After enduring three straight double-figure losses against the Spurs (82-92), Thunder (99-16), and Heat (107-124), the Charlotte Bobcats managed to have their way with the league-leading Indiana Pacers. Offensively, the Blue and Gold, playing their fourth game in five nights, looked like a team that would have failed to accurately throw a golf ball in the ocean. As a team, they managed just eight points in the first quarter - an NBA franchise low. Sadly, if at all possible, the individual offensive numbers were even more cringe worthy. The Pacers' two All-Stars combined for just 6 points on 2-of-17 shooting. David West - the prototypical backbone - also had a woeful night from the field, scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting, and, at one point, even inexplicably decided to jack a three point shot. Not to mention, adding insult to injury, the league's stingiest defense somehow gave up 109 points to the NBA's 26th ranked offense. Simply stated, the Pacers looked fatigued, frustrated, and undisciplined.
Naturally, when the squad with the league's top record has one of their worst performances of the season in early March, it should be expected that the NBA community will start sounding the alarm. Like clockwork, the panic meter was racking-up time-and-a-half throughout the day on Wednesday. Ah yes, the morning after, when, in just one contest, the Pacers' managed to unequivocally prove that they are overrated, past their peak, and lacking in mental toughness. Nevertheless, it seems much more prudent to utilize numbers and take a stroll down memory lane in order to debunk a few myths, before hastily leaping off the bandwagon.
Myth #1 - Champions Don't Have Losing Streaks
Alert the presses, the Pacers have lost two consecutive games. Sure, the second loss was booked-in with an incomparable flair for the embarrassing, but it should be noted that this is only the second time the Pacers have lost back-to-back games all year. Even so, for whatever reason, it seems that fans and the media alike have gotten it in their heads (probably due to the Heat's 27 game win streak) that championship contenders never endure losing streaks or lulls during the NBA season, when, in reality, the opposite can actually be true.
For evidence that champions are not infallible, just check out the game logs from the past decade of title winners. Although quite possibly a sore point for Pacers' enthusiasts, the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons (ranked 2nd in defensive rating, 2nd in opponent points allowed, 24th in pace, and 24th in points per game) had to sojourn through numerous valleys before reaching the mountain top. In fact, during the month of February, they lost 8-of-9 games, not to mention, on the season, they lost at least two consecutive games on five separate occasions.
If further proof is needed, every champion since the Detroit Pistons has endured back-to-back losses. With the exception of the 2007 San Antonio Spurs (who only lost multiple games once), the 2005 Spurs lost consecutive games on five separate occasions, the 2006 Heat (8X), the 2008 Boston Celtics (3X), the 2009 Lakers (4X), the 2010 Lakers (5X), 2011 Dallas Mavericks (5X) the 2012 Heat (6X), and the 2013 Heat (3X).
Bottom line - the 82-game season is long and grueling, and spectators have to be ready to ride out the highs and the lows.
Myth #2 - The Pacers Peaked too Soon
Faint memories of the Pacers' early season dominance have begged, some within the NBA community, to question if Indiana has already played their best basketball this season:
Did the #Pacers peak too early?— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) March 6, 2014
This point is, of course, based more in fact than fantasy. After all, the Pacers did begin the season dropping just seven of their first 40 games, and have, since then, gone 13-8. Even so, historical evidence can, once again, serve to inform readers that this is not necessarily an uncommon phenomenon for Conference or Finals winners. In fact, the 2010 Boston Celtics went just .500 (14-14) post All-Star break before unexpectedly winning the Eastern Conference Finals and lasting seven games against the eventual NBA champion, Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, in 2011, the Dallas Mavericks dropped six straight games from January 6 thru January 17; notably, four of those games in the loss column were by double figures. Then, to end the season, the Mavs dropped four games from March 31 - April 6 (one of which was a 28 point thrashing). Most recently, although somewhat due to rest games, the 2013 San Antonio Spurs lost 7 of their last 10 games to end the regular season before winning the Western Conference Finals.
Now, undoubtedly, the Pacers should not just brush off some of their recent shortcomings based solely off the 2010 Celtics. In fact, following last night's abysmal performance, David West candidly admitted that the team hasn't possessed their signature "mojo" as of late. Lance Stephenson also chimed in stating, "Right now I think we're on our downs." Granted, "downs" might be a slight understatement for the egg they laid in Charlotte. However, that being said, two straight losses when four Pacers (Paul George, C.J. Watson, Ian Mahinmi, and George Hill) were dealing with nagging injuries is not cause to write them off because, as the saying goes, history is capable of repeating itself.
