At some point, there should be a level of concern for the Indiana Pacers simply not playing well, right? Even despite Frank Vogel's decision to sit four starters and getting just eight minutes from Danny Granger, the Pacers didn't look significantly better or significantly worse than they have at any point this preseason. It's easy to blame jet lag on Indiana's performance. They shot just 33% on the night, didn't defend well in the first half, were out-rebounded, had a horrific 11 points in the third quarter, and going a woeful 25-39 from the free throw line.
Just don't look over towards Indiana's jet lag buddies in Houston for any solace. The Rockets lit up the scoreboard in the first half, scoring 61, getting 21 from James Harden, shooting 44% and 12-14 from the free throw line with 11 three pointers. Granted, they did play their best players, where Paul George's bronchitis led a night of nights off for the starters with Granger exiting in the first quarter with a tweaked calf; the tweak having no relation towards his knee injury. Through Indiana's poor stretches this preseason, glancing at the other side of the ball in Asia and hoping the Rockets were going through the same struggles has been something of a game, but every time the test has come back negative. To this point, the Rockets have simply looked like a more ready team than Indiana.
Obviously, how teams play right now has no bearing in how they'll be playing even two weeks for now when the standings count and 0-4 will mean something, but there should be a sign of progress, and the Pacers haven't shown a whole lot of progress in much of anything. Taken for what it is, however, a game run entirely by the bench and beyond with a few mental lapses here and there, there were some positives as far as their matchup with the Dallas Mavericks go.
Despite the maligned defense, the Pacers did a much better job in the second half of keeping Dallas off the scoreboard. Indiana turned a 57-point first half into just 35 for the second half. They had a third quarter to forget, as the Mavericks ballooned their lead into the 20's, but Indiana was able to stay strong in the fourth quarter, with Orlando Johnson leading the Pacers to within three points after a pair of late triples. Johnson led the Pacers in scoring with 14 points and nearly led the team in rebounds, totaling seven.
Lance Stephenson was the go-to player for the Pacers after Granger's early exit, slicing the Mavs' defense for 13 points and six boards. Stephenson played well (even taking a hard blind pick from DeJuan Blair), but wasn't able to get into a mindset of leading the team as their best player. That may have been a coaching decision, especially in the third quarter, when Lance began to become overly erratic in his decision making.
Luis Scola was active in the first half, where he scored all 14 of his points, leading the starters with three assists, and pulling down four rebounds. Despite a poor 5-15 shooting performance, he certainly showcases an offensive skill set this bench simply didn't see last season. Assuming he can shoot the ball better, there's plenty to be excited about with Scola's addition.
Who played better, Ian Mahinmi or Hilton Armstrong? It's bad this is a question, right? Armstrong was active, leading the team with eight rebounds and scoring five points, while Ian had seven points and six rebounds respectively. Armstrong is certainly not playing below Mahinmi's level, making a case for a roster spot heading into the season, but it'd be preferable if Mahinmi simply played better. Considering the unit he was in tonight with Scola, C.J. Watson, and Stephenson or Granger is likely to be the unit he'll spend a bulk of his time in, it's where he needs to excel in areas such as rebounding or defending. He showed flashes of the latter last year, but in a unit that's expected to give up points, any kind of defensive anchor is going to be a necessity.
Chris Copeland finished strong with a pair of late threes, finishing 3-10 from beyond the arc. It's easy to like one of those numbers, not so much the other, since it's unlikely he'll have 10 chances to hit three. Like most shooters, Copeland should be in and out of slumps at times, hopefully he can find a groove for whatever role he takes on with the Pacers. Donald Sloan also had a steady game, scoring eight points and leading the team in assists with four. Sloan won't get much burn, but appears like a guy who can absolutely carry playing loads this season should the Pacers need him.
The thing that stood out most in this game was just how decent Indiana's depth depth looks with guys like Johnson, Sloan, and Armstrong. These are the guys that won't get much time if any, but they appear fully capable of pushing the regular backup players should there be any bad stretches or need for a temporary change, an option that wasn't even on the table last season.
Considering the depths in which Indiana went to their bench, a somewhat close loss to Dallas isn't the worst thing. Indiana hurt their own cause by not only missing 14 free throws along the way, but their 17 turnovers turned into 18 Mavericks points and they were bowled over in the paint 46-22. These are things to look at moving forward with the second (and third) units, but the starting lineup has strengths that will help minimize those numbers.
That is, assuming they are capable finding their level from last season at some point before the October 29th tipoff against Orlando. In the meantime, Indiana will head back into "it doesn't even feel like a preseason game!" territory when they head north to face the Chicago Bulls on Friday. It'll be an NBA TV tip that shouldn't be blacked out locally, which is something to look forward to.