The Indiana Pacers are not untouchable.
On a night that saw the Miami Heat go into Madison Square Garden and hold off the surging New York Knicks, Indiana was stuck in a battle of its own against a similarly hot New York-based team. The Pacers did manage to emerge with a one-point victory against the Brooklyn Nets and maintain a three-game lead over the two-time defending champions, but flaws were revealed.
The Pacers have been embroiled in a bit of a slump lately. They struggled their way to a 2-3 record during the last five games of January, and the tight victory over Brooklyn wasn't exactly an inspiring performance.
Particularly problematic are the same two issues that have reared their ugly heads in the losses and this most recent outing. Speed kills the Pacers, as the Phoenix Suns proved twice (and the Denver Nuggets, to a lesser extent).
And so, too, do turnover problems.
We knew they were going to come out with a lot of energy and play with a lot of energy. We just did a terrible job of responding to it. They just caught fire and once one of them fell, they all had that confidence to keep shooting.
In fact, the Suns scored 28 fast-break points during that game, and they added another 27 points off Indiana turnovers.
Remember, we're talking about a defense that averages only 11.2 fast-break points allowed per game, according to TeamRankings.com. That's an uber-elite mark, one surpassed by only the Los Angeles Clippers and Charlotte Bobcats.
Twenty-eight points on fast breaks is a significant aberration, and it's starting to become a trend.
The Nuggets scored 21 points off the break during the next loss, and then Phoenix added another perfect blackjack hand to the total when it traveled to Indiana for the next contest between the two teams.
On the first day of February, the Nets used a similar method to come within striking distance of taking down the Eastern Conference's No. 1 squad. The Nets, led by a standout performance from Shaun Livingston, dusted off their aged limbs and sprinted their way to 13 fast-break points. But they also added another 36 off the Pacers' 24 turnovers.
TeamRankings.com also shows that Brooklyn is one of the worst fast-break teams in the Association. Only the Knicks put up fewer points than the Nets in transition, as Jason Kidd's squad has only been able to muster up 8.7 per game.
So even that baker's dozen was a step in the right direction.
"Ouch," Indiana might as well have collectively said.
But speed may not even be the biggest problem. That would be sloppiness.
Even against a team as threatening as the Nets, the Pacers have begun to show a bit of indifference. The chip-on-the-shoulder mentality no longer feels as prevalent, and a sense of entitlement has infiltrated the offense.
The ball is no longer treated as some coveted possession that can't be relinquished at any time, and it's a serious detriment to the offensive efforts.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Pacers entered the game against Brooklyn coughing up the ball 15.2 times per game. Their turnover percentage was already one of the worst marks in the league, as the combination of many mishandled possessions and a slow pace wasn't exactly positive.
But things have been even worse lately.
Against the Nets, Lance Stephenson made multiple poor decisions with his passes. He tried to get too flashy, and the result wasn't very pretty.
"Lance Stephenson had just four turnovers," wrote Indy Cornrows' Nathan S. "But it felt like his carelessness with the ball summed Indiana's night as a whole, trying to lob alley oops where they were none and needling passes that Brooklyn set themselves up to take away."
The same applies to Paul George, and Luis Scola was uncharacteristically careless with the ball as he tried spinning through the Brooklyn defense.
“We can’t have these games where we’re just careless with the basketball,” David West told IndyStar.com's Candace Buckner, even though he and his one turnover weren't exactly prime culprits during the Saturday-night outing.
On the season, the Pacers are turning the ball over 0.3 times per game more when they lose (14.7), but again, it's been even worse lately:
|Loss to Suns No. 1||21|
|Loss to Nuggets||17|
|Loss to Suns No. 2||15|
|Victory over Nets||24|
Those turnovers against Brooklyn? That's literally as careless as the Pacers have been with the ball throughout the entire 2013-14 campaign, and that led Buckner to write the following after the game:
Now in “A.B,” (After Bynum) the Pacers are emboldened by their title drive but still have lingering issues to correct.
The Pacers hit six field goals in the fourth quarter but nearly threw the game away with five turnovers during the same stretch. Had it not been for the free throws (West made 5-of-6 while Lance Stephenson was 4-for-4), the Pacers might have fallen to the 20-25 Nets.
"Lingering issues" is a nice way to sum it up. But it all comes down to mentality.
Even after the win, #Pacers locker room seemed a bit lethargic. Paul George still clearly bothered by what he feels are constant no calls...— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) February 2, 2014
The Pacers can't afford to act like they've been here before, particularly because securing home-court advantage is of such paramount importance. The Heat are still within striking distance, and Miami could explode for a historic winning streak at any point in the season.
Carelessness is something that can be fixed.
It's derived from messing around and thinking about the game as an individual, not as a team. Stephenson, in particular, is guilty of that, as he needs to move on past his All-Star snubbing and start adhering to the same principles that made him worthy of selection in the first place.
Will the Pacers finish with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference?
The Pacers are still an incredibly dangerous team. They should be considered the prohibitive favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference, but they can't afford to start letting up on the proverbial gas pedal. Taking it easy is simply not an option.
This is still a battle, and the squad has a couple of glaring weaknesses that it desperately needs to shore up.
If they become perfect, then they can ease up a bit. But since when has any NBA team been able to achieve perfection?
The Pacers certainly haven't, and they'll have trouble achieving anything else if their mentality doesn't revert to what got them off to such a promising start.