Have the Indiana Pacers Already Reached Their Ceiling?

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Have the Indiana Pacers Already Reached Their Ceiling?
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Danny Granger (L) and Paul George walk off the floor after a loss to the Atlanta Hawks in early January.

Have the Indiana Pacers, who have the best record in the NBA at 39-10 through Feb. 8, already reached their ceiling?

Indy finished its most recent five-game road trip at 3-2. What was bothersome in that the team allowed an average of almost 117 points in losses to the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets during that span. 

Even though the Pacers beat the Sacramento Kings 116-111 on Jan. 24, they watched Marcus Thornton and Isaiah Thomas scorch them for a combined 80 points. 

Eighty points coming from two players. 

Indiana also allowed former Pacer Gerald Green, whose one-year stint in the nation's heartland was disappointing to say the least, to go off for 23 points in its first loss to Phoenix this season.  

Prior to beating the Orlando Magic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Feb. 3, Pacers.com's Manny Randhawa offered his take on how the team has been faring lately:

But Indiana, a team that looked nearly unbeatable for the first two-and-a-half months of the season, has hit some bumps in the road as of late.

The Pacers are 4-3 over their last seven games, getting blown out by the Suns on Jan. 22 and dropping games against the Nuggets in Denver and the Suns again at home on Thursday. 

Which begs us to ask: Have the Indiana Pacers already peaked at this point of the season or is the best yet to be seen? 

 

The Paul George Factor

David West and Paul George lead the way in the Pacers' 89-85 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 4. Video courtesy of NBAShowtimeHD8.

Paul George hasn't exactly been shooting lights-out lately. 

Consider these stats in January 2014, per ESPN:

The 24-point blowout loss to the Suns on the road on Jan. 22 was the beginning of Indiana's mini-slump, a stretch when the team went just 2-3.

The Pacers suddenly don't look formidable and their franchise player is tossing up bricks.

Time to press the panic button?

Not so fast.

In spite of George's shooting woes, Indiana is still 10-5 in January. George is still struggling with a 38.3 percent shooting clip this month as of Feb. 5, but the Pacers have managed to win four consecutive games.

That's what's so good about Indianait is a team that's loaded with so many versatile weapons. Lately, it's been veteran David West and All-Star snub Lance Stephenson who have been neutralizing George's struggles from the field. 

Dig deeper into the bench and there's Luis Scola and C.J. Watson ready to contribute. 

It's pretty similar to the Reggie Miller days. Even if he struggled, he had guys such as Byron Scott, Rik Smits, Jalen Rose and, to a lesser extent, Travis Best, who could assume some of the scoring load.

As for George, there's no need to worry about him. In 2012-13, he saved his best for the postseason. That's what great players do.

Count on him to do the same thing this year.  

 

David West to the Rescue 

David West nails a three-pointer against the Sacramento Kings. Video courtesy of heavisome.

If there's one player that's been holding the Pacers together, it's none other than veteran power forward David West. 

He explained to Randhawa why the Pacers went on a bit of a slide:

The games are getting tougher. Obviously, you start playing these teams over and over an over again. They're more prepared for you the next time...It's professional sports.

It's hard, but you can't complain about it. Practices are harder, dragging at times. But guys build each other up and we're just continuing to grow in that.

Prior to his recent tear, West had been having his worst scoring season since his second year in the NBA. He's been averaging 16.9 points and 6.3 rebounds over a 10-game span since Jan. 20.

In George's 4-of-19 debacle against the Lakers, West led the way for Indiana with 19 points. 

In a game when the Pacers turned the ball over 24 times, West recorded 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists with only one turnover in a 97-96 victory over the Brooklyn Nets

West was a force in the Pacers' 89-85 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Feb. 4Indy's first win in Atlanta since 2006with 22 points and 10 rebounds. 

He also knocked down top-of-the-key jumpers with reckless abandon on his way to 30 points in the Pacers' 118-113 overtime win over the Blazers on Feb. 7.  

On Feb. 2, Mark Montieth of Pacers.com broke down West's value as a clutch player:

That's why the Pacers put the ball in West's hands down the stretch. Although the team's fourth-leading scorer, he tends to be the go-to-guy in the waning moments of close games, when insecurities are revealed and confidence wanes. 

One may make a case for Stephenson as the Pacers' most reliable player whenever George struggles, but it's West who really came through during this critical juncture of the season. Had it not been for him, there's no telling what Indiana's fate might have been during George's nights off.  

 

Turnovers and Defense

The Phoenix Suns blew out the Pacers 124-100 on Jan. 22. Video courtesy of NBAShowtimeHD8.

The Pacers' recent lackluster numbers in defense and turnovers have some fans panicking lately.

Yes, Indiana is still the best defensive team in the league. As of Feb. 5, it is allowing just 90.2 points per game.  

However, the Pacers have a penchant for lowering their guard on the road, especially against Western Conference opponents. 

In early December, they allowed an average of 112 points in road losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder

In their recent West Coast road trip, their defense was anything but impressive.

Turnovers are also a concern: Indiana is just 19th in the NBA in this department, committing an average of 14.6 per game. It had 24 against the Nets and 13 in the first half alone against the Hawks. 

And as versatile as Stephenson is, it's also becoming a bit of a trend to see him turning the ball over four or five times nightly. 

It simply goes with this style of play. He's a whirling dervish who's absolutely fearless. As young as he is (he's only 23), he'll eventually learn to control himself more as the years go by.

On the other hand, the Pacers' starting unit has been together for quite some time now, and all in all, the team is fundamentally sound. 

So why is Indiana not as crisp as it was at the beginning of the season?

George told Randhawa the "dog days" of the NBA season has had an effect:

It is (the dog days). It's that middle break, going into the All-Star weekend coming up. It's a grind mode right now. We've just got to grind it out until then. 

 

The Parting Shot

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Things should look up for Roy Hibbert (C), Danny Granger (R) and the rest of the Indiana Pacers in the season's second half.

The Indiana Pacers have regressed to an extent, losing three games in late January. 

During that stretch, some disturbing trends surfaced: Paul George's erratic shooting and Indiana's dip in turnovers and defense. 

Have the Indiana Pacers already reached their ceiling?

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When it comes to George, there's no need to worry. He's a notoriously hard worker who will save his best for the postseason, as evidenced last year.

As for West, he's the one who has helped kept the Pacers afloat during the dreaded dog days of the NBA winter. Expect West, as well as the other veterans off the bench like Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Danny Granger, to play valuable roles as the season wears on.

Even the newly acquired Andrew Bynum, if he manages to keep his head in place, should contribute. With Larry Bird and West around to keep his attitude in check, anything is possible.     

As good as the Pacers are, they are not perfect. Their recent anomalies in turnovers and defense are hard evidence of this. 

The All-Star break should help rejuvenate Indiana. Don't expect head coach Frank Vogel to let his team lose its composure. 

Not with what it has done so far. Not with all of that talent. 

As a parting shot, no, the Indiana Pacers have not reached their ceiling. 

The best is yet to come. 

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