Last Wednesday’s victory over the Miami Heat — in the most over-hyped regular season game I’ve witnessed — was destined to be the turning point for the Indiana Pacers. Before that meeting, Frank Vogel had his team 7-7 in the month of March, and entering the night with far less confident than their last street fight with the defending champions.
The notion that Game 7 of a Eastern Conference Finals would be at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, lasted about a day.
Road woes spooked the Pacers once again on Friday, as the Washington Wizards refused to let their playoff positioning slip, defeating Indiana 91-78. The 13-point loss pushed the Pacers’ road record to 19-17, which is mind-boggling when you realize they’ve only dropped 21 games on the season. That translates into a home record (33-4) that’s untouched by anyone in the league, with Doc Rivers‘ Clippers being the only other squad with 30 or more home victories.
In Friday’s embarrassment — a game that Washington once led by 21 — we grabbed a taste of many issues the 23rd-ranked offense has dealt with since they’ve assembled. And, since Roy Hibbert was mistakenly portrayed as Shaquille O’Neal in last May’s conference finals.
Vogel believed the loss (which narrowed the lead for the East one seed to just two games) was simply the result of a lid keeping the ball out of the cup.
“Just a poor shooting night from a number of different guys,” Vogel said. “Lack of shot-making took our spirit a little bit.”
There’s certainly truth in his assessment, seeing as Indiana shot 35.4 percent as a unit, and their two most dynamic point producers (Paul George and Lance Stephenson) shot a forgettable 9-of-35 (25.7 percent) from the field. When guys don’t produce, the masterful defense doesn’t matter …. at least in terms of improving the win column. LeBron James seems to have the idea that Indiana isn’t suited to send him home early, issuing a postgame comment mocking the Pacers’ offense:
LeBron told that Indiana lost. “How many they score?” Told it was 78. Smiles, shakes head.
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) March 29, 2014
When your most formidable offensive weapon is George, whose efficiency has fallen apart and been strapped on the world’s largest roller coaster in 2014, you’re suspect to close matchups these days.
At the heart of Indiana’s problems throughout February and March rests the accountability of George and his errant play. If “Miami” is slapped on the front of a jersey, he’s making plays, continuously ball-hawking on perimeter scorers and more often than not, he makes the right basketball play. If any of the 28 other teams step up to the plate, you never know if he’s ready to deliver strikes or fuel their fire with too much pressing on the offensive end, and bone headed turnovers. The terms “you never know” are to be emphasized, as inconsistency has struck George this season more than his previous three. Credit the media “superstar” hype for that one, folks.
Aside from the fact that Indiana can’t generate points night in and night out to the degree of the Clippers, Houston Rockets, or Portland Trail Blazers (three Western Conference juggernauts with the ball), what else has been their fans’ number one reason to face palm their way through March?
Friday’s defeat didn’t stray away from the Pacer norm, neither. George was responsible for five of Indiana’s 17 turnovers, including one that featured him forcing a cross-court pass when a play became broken late in the third quarter:
Here, George uses a relatively weak David West screen to drive to the right. When Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington aggressively cut off any action near the right corner, George rightfully looks to get the ball out of his hands with five seconds left on the shot clock — the very next pass must equal a good look for a teammate. Miscommunication results in a bad pass through traffic (mainly Hibbert and Turner) and doesn’t find George Hill in the corner.
It’s a perfect illustration of how this team does not gel on the offensive end, and 50 percent of the blame is placed on Hill, who can’t expect a clean look to be delivered through two teammates, or over the head of pesty Washington bigs. Hill could’ve flared up to the wing a couple steps, instead of standing flat-footed in the corner waiting for the ball to get to him. Small points such as this are why Hill’s comments of “I’m not a point guard, I’m just a guard” are incredibly genuine. In a moment that should’ve been critical to the Pacers’ minds — trailing by nine with a chance to close gap before the fourth quarter — George had West on the pop out after the screen. Washington’s defense was stellar, and but it hasn’t taken much to figure out Indiana’s offense struggles with intense pressure on the ball handlers. They tend to make horrid decisions when under pressure, and the only way they can ever outweigh the near 20 turnover losses is when George explodes. Those heroics remain in January, however.
The other powerful pitfall the Pacers have experienced in the latter stretches of the season has been their inability to develop ideal post position for Roy Hibbert and their frontcourt pieces. When Andrew Bynum was available — the two games in which he played 36 total minutes — Indiana noticed an easier method of getting the ball into the paint. Reason being, Bynum’s body allows him to create a position deeper inside, as we also saw during his tenure with the Lakers.
More often than not, the shot clock ticks and ticks before anything becomes a viable option. Either that’s the issue, or they’re forced to rely on Hibbert making something happen further away from the basket:
With the shot clock under 10 , George looks to deliver an entry pass to Hibbert, after Turner clears out instead of waiting for a lob over the fronting Martell Webster. Hibbert literally ran Turner out of the play, trying to unclog the lane for a post-up scenario. The entry pass was made with plenty of time to operate. The central problem? How often do you see Hibbert execute the running hook outside the restricted area? This specific play works as a break for Hibbert, who draws the foul on Marcin Gortat, but the level of efficiency isn’t what you aim for. Wednesday’s first quarter vs. Miami demonstrated exactly the offensive attack this team needs in halfcourt situations, if they do intend on getting the 7’2″ center involved.
Hibbert attempted just eight shots on Friday, opposed to the 15 against the Heat, and got to the line four less times than he did on Wednesday. Apparent in Wednesday’s matchup were low post catches, quick decisions by George and company to feed Hibbert the ball earlier in the shot clock, and aggressiveness by the center to get to the spots where he’s most comfortable (a foot outside the restricted area, balanced, with a turnaround hook).
Indiana only brings their A-game with the George/Hibbert duo once or twice a month, notable against their South Beach rivals. The gorgeous pick-and-roll sequences the two are capable of is hindered when they stray away from it on the road. That’s not the mentality you need to have, and it’s forcing the perimeter motors — George and Stephenson — to feel as if they need to carry the load. Get Hibbert playing with the sense of attack that DeMarcus Cousins does in terms of pounding the ball near the cup, and the rest of the offense will open, develop more space, and lead to points. The easy excuse is to blame the defensive pressure, stating Gortat is much more physical and can deny the post better than Greg Oden, who Hibbert torched on Wednesday. While that’s true, how do you ever expect to become respected as an offensive threat against the NBA’s top centers? The days of Hibbert not asserting himself, and his teammates not getting him in better situations, have to end.
The Evan Turner acquisition at the trade deadline may have been the most overrated addition for a title contending franchise. Only twice this month have we seen Turner perform like the type of sixth man that can get Indiana over Miami in seven games. As critical as it was, his eight points vs. Miami on Wednesday don’t fall in that category. March 5 at Charlotte — a blowout loss to start a road trip — Turner scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting, and didn’t come alive offensively until five games later. March 15 at Detroit, which happened to be the largest comeback victory of the season, Turner scored 20 points on 8/15 shooting.
Turner in the last three Pacer losses (Memphis, Chicago, Washington)? You barely recognize his presence with 3-of-13 field goals and 3.6 points per game. Although Danny Granger just hit the floor with a left hamstring injury, the trade advanced the Pacers’ chances of winning the Eastern Conference by …. nothing. Indiana began the year 42-13, and have went 10-8 since pulling the trigger for Philadelphia’s former leading scorer.
The problems for Indiana stack higher each and every road game, leaving tons to touch on next time a ripping is needed.
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for 8 Points, 9 Seconds and HoopsHabit.com. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter. You can contact Shane via email: [email protected]