Losing four consecutive games never features a positive, moral-victory attitude. Unless you’re the Indiana Pacers, and you can glance at your powerful playoff threat and see them choking up in three straight outings.
Indiana’s 105-94 mishap in Dallas on Sunday night came just hours after Joakim Noah rode the crowd’s (including his father’s) energy to an overtime victory against the Miami Heat. The last two weeks has been a time of ups and downs for Miami, while being nothing but downs for the Pacers. After Sunday’s eventful schedule, Frank Vogel now still finds his team 1 1/2 games above Miami for the indispensable one seed in the Eastern Conference.
Becoming the latest victims of Rick Carlisle‘s Mavericks that are managing to keep their heads above water in the Western Conference playoff race, Indiana wasn’t able to set the tone early. The Pacers found themselves on the wrong end of a 14-4 run within the first 5:25 of the game, with Dallas’ defense appearing better than the mediocrity they’ve displayed all season. The small slump didn’t end until Roy Hibbert knocked in a jump hook over Samuel Dalembert, but the remainder of the first belonged to the now 38-26 Mavericks. Behind a ridiculous scoring distribution — nine players scoring at least two points — Dallas lit up the first with 30 points while holding Indiana to just 38.9 percent shooting to open the game.
Paul George had just about enough of the woeful performances, as he was the attacking force for the Pacers in Sunday’s early stages. George found the rhythm in the first, scoring in transition through two Dallas defenders before capping off his seven point first quarter with a 3-pointer and impressive step back jumper over Jose Calderon.
Dealing with a 12-point deficit heading into the second, the Pacers exemplified the notion that the game of basketball is predicated on runs, and which team can get streaky — on either end of the floor — for short bursts.
The story of the second quarter, and truly the whole first half, centered around Lance Stephenson and his ability to spark offense in any rotational unit Vogel puts on the court.
Stephenson scored nine points in both the first and second periods, giving him 18 of his 21 overall points by halftime. Yes, meaning Indiana completely went away from the “good Lance” tactics after halftime, with Stephenson attempting just two shots during the remainder of the game. Stephenson’s perfect second quarter — 4-of-4 field goals in just over 11 minutes — resulted in a Pacers’ run that trimmed their deficit to just 48-45 heading into the break. It didn’t matter if it was penetrating to the rim, stepping back in the mid-range game over veteran Vince Carter, or scoring on an athletic layup to close the quarter, Stephenson brought the Pacers to life despite Dallas reaching a 17-point lead at one point.
Inconsistent offensive execution has likely been the most glaring reason for the four straight losses, but defensive motivation has seemed to rank right up there. That’s beyond tough to say about this Pacers group, who still owns the NBA’s best defensive rating at 98.2, and surrender 92.2 points per game. However, over the last four losses (Golden State, Charlotte, Houston, Dallas), their defense has been suspect to giving up huge 30-point quarters and have allowed 106 points per contest.
If you love back-and-forth action between two teams desperate for wins, the third quarter would’ve kept you intrigued.
George let a quick three fly to begin the third after using a David West screen to get free, and tied the game out of the intermission. Switching leads for the next five minutes, it appeared Indiana would give it their best fight of the 3-game road trip, consisting of two previous blowouts.
“The early big lead, losing the entire lead, getting down and fighting back. And tonight, this is a top-two team in the league”, Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle told reporters after the game. “We did it by keeping a real even, strong disposition.”
When it came down to crunch time, the Pacers had no answer for Devin Harris and Monta Ellis, who combined for 14 points in the fourth quarter to ice Indiana and send them home winless on the road trip.
After Indiana cut deeper into the lead to eventually trim it to a 89-87 game in the fourth, Dallas flipped the switch and ended on a 16-7 run in the final five minutes. Ellis came through with two game-sealing possessions, beginning with a mid-range jumper over the out-stretched hands of West to give his team a 100-92 advantage with 1:26 to play.
The following Mavericks possession resulted in Dallas’ new gunslinger stepping back over West (again) near the baseline for a fade away jumper. Nailing it in front of the Mavericks’ bench with 56 seconds left, it was all but over for Indiana, who trailed by ten. With the lack of offensive power the Pacers have had for majority of the season, there was no way a miracle was happening on Mark Cuban’s watch.
