There was much more to worry about in the beginning and the middle to become too overwrought about the end.
As they return home now for an extended stretch – four in a row, nine of 10 and 13 of 16 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse – the Pacers might feel all will become well by simple geographic relocation. They’ve won 11 in a row at home, where they’re 16-3, so look out, world.
Before they assume home cooking will make things right, however, they should ponder the words of Lawrence Frank, the head coach of their next opponent, the Detroit Pistons:
“In this league (things can go from) good to bad, bad to good very quickly. “
DEFENSE SHOWING SIGNS OF STRESS
Frank knows of whence he speaks. The Pistons do not resemble the team that started the season 7-21. They’ve won 10 of 16, knocking off the Heat, Hawks, Bucks and Celtics along the way. All of a sudden, they have the eighth-place carrot dangling in front of them, looming larger with Boston’s loss of Rajon Rondo for the rest of the season.
Likewise, the Pacers on this trip did not resemble the team that won 16 of 21 to climb into third place in the Eastern Conference. In that span, they yielded 100 points just once. In the last three games, they did so every time, the longest such streak of the season.
They are being shredded inside and in transition.
The Blazers, Jazz and Nuggets combined averaged 53.3 points in the paint, nearly 18 above the Pacers’ league-leading defensive average of 35.7.
They averaged 16.3 fast-break points, well above the Pacers’ league-leading defensive average of 9.9.
They combined to shoot 52.3 percent, more than 10 points above the Pacers’ league-leading defensive average of 42.0.
A TEAM STILL IN NEED OF VALIDATION
And so a team that headed West needing to show it could beat quality teams on the road, and therefore earn the stamp of validation on its contending status, instead brought home the additional concern that its defense is beginning to crumble under the weight of trying to support one of the NBA’s worst offenses.
In Utah, the Pacers got 69 points on 27 of 48 shooting (56 percent) from Paul George, David West and George Hill. And they lost because of a defense that could not stop Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors inside.
But their deficiencies were masked by the controversy of the finish. Utah led 112-110 with 1.4 seconds to play when Millsap’s inbounds pass glanced off the side of the backboard and wound up back in his hands. He was fouled and made both free throws to ice the game. The Pacers contended the ball hit the back of the board and thus was out of bounds, but replays clearly showed otherwise.
In Denver, they trailed 99-86 with 5:45 left but scored 13 in a row to tie it. It was 101-all with 17 seconds left when George, in last-shot isolation, let too much time drain from the clock before making his move. Defender Andre Iguodala knew George only had time for one move, cut it off and forced a turnover with a half-second remaining.
George then mistimed his defense of the ensuing inbounds lob, stumbled and bumped Iguodala as he leapt in pursuit of the ball. The officials did what they rarely do in that situation – call a foul – and Iguodala (who had missed his previous three attempts) made one for the win.
This still can be a very good team but to achieve that status, the Pacers will need to regain defensive focus, sharpen offensive execution and minimize concern with things they cannot control.