Pacers Don’t Look Like NBA Finals Contenders Anymore

It’s March, otherwise known as the time where NBA teams are shortening and finalizing their rotations for the postseason and beginning to play with the fervor and intensity that precedes the playoffs. It’s not exactly the right time to hold players-only meetings. It may be necessary at the time, but it’s not something you want to go through when there’s less than two months until the playoffs begin.

The Indiana Pacers, long held up to be the team most capable of toppling the Miami Heat this year, are just now encountering the problems that are usually sorted out by teams starting in November. Listless offensive efforts; missed rotations on defense; slumps from the best players, and attempting to integrate players into the rotation have caused Indiana to endure their first four-game losing streak of the season.

Indiana, which started the season 46-13 before the recent losing streak, also won games against the Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics by five points or less in the contests leading up to the losing streak.

The streak, by the way, has featured a two-point loss home loss to Golden State, a 22-point loss to Charlotte and a 26-point loss to Houston, as well as last night’s loss against Dallas. Indiana’s first four-game losing streak of the year featured consecutive losses by at least 22 points, featuring Indiana scoring 87 points or less in both games.

In the past month, they also scored 73 points in a loss to Dallas, lost to Minnesota by 13, and needed a late surge to put away a 10-win Milwaukee team.

Losing streaks are all a part of the regular season. Unless you’re the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, a string of losses is going to be a normal sight. The odyssey of the 82-game regular season cannot be perfect and will have teams, good and bad, going through stretches where shots don’t fall and rotations are a step late. It’s perfectly natural to take a few games off. The Miami Heat, the NBA champions over the past two years, are guilty of this more than any other team in the NBA. When they lose, however, it’s more questioning their overall effort and competitive nature in regular season games.

What Indiana has gone through over the past month can’t be dispelled with a simple, “Oh, the effort will be there in the playoffs” because the Pacers exert a playoff-like effort in regular season games. They want homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs and it’s been obvious from the first game of the season, playing with a chip on their shoulder after losing in seven games to the Heat in last year’s conference finals.

The Pacers spent the preseason and early portion of the regular season feeling they should have taken that series. They cite having Game 7, a game which Miami won by 19, on the Heat’s floor as a key reason as to why they ended up falling.

It’s been no secret they want the No. 1 seed, yet are only one game up in the loss column on a Heat team that has been largely apathetic at times this year. Not even the Heat dropping three in a row could aid the Pacers, as they have matched that with a losing streak of their own.

Indiana’s defense has even looked vulnerable for the first time this year. They succumbed 112 points to a Houston team that ranks fifth in the league in offensive efficiency and 109 points to a Charlotte team that stands a paltry 25th in offensive efficiency–although that loss to Charlotte had more to do with Al Jefferson breaking down the league’s possible recipient for the Defensive Player of the Year in Roy Hibbert. Prior to the past two games, there had been only four other occurrences this year where Indiana gave up 100 points or more in consecutive games.

Of course, two different circumstances hurt the Pacers in those games. One, the Al Jefferson factor, which they won’t have to worry about against Miami. Two, Houston getting hot and making 13 three-pointers, which is something to worry about against a Heat team that has been aching to snap out of a collective regular season malaise of subpar three-point shooting.

Indiana’s defense has been at historic levels all year. Prior to last night, they led the league in defensive efficiency, giving up 95.3 points per 100 possessions; were giving up a league-low 35.3 points per game in the paint, and led the league in points per possession given up at 0.82 PPP.

DPOY frontrunner Roy Hibbert is allowing 41.7 percent shooting on ten field goal attemps at the rim per game. Only Bismack Biyombo is giving up a lower shooting percentage on shots at the rim, but is playing half the time Hibbert is. His 2.5 blocks per game is third in the league and when he’s not facing a footwork maestro in Al Jefferson, he’s actually really good on the defensive end.

The past month, however, has been troubling, and it goes beyond Hibbert. Paul George had shot below 30 percent over the past three games before Sunday night and his overall shooting percentage has plummeted to 43.6 percent, while Roy is averaging the lowest per-36 numbers of his career and has gone for four points or less in five of the past 12 games.

If these two don’t perform on the offensive end, no amount of defense will be able to put them past Miami. That goes double for Hibbert, whose offense was the sole reason why his Pacers were able to push Miami to seven games last year.

If Hibbert can’t channel Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon as he did last year, the Pacers, who rank 21st in the league in offensive efficiency, will stand no chance against Miami. Perimeter-oriented teams, outside of the 2011 Mavericks, are rarely able to sustain high-percentage shooting from outside of the paint, yet that’s what they’ll have to settle on if Roy isn’t able to score at will in the paint.

