.
But, then again, isn’t this the team that is still waiting on their potential sixth man to get “in shape?” With just 23 games remaining until Indiana opens the first round of the playoffs, the feeling of change and inconsistency may be more of a concern than having Miami scraping the paint of their bumper.
A two game lead atop the East standings has a chance at diminishing during Indiana’s upcoming three-game road trip, with the Pacers visiting Charlotte on Wednesday, followed by Houston and Dallas.
Offensive fire-power is often the issue for this bunch, but they’ve already found their way to come out on top. It doesn’t always work to their liking against rising stars, but defensive efficiency always gives them a chance. Regardless of any recent struggles against sub-par teams — all resulting in wins (Boston, Milwaukee, Utah) — Vogel has his group excelling greater than any other, in the most important aspect of the game.