Myth #3 - Paul George's Slump
As most already know, PG did not have his best game of the year in Charlotte. He went 0-of-9 from the field and 0-of-4 from the behind the arc. If not for two freebies, he would have gone scoreless on the night. Unfortunately for the Pacers, the Palmdale product's shooting hijinks were not just limited to his woeful performance against the Bobcats. Since January 1, as noted here by Kevin Zimmerman, George is shooting just 36.4% and his eFG% is 46.6%.
Be that as it may, those statistics do not tell the whole tale of PG's recent play. Certainly, it is important to remember that the Pacers' star endured a nasty fall against the Utah Jazz on Sunday. Prior to that injury and post All-Star break, PG was averaging 28 points on 45% shooting (Note: Excluding October when the Pacers played just two games, these averages are better than any other month this season). Since the All-Star break, he has scored 25 points or greater on five occasions.
Quite possibly, some of his recent offensive slippage, if you want to call it that, could be attributed to his sudden inability to draw fouls. For whatever reason, PG was more successful earning trips to the charity stripe in November (70 FTA), December (83 FTA), and January (87 FTA), than he was in the month of February (only 58 FTA). Of course, all of these missed opportunities negatively impact not only his scoring average, but also his field goal percentage (Note: what would be marked down as free throw attempts is instead recorded as a missed shot attempt).
If Paul's shooting can, in fact, be described as a slump, he would not be the first potential playoff MVP to struggle from the field. In 2004, the Pistons' MVP, Chauncey Billups, averaged 16.6ppg on .378% in December and 14.6ppg on .413% in January. In 2008, Paul Pierce averaged just 17.6ppg on .428% shooting in the month of January. Consequently, perhaps it is best not to overanalyze PG's recent mini slump. Especially when, with regard to his recent injury, George admitted after the game, "last night [GSW] I was able to get through it based on adrenaline." George, then added, it was a "tight night for me." As Frank Vogel always states, the Pacers strive to be a "balanced attack" when one man struggles the rest of the team has to be ready to step-up. Now, when PG puts on the jersey there can be no excuses for poor play, but there definitely, in this case, can be a legitimate explanation.
Not to mention, as this is being written, LeBron James, who, of course, is relied upon to carry a heavy load for the Miami Heat, was 6-of-18 from the field and 0-of-3 from three point range against the San Antonio Spurs. Therefore, even four-time MVPs can be inefficient once in a while.
Myth #4 - The Pacers will NOT beat the Miami Heat
Although the Heat have trailed the Indiana Pacers in the win column for the entirety of the 2013-2014 season, at least one NBA analyst is confident enough to guarantee that the Pacers, based upon their recent stretch of play, are incapable of beating the reigning NBA champs:
The Indiana Pacers will NOT beat the Miami Heat in the conference finals.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) March 5, 2014
Following certain horrid losses, it is always easy to become a prisoner of the moment. However, that does not mean all prior evidence should just be disregarded in favor of recent events. For instance, shouldn't it be noted that the Heat have also dropped some games against below .500 teams (i.e. Boston Celtics; Utah Jazz), and, at the time of this writing, just dropped back-to-back games, the second of which by a margin of 24 points? Perhaps, it should also be mentioned that the Heat's defensive rating has dropped from 9th in the league to 13th this season. Does it matter that Paul George averages nearly five more points per game this season? Will Lance Stephenson's all around improvement impact a series with Miami? Should it be taken into account that the Pacers now have a bench player in Evan Turner that proved, during that ever-important game against Charlotte, he is capable of scoring 22 points off the bench on 9-of-12 shooting?
Now, none of this is meant to discount Miami, they are the champs until proven otherwise. As such, if one removes their Blue and Gold colored glasses, most will admit they are not confident that the Pacers "will" beat the Heat, but should they be self-assured they "will NOT" after a few midseason losses?
In the end, what should be surmised from all of this myth-busting, is that, at times, cooler heads need to prevail after bad losses. No doubt, the Pacers have problems they need to address collectively, as well as, individually before the postseason. However, if history tells us anything, a few midseason losses (even a streak of four or five games) does not guarantee a missed opportunity in the playoffs. After all, the 2004 Pistons once lost 8-of-9 games and the 2010 Celtics finished the season at .500, and both still managed to win the Eastern Conference. As long as the Pacers use their recent struggles as an opportunity to improve themselves and, as David West states, regain their mojo, there is no reason to hastily adjust the panic meter.