The Pacers avoided a total nuclear meltdown Wednesday night, snapping a 3-game losing streak with a 101-94 win over the Pistons. It was the first occasion Indiana scored in triple digits since March 15 (also against Detroit). Prior to that, the Pacers were in a full-on funk, going 8-10 in March and losing control of the Eastern Conference’s top seed. After tonight’s game in Toronto, Indiana has just five regular season games remaining. Do the Pacers need to continue soul-searching, or was their March swoon much ado about nothing? Daily Reporter sports editor Brian Harmon and DR sportswriter Grant Freking weigh in.
BRIAN: In sports, things are rarely as extreme as we - fans, media - make them out to be. The Pacers are not the team that opened the season 33-7, which would make them the fifth best regular season team in NBA history based on winning percentage had they maintained. They’re also not quite as bad as the stink fest we’ve seen the last six weeks. Indiana is not an elite team, but they’re good to very good, and in the Eastern Conference that’s enough for a trip back to the Conference Finals. The win over Detroit was probably the first sign of the team regaining its bearings and leveling off toward the start of the playoffs. The Pistons aren’t much worse than what the Pacers will encounter in the first round of the playoffs, so expect more ugly wins, but wins nonetheless. Grant, what say you?
GRANT: Put me squarely in the camp that Wednesday’s win over the Pistons doesn’t mean much except to keep the Pacers out of DEFCON 1. Detroit is the seventh-worst team in the league in defensive efficiency – not exactly elite – so Indiana was bound to find some openings Wednesday. The alarming thing to me about the team’s March misfortunes was the quotes coming of the locker room. After Monday’s blowout loss to the Spurs, Roy Hibbert said, “It’s awful, we’ve been in a downward spiral and we’ve been splintering a little bit.” Following a completely unexplainable 14-point setback in Cleveland Sunday, Lance Stephenson said, “We’re lost right now.” Brian, is this as simple as a still-young team getting a tad overconfident with its newfound top dog status?
BRIAN: Let’s be honest here. There are only two Pacers rotation players who can fairly be categorized as young: Stephenson and George, both 23. As for Hibbert (27), George Hill (27), David West (33), Luis Scola (33), CJ Watson (29), Evan Turner (25) and Ian Mahinmi (27), they’re (to quote Cedric the Entertainer) grown-*** men, dawg, and they know better than to act a fool. Having said that, Big Roy was recently scolded by coach Frank Vogel for airing the Pacers’ dirty laundry in public. So, yes, there are some team-wide lessons to be learned. But the root of the Pacers’ slide comes back to Stephenson and George. Let’s start with Born Ready, who has Coach Killer written all over him. He’s an immense talent with the basketball IQ of a grapefruit. A la Michael Vick, Stephenson will never fully pan out, and the Pacers should let him walk this summer while the Pacers retool and fully commit to an offense that runs through George and Hibbert. Stephenson’s assist rate has dropped nearly three-fold since November and he’ll never be satisfied with being a third scoring option. As for George, he opened the season shooting at a 45 percent clip then dipped into the 30s. Since this is the first year of his career that George has opened as the true Alpha scorer, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he’s still figuring things out. Do you also see this as a Stephenson/PG problem, Grant?
GRANT: I don’t think there’s a George-Stephenson problem – yet. The two 23-year-olds to be are going to have to continue to evolve as players as they grow older. Think of it as the LeBron-D Wade partnership, but on a smaller scale. As long as Stephenson comes to realize that it’s George’s team, I see no reason why they can’t pile up wins for years to come while operating out of the same backcourt. Now, as George and Stephenson’s usage rates continue to increase, they’ve got to do a better job actually making their teammates better, as Indiana ranks 27th in the league in assist ratio. In the future when they actually have cap flexibility, the Pacers would be wise to surround George and Stephenson with better shooting. So what I guess I’m saying is that I believe in Born Ready, so long as he’s under the tutelage of Vogel and Larry Bird. Another popular theory regarding Indiana’s doldrums has been team chemistry. Some have pointed to the franchise’s acquisition of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum, plus the departure of the beloved Danny Granger as the cause of the Pacers’ problem. What sayeth you, Brian? Did losing a guy who barely had a meaningful minute the past two seasons really set the ship off course?
BRIAN: Chemistry is tricky to gauge – especially from an outsider’s perspective — and mostly unquantifiable. I assumed that the Pacers’ gameplan post-2013 conference finals was to simply get a year older, stronger and wiser with the same roster and overpower the Heat and Dwyane Wade’s creaky knees this season. And, given the Pacers’ scorching start, that appeared to be a sound plan. So, my question for Bird: Why mess with what was already working? And to bring in Bynum, of all people? Bynum is a bum. Always has been, always will be. Bynum, who allegedly saw fit to get a haircut during halftime of a recent Pacers’ game, is not someone I want hanging around an impressionable Stephenson. The difference in statistical output between Turner and Granger is negligible. But it would have sure been nice to have someone of Granger’s veteran standing – and deep-rooted knowledge of the teams’ psychology – for another potential deep playoff run. As it stands now, however, these Pacers aren’t mentally tough enough to get past the Heat. Next year’s “talking points” have already been established. In the 2014-15 preseason, you’ll be hearing a lot from the Pacers about how they need to be “consistent” and their desire to play hard for “an 82-game season.” The 2013-14 season, by Indiana’s own standards, will be a bust. At least, that’s how I see it. How about you, Grant?
GRANT: If ‘bust’ is losing again in the Eastern Conference Finals, then yes, then that’s what the season will be remembered as – and also the first time in three years the Pacers didn’t up their playoff advancement by one round. In the preseason, I picked Miami over Golden State in the Finals, and while I’m not feeling to too great about my Warriors’ prediction, I’m increasingly comforted by what I’m seeing out the Heat. If Indiana’s bench was better and its offense was more efficient, I’d consider picking the Pacers to come out of the East. But despite a few hiccups and its season-long rest and relaxation program for Dwyane Wade, Miami is rounding in to form at the perfect time. After lacking motivation for most of the season, the two-time champs have all the incentive they need in the playoffs, with a historic fourth trip to the Finals on the line and a possible three-peat glory waiting. In the NBA, it seems as if every true title contender has to experience a few heartbreaks before climbing to the top of the mountain. I’m afraid more playoff misfortune awaits Indiana.
Contact Daily Reporter sports editor Brian Harmon or sportswriter Grant Freking at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (317) 477-3227.