It went from bad to worse for the Indiana Pacers in the first half of last night's contest, and the term "worse" does not seem near bad enough. As most fans are likely aware, Sunday evening's version of the Blue and Gold is not a very entertaining team to watch, in fact, far from it. On the night, they put up their poorest half of basketball in NBA franchise history. Over that span, they connected on just seven field goals and scored a grand total of 23 points. They recorded one assist and committed nine turnovers. Frank Vogel was left reeling by his team's sluggish play, and, to his credit, made every attempt to desperately search for answers. First, he tried giving the entire starting unit a wake-up call, or, perhaps a break, by completing a rare wholesale substitution. When that failed to yield fruitful results, he reinserted George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, and David West, along with third-string center Lavoy Allen. Yet, in this particular contest nothing worked, nothing clicked, and absolutely nothing seemed to alter the course of the game.
Sure, the poor offensive output coupled with the Hawks' scorching hot shooting from the field was hard to stomach. No one wants to watch a team that some pegged capable of contending for a championship suffer a humiliating defeat on their home floor. That being said, bad losses happen - even to, well let's say, competitive teams - and fans have to expect a few of those during the course of an 82 game season. Yes, getting pounded by a middling team is a problem, but what was far more nauseating and concerning is the reaction some of the Pacers exhibited in response to losing.
Without being a fly on the wall of the locker room, it is impossible to know what exactly has caused, what seems to be, the erosion of the Pacers' highly vaunted team chemistry and to try to speculate, as an outsider, would be somewhat irresponsible. Nevertheless, watching an All-Star caliber center slump in his seat, roll his eyes, shake his head, refuse to take part in huddles, return late to the bench, and never reenter the game due to coach's decision was disappointing to say the least.
More embarrassing, if at all possible, was the fact that several media outlets present at the game reported that General Manager Kevin Pritchard felt it necessary to sit on the Pacers' bench as members of the team ventured out of the locker room after halftime.
Given the current dismal state of the team, the fast approaching start of the playoffs may seem to spectators like more of an end to a promising season that was than an exciting opportunity for what could be.
Trailing Miami by a full game, the Pacers are just going to have to come to embrace being second best when it comes to the standings. At this point, they should feel fortunate that the No. 2 seed is already guaranteed, and, perhaps, look forward to some much needed rest, as well as, what may be an easier match-up.
If the playoffs started tomorrow, the Pacers would be hosting the Charlotte Bobcats. Unlike the Atlanta Hawks, the Bobcats play a slower and more grind-it-out style that is more comparable to that of the Blue and Gold. They rank 21st in the league in pace (92.5 possessions per 48 minutes), and their offense ranks 26th in the league (averaging just 96.7 points per game). In comparison, the Pacers rank 20th in pace (92.7 possessions per 48 minutes), and their offense ranks 23rd league-wide (averaging 96.8 points per game). Of course, the phrase "easier match-up" should not be misconstrued to mean that this version of the Indiana Pacers would be guaranteed to advance to the semi-finals. Al Jefferson's name should, at least, be tossed around in the MVP race, and, thus far in April, he is posting his best numbers of the season, averaging 26.0 points and 13.7 rebounds per game.
It is doubtful that the Pacers, with their current state of production, are concerned with the Heat's upcoming schedule or their place in the standings, thus no update on their conference rival's status needs to be provided. Instead, this update, not unlike the Blue and Gold's mindset, needs to be entirely introspective.
First of all, an extremely poor performance against a desperate Atlanta Hawks team does not have to derail the Pacers' playoff hopes unless they choose to let it. If there is a silver lining to be found in what started off to be an utter display of ineptitude, it has to be that the Pacers refused to just lay down in the third and fourth periods. Instead, what was likely an embarrassed team serenaded by boo-birds chose to compete and, ultimately, won the second half, 65-52.
There are logical, basketball-related reasons behind the Pacers' collapse against Atlanta. As several members of the team admitted following the game, the Hawks - especially with stretch five, Pero Antic in the line-up - are a tough cover for, not only Roy Hibbert, but also the team's grander defensive scheme. On January 8, when the Pacers were 28-7, the first half of Indiana's game in Atlanta produced a similar result. Indiana managed to score just 12 points in the first quarter, they dug a 17 point hole, and Antic scored 16 points. On this particular go-around, the Hawks, looking energized by the greater probability of a playoff berth, were loose and shot the ball with accuracy reminiscent of a cheat code in NBA 2K14.
Furthermore, as Frank Vogel noted after the game, the starters do look warn down and for good reason. Some may view this as an easy excuse for the Pacers' poor play, but, when querying basketball reference's line-up finder for five man units in descending order of minutes played, Indiana's starters led the field by a wide margin. In first place, George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert have recorded 1422.1 minutes of game action together. The only other two teams to even come close to that staggering minute total are Portland's starting unit with 1290.6 and Golden State's with 1051.9. No other 5-man unit has even broke the 800 minute mark this season.
Need more evidence of possible fatigue?
According to Player Tracking data, Paul George, the Pacers' main offensive weapon, has traveled a total of 196.23 miles this season, the second greatest distance of any player in the league. Per game, he averages a distance of 2.5 miles at a speed of 4.4mph.
While these numbers should not be considered as the be all and end all of answers for Indiana's struggles, there is no denying that overemphasizing seeding over rest has played, at least, a minor role.
Whether this game can just simply be chalked up to one of those nights is, of course, debatable. Moving forward, the Pacers are going to continue to find themselves at a crossroads. They can view the season as a total loss and prepare to move in separate directions this summer, or they can, as they once did, band together, keep pushing, stay positive, and get back to work.
As for Roy, it is impossible to decipher, for sure, if his more than apparent pity party was the product of a coach refusing to wear out his All-Star in a game with definite match-up problems, or if his demeanor should be interpreted as an outward sign of a much deeper problem. After the game, Paul George described the Big Dawg as a "competitor" who just desperately wanted to be part of the game. Whatever the case, if the Pacers have any chance of righting the ship and advancing in the postseason, there is no doubt that they are going to need the Defensive Player of the Year that Roy is more than capable of being.
In the coming days, the Pacers are going to need to do some soul searching. Paul George said after the game that the team "came together" in the second half and did not feel like the game was over. David West stated he was not about to "bet against" this team, and Frank Vogel voiced that he "believe(s) in this team's character." For a squad that began the season 40-11, the blueprint for success is already there. Whether they choose to remain upbeat, pull for each other, and remember what exactly it is they are playing for is entirely up to them. After a long hiatus, it would be a shame for selfish behavior or splintering team chemistry to, once again, be the downfall of a Pacer team that brought fans and excitement back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.