Paul George threw down a couple of nice dunks on Saturday, scored 18 in Sunday’s All-Star Game and Roy Hibbert worked his 12 minutes for eight points and five rebounds – although blocked shots apparently have been outlawed in that particular exhibition, which effectively shears Samson’s locks when it comes to The Big Fella.
And Frank Vogel entertained the media, showed his engaging personality while managing to avoid any discussion of defense with the All-Stars. And he came out with the 163-155 win, although it would’ve been nice if he had found a way to use Dwayne Wade for 35 or 40 minutes.
Now, it gets very, very real.
Everything the Pacers want from this season lies in front of them. With thirty games remaining, they hold the top spot in the East and are within striking distance of Oklahoma City for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
Here are five things that need to happen for them to seize this opportunity.
STOMP THE GAS RIGHT NOW
Their first seven games after the break all are against sub-.500 teams; in fact, those teams have a combined record of 124-243 (.338). This needs to translate into a seven-game winning streak for a number of reasons.
In losing five of their final 12 games before the break, the Pacers showed slippage both offensively and defensively and frankly coughed up a few games they shouldn’t have lost, getting blown out in Denver, swept by Phoenix, losing in Orlando and giving one away at home to Dallas.
Their confidence isn’t necessarily wavering but their lead is shrinking and a quick burst out of the gate would give them much-needed momentum, while sending a message to Miami about how difficult it will be to wrest the top spot from the Pacers’ grasp.
Another reason these first seven are so important: it gets much tougher the rest of the way, with 11 of the final 23 against teams with winning records and 14 on the road.
TURN GEORGE INSIDE-OUT
The All-Star Weekend could have a potentially detrimental effect on George. Physically, he was playing tired heading into the break. Even though the weekend events aren’t particularly taxing, neither are they as rejuvenating as a couple of days of sun, surf and sand. Mentally, he was surrounded by people telling him how great he is and, frankly, that’s the last thing he needs to hear right now.
Since his fast start launched MVP talk, George has gone the wrong direction. In the last 10 games he has averaged 16.5 points while his shot has disappeared — .326 overall and .276 from the 3-point line. When you’re shooting like that, you shouldn’t be averaging six 3-point attempts per game, but that’s what George has done in that span.
When he drives, he’s seeking whistles, not finishes, and is becoming increasingly frustrated when the calls don’t come. George needs to get back into attack mode, use the 3-point line as a decoy, not a destination, and play with the passion that marked the first couple of months of the season.
GET THE BENCH GOING
This is a recurring, redundant theme for the Pacers but this was supposed to be season it came to an end with the moves to bolster the second unit and the return of Danny Granger.
Granger’s comeback has been extremely methodical and, while he has avoided setbacks, his progress has been measured in baby steps. Luis Scola is battling an issue with his right elbow that has caused his shot to stray, and C.J. Watson has been inconsistent.
And then there’s Andrew Bynum, who may or may not be ready to play by mid-to-late March, which means the Pacers will be working an entirely new player both in personality and style into their rotation at the most critical point of the regular season.
They keep saying the goal is to have Granger, Bynum and the second unit rolling by the time the playoffs roll around. But it sure would help matters if the bench could give a more consistent lift down the stretch.
WIN SOME CLOSE GAMES
It’s possible the Pacers’ dominance in the regular-season could work against them in the playoffs. They’ve played the fewest one-possession games in the league, losing two of three. On the other hand, they’ve had 29 games decided by double digits, winning 23.
Nothing gets a team ready for the playoffs better than tight games in which every possession matters and intensity magnifies down the stretch. As they play more quality teams battling for playoff position, the likelihood of an uptick in close games increases.
And winning a few would be big, because playoff series often swing on one or two one-possession games – as did Game 1 in Miami last year.
AND, OF COURSE, BEAT THE HEAT
Or at least don’t lose to them twice.
The rivals are 1-1 with two games remaining, March 26 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse and April 11 in Miami.
The pressure to win, such as it is, clearly is on the Heat, although LeBron James and Co. don’t seem all that concerned with homecourt advantage. In addition to their 2.5 game overall lead, the Pacers have a 3.5 game lead in the first tie-breaker (conference record), so a split is really all they need – provided they take care of business in their other games.