It’s nearly midway through March, and everyone is just now realizing how inconsistent the NBA has been since November. The league is evolving into one that possesses a beautiful feature: past experiences, losses, and blowouts have no strong leverage on future games.
Two days following their late defeat to Miami in South Beach, the Indiana Pacers took advantage of home court and knocked off the Houston Rockets on Dec. 20. A 33-point victory for Indiana was just enough to prove how locked in their defense can be at any given time, holding the NBA’s third-highest scoring team to 81 points and their bearded shooting guard to 12 points and five turnovers.
Oh, how sweet revenge can be in sports. Unless you’re Indiana, in which then it only raises eyebrows and has coach Frank Vogel searching for answers.
Friday evening ranked in the top of the Pacers’ most embarrassing outings of the season, falling 112-86 to Houston in the Toyota Center. The Rockets entered the ESPN showcase as winners of 13 of their last 15 games, and a completely different team than they appeared to be three months ago. To many, no longer are they one of the handful of squads in the Western Conference’s middle tier, but instead have put their names in worthy conversations with Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
Catching just the first half wouldn’t do this game justice, as the Pacers played fairly acceptable basketball through the opening two quarters. Minor flaws were apparent, but Indiana began with bit of determination after being shell-shocked by Charlotte on Wednesday. On the defensive end, Paul George made it a goal in the first quarter to aggravate James Harden, who had the ball stripped twice trying to operate around the perimeter. George kept a body close to him early, forcing Houston to go through Patrick Beverley for offense instead.
The only problem? The Pacers couldn’t orchestrate offense to the same degree as Houston, which got them in a 27-16 hole to end the first quarter. Various offensive principles Indiana’s lived by were still there, it was just the matter of too many misses near the rim.
Basic defensive lapse (which George acknowledges after the Harden score) that sums up the type of slump Indiana is in:
Heading into the second, Vogel issued the perfect statement when asked how to defend the pick-and-roll defense. Within a defensive set against Houston (specifically), it’s important to keep your attention on the player with the ball, Howard’s roll to the rim, and the potential 3-point shooters waiting for the kick-out.
“Well, it’s the ultimate challenge, it’s a pick a poison,” Vogel said. “You got to guard the paint, got to guard the 3-point line. We got to be in our gaps, ready to help, and have to recover out.”
Simple statements, indeed, but it’s absolutely spot on. Defensive gurus may not love hearing it, but you’re simply not going to stop every aspect of Houston’s offense, or any offense centered around a scoring star. Containing them for a handful of possessions and forcing misses is the only hope with today’s talent pouring into the league year by year, and even that becomes pick your poison.
The second quarter looked a lot smoother for Indiana, who out-scored Houston 27-23 in order to take a seven point deficit (50-43) into halftime. Beginning the second, however, the missing of backup point guard C.J. Watson (elbow) was glaring more than ever, as there was no flow to the offense and careless passes resulted in five turnovers for the period. Offensive fouls, likely from the added chippiness that was growing by the minute, held Indiana back from exploding for over 30 in the quarter and potentially taking the lead. Disproving any theory that the Pacers’ defense has completely gone bonkers would be the back-to-back shot clock violations Vogel’s troops forced to end the second, and we know closing quarters is among the top five important areas of the sport.
Then, all McHale broke loose.
Harden felt the need to expose Indiana in the third quarter, which has garnered the reputation of being the Pacers’ time to shine. The Rockets launched six 3-pointers into the bucket — three from Harden himself — to shoot 66.7 percent overall for the period, and rack up 38 points. Houston’s 3-point rampage in the third contributed a great deal to their 13-of-28 makes from beyond the arc, and that’s been a kill-shot against the Pacers for any team. What was lost in all of the commotion …. was Houston’s defensive shut down on the Pacers, who scored just 16 in the quarter that truly needed their will-power.
From that point forward, garbage time dominated the national network.
Indiana’s body language as the third quarter horn sounded — fittingly with a defensive miscommunication by George and Evan Turner — was all you needed to see to realize the state this team is currently in. It’s not panic, it’s not the feeling as if other teams have caught up to their level. It’s the feeling of knowing their defensive game plan isn’t enough to fall back on, and they’re offense is not proving to be any better than the bottom feeders in their own conference.
With the road choke up, the Pacers fell to 46-16 and still own a 1 1/2 game lead over Miami in the Eastern Conference one seed race. Tied in the loss column with Miami having played three less games overall, both must take full advantage of the March 26 meeting in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The thought in December, when the two met twice within an eight-day span, was that mid-season games are not statement games. That’s true, but any game in March surely matters. You have to bet the victor of the next two outcomes (March 26 & April 11) will enter the Conference Finals with added confidence.
David West led the Pacers with 15 points and 10 rebounds, but even he became inefficient for the night compared to what the veteran expects of himself. George scored 13 points and made 5-of-12 field goals after coming up with a doughnut hole in made shots vs. Charlotte.
What’s the loss mean?
The cheap way out, but 100 percent accurate in this case, is the fact that this game told us more about the Rockets than it did the Pacers.
Anyone who criticized Howard’s decision to make himself happier in H-town (including myself) are getting the response they properly deserve. Out-playing Hibbert in every facet of the game in both season meetings, there’s no disputing the fact that we continue to underrate Howard’s basketball ability, and overrate Hibbert’s offense. I’ve let my case rest on Hibbert’s need for major offseason duties (yet again) in order to make more of an impact on the offensive end. Granted, Hibbert did connect on 4-of-6 field goals in 29 minutes with limited involvement, but pulling down three rebounds as the tallest player on the court just begs for media feasting. I’m afraid the only way Hibbert will be able to escape the reputation of being a one-way player (defensively) is by lighting up Miami’s interior in May, and even that has to feel far-fetched the way he’s produced offense as of late.
Houston entered this season with a mix of expectations.
Some, most notably Los Angeles Lakers fan, didn’t expect them to rise into the home court seeds of the Western Conference. Most of those fans had a perfect right to feel that way, as Dwight Howard didn’t give a proper attitude, effort, or winning vibe during his one season in Hollywood, so what’s people supposed to say about that? Nevertheless, he’s matured to an even higher level this season, and he fits the duo with James Harden much better than he did with Kobe Bryant. Bryant is (and always will be) the more skilled shooting guard, but Harden’s youth and athletic ability seem to flow smoother with Howard when you consider Kevin McHale wants them to push the basketball with tempo and strike early in the shot clock. Mike D’Antoni wanted that in Los Angeles, but the problem was that, even when healthy, Bryant and Steve Nash don’t fit that blueprint.
There are defensive communication issues in Indiana, but it’s nothing too large or steep to handle within the 19 remaining games. Offensively, there are some nights you just want to pull your hair out with the ball not getting the proper bounces, and there are nights where the offensive sets look purely ugly. Friday night was an example of both for the Pacers.
If you’re an Indiana fan or native, panic probably isn’t the way to go. The only panic necessary is with the race of the one seed that the Pacers basically admitted they’re desperate for, but even then …. Miami is currently in a two-game funk due to LeBron James‘ complaints about jerseys affecting his shot. So, no ground lost in that battle.
Hopefully soon, people will begin to open their eyes and realize that maybe a loss (especially against a team Indiana already dismantled) could speak louder about the opposition. Houston, now sitting in the three spot out West with a 43-19 record, can add another measuring stick game under their belt. Friday night certainly was one.
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for ESPN TrueHoops’ 8pt9secs and HoopsHabit.com. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter.