Put yourself in the Indiana Pacers' shoes.
If you had to play basketball night in and night out for six months, against a bunch of teams that have no business being on the same floor as you, you'd get a little bored too.
It's okay to admit. Winning is great. Winning is why you play the game.
But after roughly half a season of complete domination, it's hard to resist easing up on the gas pedal.
This is the predicament the Pacers find themselves in now.
They're certainly not the first and absolutely won't be the last. Champions even go through it. Self-preservation is a part of human nature.
Inevitable as it may be, there must be a line drawn in the sand eventually. No loss is acceptable, but how many are tolerable? How close is too close? When is it time to rev the engine again?
For top-flight teams without much competition like Indiana in a sorry Eastern Conference, none of these are ever easy questions to answer. If managed correctly, it helps preserve bodies and minds in time for the season that matters most.
If not, those teams that thought they had it made early on could start feeling the heat before the year is through.
This is now a conversation after Tuesday's narrow victory against the Atlanta Hawks, which, considering it came against a team 12.5 games behind in the standings, was much more uncomfortable than it should've been.
Atlanta climbed back in it from a double-digit deficit, cutting the Indy lead down to three in the closing minutes before falling short.
What's concerning is that this may be becoming something of a trend for the top overall seed.
The Pacers' cooled stretch that has followed their scorching opening is what begs the question to be asked. Does Indiana need to axe its poor habits before they become full-blown problems?
First, the Good News
Let's make this clear: Indiana is 38-10.
They own the best record in basketball. Paul George is on the fast track to NBA superstardom, and the team may have just nurtured another future All-Star in Lance Stephenson. Just two of their games have finished with final scores separated by three points or less.
On defense, they maintain dominance by funneling most of the opponents' shots into the inefficient mid-range area, thanks to mammoth centers planted near the basket and quick perimeter defense than can blow up pick-and-rolls (they rank fourth against stopping the ball-handler and seventh against stopping the roll man, via Synergy) and stop three-point shooters.
They've forced the second-most mid-range shots in the league, while forcing the third-worst clip from that zone.
The team leads everybody in nearly every defensive category, including field-goal percentage, assists and net-rating.
They rank second in defending three-pointers and third in opponents' rebounds per game. They're also top-10 in opponents' free-throw rate, which tells you they play this level of defense without putting the other team on the line all that often.
Even the offense has improved from last year from an offensive efficiency of 104.3 to 105.2. They rank in the top half of the league in effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
They've even posted an impressive 13-5 record against a dramatically superior Western Conference.
We've watched a half-season of sample size, and the Pacers, by nearly every measure, are championship caliber. With home court on the line this season, it's not hard to expect Indiana to pull it together before it begins to fall apart.
Now, the Not So Good
After a blazing 16-1 start, the team has toned it down a tad.
Since then, they're 22-9, or at a .709 winning clip, which would still be better than every Eastern team aside from the Miami Heat. The West has three teams—the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers—at better percentages.
The last wire-to-wire, completely encouraging performance we've seen from the Pacers was on Jan. 20 versus the Golden State Warriors. The eight games that have followed have included:
- A 24-point loss to the Phoenix Suns
- A win that was pushed into overtime by the Western-Conference worst Sacramento Kings
- A 13-point loss at the hands of the Denver Nuggets
- A fairly decisive win against the then 16-29 Los Angeles Lakers, but was tied at halftime before Indiana turned it on late
- Another loss to Phoenix, this one at home by eight points
- A narrow 97-96 victory against the seventh-place Brooklyn Nets
- A victory at home against the Orlando Magic by 19, yet they had Orlando down double-digits numerous times through the first three quarters and couldn't put the game away until the final period
- Tuesday's nerve-wracking triumph over the Atlanta Hawks, which was almost lost after being outscored by seven in the fourth quarter, not to mention losing the second quarter by five points
None of this is to make wins seem insufficient—in the standings, they all count the same. But it's clear now that the inferior teams that Indiana was pummeling early in the season find ways to crawl back into games and cause more trouble than Indiana would prefer.
And it's not that the Pacers have trouble getting up for big games; in fact, the opposite.
The Pacers have gone 24-1 against teams under .500 this season, which is an encouraging figure. The 14-9 record against the league's better teams is still fine, but not Miami's 15-6 or OKC's 23-9.
After the home loss to the Suns, Paul George told the Indianapolis Star, "I just feel like we're not bringing that edge. We're not really climbing into guys, forcing those turnovers. I think that's what we need to get back to."
Of the team's 10 losses, a majority (six) have been lost by double digits, suggesting once it falls behind, there's some difficulty getting back up to par.
It's hard to imagine the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Denver Nuggets or Phoenix Suns all being talented enough to take Indy down by 10 or more, but all five teams, in addition to the Thunder, have done so. Four of the six have happened since January.
|Double-Digit Pacers Losses|
Finally, it's impossible not to mention the potential effects Andrew Bynum could have on this group once he finds and settles into a role with the Pacers.
"He'll have to prove a lot to himself on whether he wants to play or not," George said to the Star. "If he comes in ready to go ready to put in the work, really buying into our program, we have no problem being there for him."
Since leaving LA, Bynum has developed an unfortunate reputation as a player who tends to make himself bigger than the team and value his own desires more highly than his employer's.
The last thing the Pacers need is an ego among their close-knit, young group. So that's just something to monitor moving forward.
What to Make of it All?
The eye test and the numbers, alike, will tell you that Indiana has dialed it back a bit as of late. The important thing to remember, though, is that it's perfectly fine and normal.
That may not be a "focus" issue at all, but rather a conscious and healthy scale-back with 82 games in mind.
Problems occur when the latter becomes excessive and creates the former.
Take into consideration that the team's schedule will make it hard to doze off and sleepwalk into a buzzsaw or several formidable teams in a row.
Regressing ran this graphic in January, which shows no clear threats—assuming the Pacers don't let a little preservation morph into indifference.
What's significant, though, is how the offense, which is 19th in efficiency on the season, clicks when it matters most.
In "clutch" scenarios—when the score is separated by five points or less in the final five minutes of games—Indiana's offense ranks sixth in the league with 113.9 points per 100 possessions. That's good enough to equate to a net-rating of plus-11.7 points over 100 possessions.
This wasn't the case last year, when the offense ranked 13th in such situations during the regular season.
It was certainly the case, however, during last season's playoffs, when they cemented themselves as the first viable threat to the Miami Heat. In the postseason, they ranked first of all 16 teams in clutch offense, even posting a ridiculous net-rating of 38.5.
Those are the Pacers that asserted themselves as one of the league's best. The postseason Pacers displayed impeccable focus.
When it comes down to it, that's what this year's team resembles, too.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.