Paul George and the Pacers are mired in a full-fledged slump.

Paul George and the Pacers are mired in a full-fledged slump.

20130429-135523.jpgFour consecutive losses, in and of itself, would be a streak of concern.

Added to a general malaise the Pacers have exhibited for six weeks, however, and you have a full-fledged slump.

The Indiana Pacers have the best record in the Eastern Conference but, at the moment, they do not have anything close to the best team. In their last 23 games, they have been an extraordinarily mediocre 13-10 – and it would be much worse if not for the preponderance of tankers on the schedule.

The Pacers haven’t beaten a team of substance since Portland on Feb. 7.

The offense has basically been reduced to two plays: “me-me-me” and “RED! RED! RED!”

Come to think of it, that’s really the same play.

The call you hear most from the passive, confused defense is “help!”

This is the biggest crisis facing Frank Vogel since a six-game losing streak in March 2011 threatened to end his head-coaching career before it got off the ground. Back then, all he had to do was continue to stay positive, to continue to rebuild the confidence of a young team trying to learn how to win.

It’s more complicated now.

This team doesn’t need another daily affirmation, it needs a good, swift kick in the pockets. It doesn’t need Stuart Smalley. It needs George Patton.

Truth be told, the Pacers have been fooling themselves for a while. They have some very real problems that have not only been ignored, but allowed to run unchecked.

Chief among them is a disturbing search for excuses, starting at the top.

Vogel himself has been guilty in this regard. As his defense has been shredded night after night, his standard explanation has been to shrug it off to an uncharacteristically hot opponent.

“Devin Harris made some big threes,” he said after the 105-94 loss in Dallas Sunday night. “Thirty percent shooter (and) he makes four threes. That’s the kind of thing that’s been happening to us on a gamely basis it seems like.”

If it happened once or twice, maybe you could play that card. But the Pacers have surrendered more than 100 points 10 times in the last 23 games – including the last three in a row — after doing so just six in the first 40. They’ve allowed 11 straight opponents to score more than 90 for the first time in three years.

Harris made four threes because the Mavericks moved the ball from side to side, from inside to out, and therefore he was constantly open. In the NBA, open shots make mediocre shooters look good.

And then there is Paul George, whose issue with officiating has transformed from distraction to obsession.

Consider this quote after last night’s game:

“We felt victim to the whistle tonight,” George said. “It was tough. They put us in a bind. The luxury of this team is that we’ve got depth, but sometimes you just need key guys on the floor.”

The only thing victimizing George was his own lack of discipline. Angered by a no-call on a drive in the second quarter, he immediately picked up a frustration foul on defense – his third – in effect sending himself to the bench.

He shot nine free throws in 30 minutes, so he was getting calls – just not all of them. Nobody gets all of them, not even LeBron.

Another ongoing issue – and by ongoing I mean never-ending – issue has been the bench.

Yes, Dallas had a 41-4 advantage in bench points, and that’s pretty terrible. Yes, the production has been spotty. The players change every year but the problem remains. So, clearly, the problem is not the players; it is how they are being used.

On this disastrous three-game road trip, the biggest problems came in the first and third quarters, when the starters play the dominant minutes. The Pacers were outscored by 43 in the first and by 31 in the third in those three games.

The starters were outscored by 34 points in their 54 minutes together.

It’s almost as if the Pacers somehow convinced themselves they had accomplished something with that 33-7 start, that they had achieved some sort of vaunted status because they had become media darlings.

Here’s the thing: they don’t hang banners, distribute rings or award MVP trophies for having the best record in January, February or March.

The way they’re playing at the moment, all they will be able to hang after this season is the framed picture of their GQ cover.



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