The day I see a team win a game scoring 90 of their 94 points from the starting unit alone, is the day I say bench importance has died in the league.
That was the case for Indiana on Sunday — minus the win, of course, as the Pacers accumulated three starters with at least 20 points and essentially received nothing from the bench that was thought to have “incredible depth” before the season began.
Dallas’ bench outscored Indiana’s 41-4, with Evan Turner’s two points on 1-of-3 shooting making up half of that figure for the Pacers.
Trading Danger Granger for Turner definitely had it’s reasoning, since Turner’s two best performances (at Boston, Charlotte) consisted of an offensive showcase that Granger hasn’t been able to illustrate since moving to the bench this season. However, taking those two games out of the equation, Turner has averaged just six points per game in the other six matchups, shooting 13-of-42 (30.9 percent). It may be beating a dead horse or playing a broken record, but consistency is key, in every aspect for the Pacers. What good does the acquisition of Turner do if you’re awarded with one solid performance every three games?
Pacers’ fans can’t be more anxious about the integration of Andrew Bynum, who could be lacing up for Friday’s matchup at Philadelphia. What better way to debut for your first true championship contender since departing from Los Angeles, in front of a crowd that collectively despises you. It’s too easy to point out that Bynum’s offensive skill in the post is going to work wonders for a bench that ranks in the bottom five in terms of points scored per night. But, under the radar, it’s not far-fetched to think Hibbert begins watching someone with actual post capability for a few extra minutes resting on the bench.
Indiana received a small boost during Turner’s first four games — all victories — so we’re probably in store for a small revival considering their next four opponents are all teams outside of playoff position in the Eastern Conference. And, as we know by now, being below eighth in the East rightfully spurs the question if you even belong in the professional sport.
Coping With Minutes
With struggles, comes the idea of rotation changes and looking down your roster for potential fillers.
Chris Copeland, who inked with Indiana last offseason after fueling the Knicks’ bench with outside scoring (similar to Tim Hardaway Jr. this season), has been in the doghouse for the entire season, averaging just 5.6 minutes per game and only seeing the court during blowouts. Against Charlotte last Wednesday, Copeland scored 11 points in 12 minutes by putting in three 3-pointers and trying to spark some type of comeback against Al Jefferson‘s playoff-bound bunch.
Many have been fighting Vogel’s decision to keep Copeland on the bench, and those people’s arguments aren’t invalid, by any means.
The only reason I would highly consider placing Copeland into the rotation — especially against the bottom feeders Indiana is set to face this week — is because it’s already past time to be preparing for the postseason. When May rolls around (we don’t even acknowledge the first round in April for the East), what’s going to be among the mountain of factors that will help Indiana defeat Miami?
Spacing out the Heat’s aggressive, disciplined defense.
Erik Spoelstra’s defending champions haven’t just repeated title runs due to having the freak of nature No. 6. Since forming together in 2010, they’ve had a defensive backbone that they’ve been able to fall back on in the playoffs, despite Nowitzki and the Mavericks abusing it in 2011. Against Miami, spreading their defense and opening gaps is a must. Copeland’s ability to knock down perimeter shots — he did break 30 points in two instances for New York last season — could help Indiana down the stretch more than hurt them.
Indiana lacked one thing against the Heat in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals: offensive execution to keep up with the superstars. D.J. Augustin didn’t thrive in the second unit offense, but who’s to say Copeland can’t be effective on the floor for 12-15 minutes per night in this year’s inevitable matchup? Sounds blasphemous to continue going with Turner and Stephenson for prolonged minutes when neither is considered a prominent catch-and-shoot player from long range.
If all you’re wondering is why Miami’s name has been attached to the game plan techniques for the Pacers this season, the answer is simple.
Everything Vogel implements for the remaining 19 games, as well as the first two playoff series, will be to get this 4-game skid and it’s arising problems out of the way. It’s said to be the best opportunity Indiana will have at a title considering Stephenson’s uncertain future with the club next year, so they have to be careful not to blow it.
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.