Miami is daunting, but clearly not unbeatable. Catching the Heat during the regular season is unlikely, but in a playoff series, the Pacers would have a legitimate shot. Teams like New York, Brooklyn, Chicago and Atlanta deserve respect but do not instill fear.
So what will it take for the Pacers to reach the goal that hasn’t been attained since 2004?
Here are my five suggestions:
GET GRANGER SPOOLED UP ASAP
Whenever Danny Granger returns, and the latest target game is Friday against Detroit, there will be no time to waste in rebuilding his conditioning and rhythm. Simply put, the Pacers need Granger to be back to normal as quickly as possible because of how slim their margin for error. Granger’s return should solve two long-standing problems by giving the Pacers a much-needed perimeter threat to create offensive space while pushing Lance Stephenson’s productivity to a second unit starved for a player with his aggressive, creative mindset. It won’t happen right away but needs to happen quickly.
REGAIN THEIR EDGE IN THE CLUTCH
Their last four losses – three in overtime, one by a single point in regulation – illustrate an unexpected problem with executing with games on the line. Had they simply avoided horrendous mistakes in the final seconds against the Raptors and Nets at home, the Pacers would’ve taken an eight-game winning streak into the All-Star break and trailed Miami by just 3½ games. They’re just 3-7 in games decided by three points or less. Considering they are a defense-centric team that tends to play low-scoring games with closer scoring margins, this is a critical area. Encouraging George Hill to stop initiating game-deciding plays with less than four seconds on the shot clock would be a good start.
SOLVE THE RIDDLE OF THE ROAD
Though they’ve played the bulk of their road schedule, the Pacers have 14 remaining and eight of those are against sub-.500 teams. Their 11-16 road record is sub-par but looks even worse when considering just two of those victories have come against teams with winning records. This, too, is a vexing problem because the Pacers were one of the best on the road last season, going 19-14. Stealing games in hostile arenas is imperative to a team’s playoff success, so the Pacers must seize the opportunities that remain to regain their road swagger.
WIN THE TIE-BREAKER GAMES
Given the tightness of the race in the East, the likelihood of playoff positioning, and possibly homecourt advantage, being determined by a tie-breaker is strong. That makes the remaining games against the Knicks, Bulls and Hawks doubly important. The Pacers already have lost the season series to the Nets and are up 2-0 on the Bulls with two remaining. They’re 1-1 against the Knicks, which makes Wednesday’s home game huge, and are 1-2 against the Hawks, who they play at home on March 25.
FIGURE OUT THE FRONTCOURT
If Roy Hibbert is going to continue to struggle – and 53 games in, that seems a safe bet – Coach Frank Vogel should strongly considering altering the frontcourt rotation to reduce Hibbert’s minutes and increase playing time for backups Ian Mahinmi, Tyler Hansbrough and possibly even Jeff Pendergraph. Mahinmi and Pendergraph have played well enough to merit more minutes. With Hansbrough, it’s a different sort of issue; he struggles to produce in short minutes but plays very well when given extended run. The time to be patient with Hibbert has expired. Down the stretch, it’s all about playing the guys that give you the best chance to win.