As the Pacers president sees things, his team’s ability to fulfill his lofty postseason expectations begins with a tighter defense.
In a one-on-one interview with Dave Furst of WRTV-6 that aired during the station’s pre- and post-game coverage of the Pacers’ 102-97 victory over Oklahoma City Sunday, Bird addressed a wide range of topics but the thread woven through many of his answers was defense.
“If you’ve watched us in the last three months, well, two months, we really haven’t defended the way we defend,” he said. “I go to every practice, I know what guys are supposed to do when the ball’s rotated or pick-and-roll and I can sit there in my seat at the games and see guys missing assignments. It ain’t happening. They go under picks, they try to short-cut sometimes and that’s the things that get you in trouble and it’s hurt us here in the last month, month-and-a-half.”
Since the All-Star break, the Pacers have allowed averages of 96.1 points, .438 shooting overall and .370 from the 3-point line while limping to a 15-14 record. In the 52 games prior, the averages were 90.3 points, .410 and .351.
Since the break, the Pacers have held just five opponents to fewer than 90 points. Prior, they did so 25 times, going 24-1 in the process.
Tighten the defensive screws, Bird believes, and the team can regain its stride. Without doing so, and without a deep run that reaches at least the conference finals, and the boss will be unhappy.
And you know what happens when bosses are unhappy.
“I’m like any other fan. If you really care about it, when you’re not playing well you’re very upset. When you’re playing well, you sort of worry about the next problem arising,” he said. “I said earlier in the year we’re (all-in).
“If we don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals or the (NBA) Finals, it’s going to be a bad year for us because I know the talent we have. I think it’s just up to the players to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this.’ And the way they do it is start guarding people. If they start guarding people, they can hold them under 90 points, then that puts is right in position to win.”
Despite their post-break malaise, the Pacers can wrap up the top seed in the East either with a win Wednesday in Orlando or a Miami loss (the Heat plays tonight in Washington and Wednesday against Philadelphia). That would achieve the goal stated perhaps a little too openly and frequently since before the season began and give the Pacers the security blanket of a potential Game 7 against Miami in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
That is, of course, if both struggling teams flip the switch and find a way to make that rematch happen.
“I know Charlotte, Washington, all them teams are a lot better, Toronto. I mean they’re a lot better now. It’s not going to be no cakewalk. There could be some seven-game series, they could beat us here, they could beat us on their own court,” Bird said. “But it’s a battle. That’s what the playoffs are about.
“But our goal is to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and we believe Miami’s going to be there. They’re the world champions, they’re a well-oiled machine and we want a shot at them. For us to do that, we’ve got to start playing better and we can’t look past anybody we’re playing. We’ve got to think we’re the underdog every time we go into a game and that mentality hopefully will carry them through. If they continue to push and stay together, get their rest and start defending – it’s always on the defensive end. I’ve never been on a team that outscored people to win. Eventually in the playoffs we had to start guarding people. Even though I couldn’t play much, I had to start playing a little bit. Defense wins championships.”
Here are some more highlights from the Bird-Furst sit-down.
>> Bird said he backs coach Frank Vogel “100 percent” and acknowledged it wasn’t in his personality to, as Furst put it, “bring the hammer” with the players. “That’s my personality at times but it’s not Frank’s personality,” Bird said. “I think Frank does it in his own way. I think all of us need to be held accountable.”
>> Though the team was winning at a high rate prior to the break, Bird saw problems arising, which was why he signed Andrew Bynum and traded Danny Granger for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. Some have singled out those moves as propellants for the team’s slide, but Bird believes otherwise. “We have some guys that are not playing well and they’re frustrated,” he said. “Now our whole team’s not playing well, our bench is not playing well but I really believe from watching the team early on that we needed to do something at trade deadline to try to right the ship.”
>> Despite his recent mega-slump, Roy Hibbert remains a linchpin. “Roy will be fine,” he said. “Roy hasn’t played as well as he likes to play but for us to go where we want to go, Roy’s got to be the guy because he’s the guy in the middle of the defense and when he’s playing well at the defensive end, we play well.”
>> Bird pointed out young players can often assume success, if they haven’t encountered much failure, but veterans understand there are only so many chances to achieve greatness – and this team must seize this one. “They’ve waited all year to get to this point and this is their opportunity,” he said. “If you look at our older players, (Luis) Scola and David West), they don’t get this opportunity very often. They might not ever get it again. (The window) is closing and they know that.”
>> He still has faith the team will bounce back. “They want to win. Sometimes I just wish they were just a little mentally tougher,” he said. “I think they’re going to come through this but it’s painful getting there. It’s been very painful for all of us but we’ve still won over 50 games, that’s a pretty good goal. But when the playoffs start we feel, I mean I still feel that this team has an opportunity to play for a championship, but they’ve got a long way to go to get there.”