I had the good fortune of going to the game last night with some good friends who happened to have great seats, as in courtside-across-from-the-Pacers-bench great seats. As strange as it felt, it was real nice watching the game up close without taking notes on a laptop and sharing comments in a game thread or on Twitter.
It didn't matter where you sat in the Fieldhouse last night, though, the Pacers just didn't have it. And by it I mean any fire, passion, teamwork or a pulse. From the opening tip they were flat-lining and flat-out outplayed by the Sixers aside from a late burst that was far too little and a little too late.
The game as a whole, left me wondering about the end game for the Pacers this year. What is the goal? They say playoffs, but it looks more like player development to me. The starters aren't getting it done and quite honestly looked disinterested in appearing like a playoff caliber team last night.
Frustration was the word of the night following the game. What is the root of the frustration? Has the expanded playing rotation not only minimized the minutes of the Pacers' key players but their interest, as well?
Before the season, I felt that the Pacers should aspire to be the Chicago Bulls. Figuring the Miami Heat are a different beast and the Boston Celtics will be past their prime by the time the Pacers are trending into serious playoff contention, I thought setting their sights on the Bulls would be a solid step in the right direction. Well, now the Bulls are already among the elite so that goal remains, but as a baby step the Pacers should aspire to be the Sixers.
Fortunately, Philly offered an entertaining brand of basketball last night with several long, athletic players playing hard and playing together and getting it done. That team has made large strides since they looked pathetic in the Fieldhouse at the start of the season. The players apeear to have accepted their role in the operation Doug Collins is running. Plus, they're a blast to watch. At different times, it appeared Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young were flying in from the rafters to finish plays at the rim. They are a playoff team that will be fun to watch in the playoffs.
The Pacers? They remain a default playoff team until another team in the East says otherwise.
Part of that has to do with the way they've been playing and going about playing. Lance Stephenson has been fun to watch at times while making his share of rookie mistakes. Even though Stephenson doesn't play heavy minutes, carving out room for him in an 11-man rotation has jumbled things up. The minutes for Darren Collison and A.J. Price are in flux from night-to-night. A lot of that can be blamed on their level of play, but maybe their level of play has been impacted by the everyone plays approach.
With Jeff Foster out, the Pacers only used 10 players last night, but Foster's spot in the lineup is important to solidifying the front court for a serious finish to the season. The problem is with all of the back-court players in the mix. Player development and evaluation has trumped digging deep and figuring out a way to right the ship with the guys have have shown, at least at times this season, that they can get it done.
For one second-half stretch of last night's game, both Paul Georgeand Lance Stephenson were on the court together. Having two 20-year olds on the court at the same time in a game like that isn't the move of a serious team, making a serious push for the playoffs. The rooks are eager, they play hard but they make mistakes at both ends of the court. Again, perfect for player development, but not if you're trying to reach the playoffs.
Stephenson made a few beautiful plays including pass to Tyler Hansbrough and a bounce pass through traffic to Josh McRoberts which were fabulous. But he made more blunders than great plays, trying to do a little too much.
For example, in the second half, Stephenson galloped up the court in transition and shook a defender by stopping on a dime and changing directions with a seamless behind-the-back dribble. In unison, everyone in the Fieldhouse greeted that move with a, Whoa! But before the crowd's excitement could rise any further, Stephenson barreled into too much traffic and turned the ball over.
We went from Whoa to uh oh in two dribbles and then ugh when Philly converted that turnover into a dunk at the other end. For a team trying to make a run to get back in the game that four-point swing the wrong way set the Pacers back, forcing them to build another round of momentum.
This is far from the only issue keeping the Pacers down right now, as Ian highlighted today in his post on the use of Hibbert and Collison, but is seems like using a tighter rotation and riding key players more minutes to make them figure things out on the court would make for a stronger, more serious team to close the season.
Of course, then Frank Vogel needs to figure out just who those key players are.