Friday night became a missed opportunity for both the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat.
On a evening that featured Mario Chalmers failing to lift Miami over Minnesota by splitting two pairs of free throws, Indiana suffered one of those rare losses that still leaves you proud of their improvement.
Lately — all through March — it’s been one defeat after another for the team that led the Eastern Conference standings majority of the year. The -4.9 point differential in March, which consisted of a 8-10 record, generated criticism related to the Pacers’ offense and quickly questioned their chances at playing in June.
Offensive execution hasn’t been Indiana’s cup of tea since the longtime leader, Danny Granger, hung up his scoring mentality and converted into a role player. Thus, Evan Turner was brought into the equation to provide breaths of life for the 29th ranked bench in terms of scoring. It’s been the persistent issue all season long, as the 25.5 points per game the Pacers’ bench scores is nearly 20 points less than the NBA leading San Antonio Spurs, who receive 45.4 points per night from the second unit.
Yet, some still wonder why Gregg Popovich hasn’t had a season below 50 wins since the 1996-97 campaign (excluding lockout shortened years).
It’s due to developing young talents off the bench and implementing offensive systems that help even the non-scorers thrive, producing results.
The Pacers can’t capture that sense of bench production, but maybe it’s because none of their second units have been led by a true point guard since March 14. Missing 12 straight games due to a right hamstring injury, C.J. Watson is the closest asset off the bench that resembles traditional point guard play.
On Friday at Toronto, The Pacers continued to work their tails off for mediocre results in the second unit. Nine of them came from a guard used to playing in a third option slot, Donald Sloan. One thing that has to be understood about Turner, who scored just two points on 1-of-8 shooting and grabbed five rebounds, is that he’s not going to shine offensively when he’s inserted in a system completely opposite of “here’s the ball, go do your thing and maybe your 20 shot attempts get us a win.” While it may be the case that Paul George entered that stage last month and began to settle for too many contested jumpers, Turner was in that type of role for Philadelphia during this tank-athon season before being traded.
Turner’s usage rating during his 54 games with the 76ers this season escalated to a career-high 24.3, even with rookie sensation Michael Carter-Williams soaking up the nation’s attention. Since joining the Pacers (22 games), Turner’s shot attempts have decreased with his limited minutes off the bench. He’s now playing 14.2 less minutes and attempting 8.4 less shots per game in his new colors. Turner is not the type of player that can instantly switch roles and be effective right off the bat, as it seems tough to expect anyone to be able to go from a team’s “star” to reserve without a rugged transition. It will take Turner more than two months of play to find out how to score when called upon, instead of being the first option every single trip up the floor. Even then, it’s possible we’re talking about a guy that isn’t capable of that transition, and one that needs possessions to start and end with him.
Nobody is accusing Larry Bird of not doing his homework on executing the Danny Granger trade, but it’s appearing as if the studying didn’t prepare him for the upcoming test …. an exam Turner will pass or fail during playoff time.
The Raptors, playing without Kyle Lowry (knee) and Amir Johnson (ankle) would’ve cruised to a more decisive victory if they limited Indiana’s first quarter success. As we know, the Pacers have been the opposite of dangerous directly after tip-off, with first period woes serving as a critical reason for their slump to second in the standings. Before their latest victory (Wednesday vs. Detroit), Indiana scored just 18.9 points per first quarter in their last 10 games. During that forgettable stretch, the Pacers shot below 40 percent in NINE of those 10 first quarters.
You can clearly identify it’s been a point of emphasis for Frank Vogel, as his team has finally performed up to NBA standards in the last two games. Indiana scored 28 points in the first periods of both Wednesday’s win over Detroit and Friday’s loss to Toronto. Jumping all over the undermanned Raptors by shooting 52.4 percent in the first, the Pacers looked determined on the road for the first time in nearly a month.
Offensively, there were tons of moments that forced you to nod your head for Indiana. The glaring difference between their December and March performances was how well the ball moved from inside out, and around the perimeter. Each member re-focused that into their minds at the right time, and it provided results on Friday despite taking a hit in the loss column.
Out of a timeout with 10:10 remaining in the second quarter, the Pacers finished one of their gorgeous plays that resulted in a Sloan 3-pointer from the corner. With Turner driving the ball to the right baseline, Toronto decided to send a double team his way and forced him to give up possession before being trapped. As Turner found Rasual Butler cross-court with an overhead pass, the Raptors’ defense was already completely snapped, resulting in scrambling. Butler, making the extra pass, hit Sloan in the corner for a successful 3-pointer, without a defender in sight. It’s those types of plays that you scratch your head toward ….. in a positive way. Turner’s ability to make quick decisions is still in his game, unlike his scoring for the Pacers. It’s that similar ball movement that may keep this second unit from completely sinking in the playoffs.
Roy Hibbert, whose offense seemed to be traded along with Danny Granger at the February deadline, has had his share of spoiling fans with low post artwork this season. However, majority of the time, he makes it extremely difficult on himself to get going in the paint. More times than not, he’s not establishing position and tends to drift out near the midrange area, which forces him into a less comfortable situation in regards to getting a quality look. Some of it can also be credited to his teammates who, in part, went away from the inside-out basketball in March. They wouldn’t hit the big man in the right places, and that’s where the “settling for jumpers” notion came into play. There’s only so much time on a shot clock once George Hill brings the ball into front court, and the Pacers know just as well as anyone that a perimeter game doesn’t open until defenses start recognizing an inside threat.
In the early stages of the first quarter — within four minutes — this is the type of inside mentality Indiana owned on Friday:
Receiving the ball from West parallel to the restricted area, Hibbert was able to develop sound position against Jonas Valanciunas, and deliver his signature right-handed hook. That shot has been a strong hit or miss for Hibbert this season, but he’s had positive results when he’s within five or six feet of the basket. It’s simple, and while we understand it as critics and writers, nobody understands the stressing of the issue more than Hibbert and Coach Vogel.
Valanciunas did outperform Hibbert the entire night, shooting 10-of-14 for 22 points and nine rebounds, but it didn’t take away from the glimpses of playoff basketball Indiana showed on Friday. Toronto is just a group of athletic scorers that will have to be dealt with in an underrated second round matchup, but the Pacers have the tools to get past anyone in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana whispered small hints of improvement in their last two games — a 1-1 split — and now must prepare for an Atlanta Hawks team that needs to take advantage of every New York loss.
Nothing gets easier for the Pacers from this point forward, but it’s all about piecing together the efficiencies for a 48 minute period.
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]
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