It is impossible for the Indiana Pacers to impose their style on an opponent if they don't have a firm enough grasp on it themselves. Plain and simple. They can live with their opponents connecting on some shot clock consuming post-ups here and there. They can afford to give up a higher percentage of offensive rebounds, and they can make due with opponents trying to play physical with their spread lineup on defense. But not if they can't function offensively.
And that's what they looked like against the Utah Jazz: Dysfunctional.
During the third and final frames of Saturday night's contest, the Pacers recorded four assists while committing 15 turnovers. They scored 27 points and attempted one free throw. It's early, but these numbers are not at all reflective of a team that is comfortable in it's new skin.
Here are three disturbing trends from the first three games:
The running game isn't compensating for the declining rebounding rate:
Since Paul George's rookie year (2010-11), the Indiana Pacers have not finished a season ranked outside of the top 10 in rebound percentage (a team's percentage of total rebounds grabbed), let alone the top 20. But just three games into the 2015-16 season that is the precise reality in which the Blue & Gold find themselves, having fallen from 6th in the league a year ago (51.2%) to 28th now (44.6%).
Surrendering rebounding opportunities in the name of small-ball would be an acceptable trade-off if the Pacers could prove themselves capable of generating enough fast break points to make up the difference. After all, isn't this how the Miami Heat -- the team Indiana is, supposedly, attempting to emulate -- managed to win the East in 2013-14, despite ranking 27th in the league in rebound percentage?
Yes, as ESPN's Tom Haberstroh explains here, it is indeed possible to win games while getting killed on the glass. The problem for the Pacers then isn't that they are losing the rebounding battle. It's that they aren't scoring enough points off turnovers.
The 2013-14 Miami Heat finished 2nd in the NBA in points per game off turnovers (19.3). As of now, the Pacers rank 20th.
"They (Utah Jazz) hurt us inside in the second half. That's going to happen, but we weren't able to capitalize on the other end," head coach Frank Vogel said of his team's struggles. "That's one of the things when you try to dictate the style of the game and impose your style on the other team. You've got to do your style better."
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade thrived in the open court. The 2015-16 Pacers are languishing.
Nonexistent end-of-game defense:
Speaking of the need to play with energy and force, Indiana's fourth quarter defense has been lifeless. In fact, the Pacers are giving up a gargantuan 130.3 points per 100 possessions during the final frame of contests.
"We're giving teams 100+ points, especially on our floor," Paul George opined following his team's second-half meltdown against the Utah Jazz. "I've been a part of a great defensive team, and we don't have that right now."
It's a given that Indiana's pick-and-roll defense has been dicey. With a closer look, their commitment to hedging appears half-hearted, and it's obvious that two of the team's combo guards (Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey) have struggled mightily to keep opposing guards out of the painted area.
So...there are definitely problems, but that doesn't change the fact that something strange is very clearly happening to Indiana's defense after intermission. Take a look at how the team's defensive rating declines fairly steadily with each passing quarter of play:
|Quarter||Defensive Rating (League Rank)||Opponent Turnovers (League Rank)|
|1st Quarter||90.0 (9th)||5.3 (3rd)|
|2nd Quarter||81.9 (5th)||4.3 (13th|
|3rd Quarter||111.1 (25th)||4.7 (10th)|
|4th Quarter||130.3 (29th)||3.0 (20th)|
Overall, the Pacers have been outscored by a total of 51 points during the third and fourth quarters of games this season.
"I couldn't tell you," said Myles Turner of his team's second-half struggles on Saturday. "I can't put my finger on it, but we definitely had more energy in the first half. It's like it just got shot in that third quarter."
It is a strange phenomenon for sure, but here's one possible explanation: The Pacers are not used to playing at this breakneck speed.
Already in 2015-16 the starting lineup is racking up 103.04 possessions per 48 minutes. Indiana's most-used starting lineup last season? 94.28. Couple that spike in pace with the fact that George Hill and Paul George are already members of an increasingly exclusive club of players averaging 35 minutes per game, and you have a recipe for lethargic defense.
Playing exponentially faster while being tasked with either affecting the catch or doubling stronger players in the post, would it be any surprise if the Pacers' legs are tired by the fourth quarter?
Larry Bird's math is not adding up:
Prior to the start of the season, Larry Bird laid out his equation for success:
"I want to run a little bit more," Bird said, via CBS Sports. "What I really mean when I say that is I want to score about six to eight more points per game." On whether the Pacers can avoid sacrificing defense to gain offense, Bird told ESPN, "Never. But if we score eight points more per game and give up two points more per game, that's plus six."
Well...the starting lineup is not six points better than last year's. The 5-man unit of George Hill, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, Paul George, and Ian Mahinmi (87.6) is ...(gulp)... 17 points per 100 possessions worse than the 2014-15 season's most-used lineup (104.6), and they are giving up 5.8 more points per 100 possessions.
The Pacers scored 12 points in the third quarter of Saturday's game against the Utah Jazz. They scored 15 in the fourth. For most of that time, whichever five players were on the court looked completely devoid of familiarity with each other's respective games. More often than not, one player dribbled the ball and the other four stood idly by. No ball movement. No player movement. Five strangers, outscored 55-27 in the second half.
"We're not getting anybody open on the offensive end," said Vogel. "We're not screening well enough and we're not setting up well enough."
* * *
Three games is not a large enough sample size to pass judgment on Indiana's new system, but the team certainly is not trending in the right direction. Familiarity will help. Getting their legs underneath them will likely boost their activity on defense. But if they can't capitalize on offense (consistently knocking down three-pointers, cutback on hapless turnovers, convert fast break points, etc.), then they aren't going to be able to dictate the style of the game to their opponents.
"I know the guys in this locker room really care about winning, so I know everyone's taking it hard," George Hill admitted. "But you know me and Paul (George), being the leaders here and the guys that have been here probably the longest, we've got to take it upon ourselves and change this identity and change the makeup of this team and put it on our shoulders to lead these guys. When they see us do it, they'll follow."
There is no denying the Pacers, thus far, have looked lost. Moving forward, they need to settle on which version of themselves they want to find.