Since 2003, no team that has won an NBA championship has ranked worse than 19th, with that 19th-ranked team being the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Seven of those teams, however, have ranked within the top ten. Indiana also ranks 21st in the league in points in the paint.

It takes incredible shooting efforts and crisp, pinpoint ball movement to compensate for a lack of scoring within the paint. Indiana ranks tied for 18th in the league in three-point percentage, with George Hill‘s 38 percent shooting leading the way among rotation players.

No wonder this team needed an offensive boost. As solid as Danny Granger was on the defensive end, his sub-40 percent shooting from the field was enough to convince Pacers ownership to trade away their longest tenured player for Philadelphia’s leading scorer, Evan Turner. The signing, one that prompted a noted analyst to say the Pacers “wrapped up the Eastern Conference”, hasn’t been as eventful as Indiana has hoped. His high with the Pacers thus far was 22, but that came in the loss to Charlotte. He was largely ineffective against Houston and Golden State.

Keep reading for how Greg Oden will change things this time around…

Evan Turner is not one to strike fear in the hearts of the Miami Heat. He’s shooting 30 percent from three this year and is a career 32 percent shooter from deep. He hasn’t been much better within the arc, shooting 58 percent at the rim. Although he’s shooting a solid 41 percent in the 16-25 foot range, the Heat will live with an opponent settling on midrange looks. His inefficiency, sporting a career PER of 12.2, will only hinder a team that already struggles to put together complete efforts on the offensive end, and the time it’s taking to acclimate him into their elite defense has been a struggle.

A midrange threat isn’t going to best Miami. In order to even get to seven games last year, the Pacers needed some no-shows from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, while getting 22 and 10 from a center currently averaging 11.4 and 7.3; 44 percent three-point shooting from Paul George and 45 percent three-point shooting from George Hill.

The improvement of Lance Stephenson, who shot 36 percent in last year’s ECF, will undoubtedly help, as will the addition of Luis Scola, although keeping Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee may have been wiser. Two of Miami’s weak links has been dealing with gunners who get hot, as well as athletic bigs who pound the glass.

Turner and Scola will likely prevent every starter averaging at least 38 minutes of playing time, as was the case in last year’s conference finals, but do they make the Pacers that much better? In the end, it’s going to come down to how much of a factor Roy Hibbert ends up playing.

Hibbert rekindled memories of the 2013 ECF with his 24-point outing against Miami in the first matchup of the season, a Pacers win, but looked like the player from the 2012 semifinals with a six-point, five-foul effort in 23 minutes in a Heat win in the second meeting of the year.

He’s gone for more than 24 points only once since that December 10 meeting with Miami. Obviously circumstances are different when playing the Heat, due to having a power forward-turned-center and a 35-year-old defending the 7-2 center, but it begs the question on whether or not Roy can put together a repeat of last year’s conference finals.

He also may find life more difficult on defense with Chris Bosh establishing himself as a bonafide three-point threat. In fact, amid the shooting struggles of Ray Allen and Shane Battier, Bosh has emerged as the team’s top perimeter threat, shooting a career-high 38 percent on a career-high 138 attempts. Bosh only shot 28 percent on 74 attempts last year. With Bosh shooting the ball so well, the Pacers will have no choice but to throw either Hibbert or David West at the Heat’s ultimate stretch-four/five.

With Greg Oden contributing, Hibbert will find jump hooks over smaller Heat defenders a lot more infrequently. Roy was able to put up such robust numbers against the Heat last year because of the lack of size they threw at Hibbert, but that may not be as serious an issue with a 7-footer now on the Heat to combat him.

There are still two games with Indiana to see what type of effect Oden will have against the Pacers.

What’s really hurting the Pacers being Miami’s toughest competition is that we have already seen them at their best. We know what they’re capable of and we know they’re going to try to overwhelm the Heat with three-point shooting and Roy Hibbert post-ups.

The same can’t be said for the Heat, who, for the past three years, have kept their best game under wraps until the playoffs. Key to their success has been their ability to endure the criticism of taking games off in the regular season, in order to use that pent-up energy for the games that matter.

A little over a month remains until the games begin to bear some more significance. While the Heat and Pacers may both be struggling, only Indiana has the cause for concern. This recent stretch of defensive ineptitude has been disconcerting from a team that has prided itself on suffocating, physical defense that constantly forces its opponent into low-percentage jumpers.

Dare I say fatigue may be playing a factor? Because it’s stunning to see this Pacers defense that was once near impossible to score on struggle to limit the likes of Charlotte, Milwaukee and Utah. Against the league’s most efficient offense in Miami, they’re going to need the team that was once undoubtedly the No. 1 seed not too long ago.

Should the Pacers be concerned?

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