At various times during the ESPN telecast of the Pacers-Knicks game Wednesday night, analyst Doug Collins mentioned Frank Vogel wrote this one-word motivational message on the board in the locker room beforehand:
If that is indeed the case, Vogel picked the wrong half of the team’s motto.
This team is on the verge of swaggering itself into irrelevance. What the Pacers need is a whole lot more blue collar.
They have a 50-18 record and a three-game lead on Miami for the top spot in the Eastern Conference but those numbers are nothing more than lipstick on a pig. The way the Pacers have played for the last 5½ weeks, seeding won’t matter, because they wouldn’t make it to Game 7 against Miami. Or Brooklyn. Or Chicago.
In their latest exercise in futility, a 92-86 loss to the Knicks in Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, the Pacers put their foibles on full display.
>> Yet another slow start, falling behind by 12 at intermission as they produced two assists and 11 turnovers. The Pacers have averaged 18.8 points and been outscored by 55 in the first quarters of their last nine games, so this is a problem created by the starting lineup, not the oft-criticized bench.
“Tonight was definitely a lot of one-on-one,” said Lance Stephenson. “We only had two assists in the first half. That’s not Pacers basketball. We play together as a unit. I understand we were trying to set screens and they were going under but we still have to play together, make the right play and make sure everybody is happy on the floor.”
>> Poor shot selection by Paul George, who jacked up nine more threes (hitting two) in his wretched 4-for-17 night. George has shot 28 percent from the arc in the last 10 games and it isn’t just the quantity, it’s the quality. Too many of his bombs have been launched early in the clock before better opportunities have been explored. After the Pacers closed to 67-66 in the fourth quarter, for example, they had a critical possession with a chance to take the lead but George launched another errant three and the Knicks scored the next eight.
“This is one of my top five worst shooting nights,” George said. “I’ve got to do a better job of making sure I’m ready to go and finish plays for us.”
>> The saga of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Stephenson. He continues to produce statistics that are far better than his performance. He had 21 points and nine rebounds. Not bad, right? But he also jacked seven 3-pointers and had the worst turnover at the worst time. Trailing 86-80 with less than 2 minutes left, the Pacers had a golden opportunity in transition but Stephenson whipped a bullet pass into the stands.
>> Another episode in Roy Hibbert Mystery Theater. His third quarter breathed life into the Pacers, as he took over, scoring 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting. But the Knicks started doubling him and the Pacers turned away from their hottest hand. Hibbert got just two shots in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t know why I didn’t get as many touches,” Hibbert said. “I just try to be a good teammate. I try to go with what the team is running, so maybe they thought they had better matchups in other areas. I tried to do my part, but it just wasn’t enough.”
>> Quite literally nothing in transition: zero fast-break points. Nada. Zilch. In the last six games, they’ve averaged a meager 5.3 while being outscored by 23.
They’ve had players-only meetings, meetings with players and coaches and even the well-documented halftime eruption from Vogel in Detroit.
What have the words accomplished? Not much.
“We have to play for each other,” Hibbert said. “We talk about it, but don’t do it. We have to figure out a way to do that. Until we do, we’ll beat the bad teams and lose to the good ones.”
That’s it in a nutshell.
Since their last victory over a team with a winning record Feb. 7 (Portland), the Pacers have gone 11-8 – the sixth-best record in the East –against opponents with a cumulative winning percentage of .397.
They’ve lost their last five games to teams with winning records.
Their next five games are against teams with winning records.
No more words, no more swagger.
Time to roll up the sleeves, stop admiring the standings and get back to work.