“Our goal is the number one seed.”
Twist that into different variations, go as far back as October to listen to it, but that’s what you’ll hear spewing from Frank Vogel, Paul George, and the Indiana Pacers.
Fans in the Indianapolis area were spoiled, filled with perfect reasons to believe their professional basketball team could win the city’s first NBA title.
The hourglass of energy turned upside down in the midst of the All-Star break, unraveling the panic button from the closet of Pacers’ struggles. It wasn’t time to raise the hand to slam the button, as single-digit losses to Orlando and Dallas (Feb. 9 & 12, respectively) were understandable. It’s a protracted NBA season, one that college athletes are even overwhelmed by once they enter the promised land. The Pacers were bound to get exhausted in a physical sense.
Little did we know, the weariness would transform into a mental sense. This group is now mentally fatigued, and have been since the March 4 home loss to the Golden State Warriors. Klay Thompson‘s turnaround jumper over the lengthy George Hill didn’t shock Pacers’ fans, as he caught fire that entire fourth quarter. That loss sparked a stretch of losses that no conference leader should have to deal with, as the Pacers have a 6-10 record since that defeat. It’s been up and down since March 4, considering Indiana has went through a four-game losing skid, four-game winning streak, and now back to dropping their last three matchups.
Last Wednesday, it felt as if the world stopped turning, people put off anything they were doing, just for the third regular season meeting between the Pacers and Miami Heat.
At the time, the moment likely warranted the reaction. Indiana held a two-game lead atop the Eastern Conference heading into the Bankers Life Fieldhouse showdown, and their controversial one-point win extended the margin to three games. The Heat were supposed to be written off. George claimed that Indiana returned to “having fun” again. For the Pacers’ leading scorer, upping the defending champs for a second time became “a building-block game.”
Flash the tape forward seven days — exactly a week since the gratifying home victory.
It’s already time to reach for that panic button again.
Not only is the acquisition of Evan Turner appearing to be fooling every journalist associated with basketball, but the bench has started at nothing … and is still nothing, over five months into the season. Since scoring 20 points and igniting a 25-point comeback in Detroit three week ago, Turner has averaged four points per game on 15-of-50 shooting. With that blistering 30 percent efficiency in his last nine games, Turner isn’t keeping defenses awake at night studying a scouting report or watching film.
Instead, opposing defenses are forcing Indiana to settle for contested jumpers, forcing Roy Hibbert to operate his post-up series (along with the hook shot) from well outside the restricted area, and making Turner appear as if he’s lost.
In reality, he is. Turner hasn’t grasped how to convert his offensive skills into a role player, and the problem is that he will not be as effective unless he’s the “star” of the team. It sounds blasphemous, but it’s in the nature of a basketball player. Attempting to transfer a player’s style into one that fits an offense incapable of scoring at times, creates speed bumps in the process. It’s in Turner’s blood to be a scorer, a guard/forward combo that attacks the paint and admires the pull-up midrange jumper. He’s been limited in the amount of looks he receives with Indiana compared to those he got with the helpless 76ers, and Indiana is just now realizing he may not be the guy you can plug into a system that includes three options (George, Hibbert, Stephenson) that need valuable touches.
In their last 10 games (4-6 record), the Pacers have scored just 85.1 points per contest, ranking them dead last in offensive performance for all teams in their last 10. As if that wasn’t alarming enough, their field goal percentage during that drought has been a staggering 38.4 percent …. also 30th overall.
Championship caliber teams don’t associate themselves with those numbers, in any 10 game stretch of a 82-game schedule. When Miami struggles, it never reaches levels of inept offensive ability.
Squaring off with Detroit at home on Wednesday, the Pacers have a plate full of food in front of them. It’s just up to them to be hungry enough to finish.
Detroit is another Eastern Conference disappointment, but they’ve been that way all season. No need to cut any slack for a dominant frontcourt that failed to accomplish anything. They did, however, upend the Pacers on Indiana’s home floor for their first home loss of the season back on Dec. 16, but the Pacers now own the psychological advantage after ripping out Detroit’s heart in that second half comeback in March.
Defeating the Mo-town squad that was vulnerable enough to drop a game to Philadelphia is just Indiana’s first step toward the one seed.
After Wednesday, six games remain for the Pacers — two at home and four on the road. Hosting the Atlanta Hawks isn’t going to be a cakewalk, considering Paul Millsap and company are grueling their way toward locking up the eight seed, desperately holding of the New York Knicks. The last thing Indiana needs is a 3-point barrage (Atlanta ranks first in 3-pointers made per game) to swarm The Fieldhouse during this ugly turmoil. The last remaining home game, vs. Oklahoma City, has a screeching cry for help written all over it. Kevin Durant will likely have Michael Jordan‘s 25+ point scoring streak broken by that meeting, but giving one last statement — after already downing Indiana by 24 points in December — won’t leave Durant with any regrets.
The last road games for Indiana (in order) include matchups at Toronto, Milwaukee, Miami, and Orlando. That places them against two hostile environments, Toronto and Miami, that currently hold spots in the top three seeds of the East. For Miami, they also enter a rough stretch of four games – New York, Brooklyn, Memphis, and Indiana — that they’ll have to play within a seven day period.
The race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference is far from over, even though the NBA calendar is closing on us, and playoff brackets are emerging.
Indiana at Miami, April 11 at American Airlines Arena.
That’s what settles it, in all likelihood. And that’s the day that deserves the substantial media ruckus.
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]