Things aren't exactly all hunky-dory for the Indiana Pacers as they continue into the closing trimester of the 2013-14 season.
After suffering an embarrassing 112-86 loss to the scorching Houston Rockets, Indiana is now in the midst of a three-game skid. It's actually the first time all season the Pacers have dropped a trio of games, and they've only lost back-to-back contests on one occasion, which came back in December.
If there's ever a time to describe the team in a tie for the NBA's best record as "reeling," this would be it.
The Pacers have reason to be concerned after falling to 46-16, especially because they desperately need to claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and capitalize on what's sure to be their best championship opportunity in the foreseeable future.
A Dismal Week
The Pacers entered the first full week of March on the heels of a five-game winning streak, but there were even signs of an upcoming letdown back during the end of February. While Indiana had indeed emerged from all five contests in victorious fashion, it won the last three by a combined 13 points.
After all, the losses started piling up directly after.
First, the Pacers lost to the Golden State Warriors on a memorable buzzer-beating attempt from Klay Thompson. At least that game was close.
One night later, they were blown out by the Charlotte Bobcats, falling 109-87. Yes, the league's best defense managed to allow a struggling offense to hit triple digits while Paul George shot 0-of-9 from the field and recorded only two points.
Then came Friday night.
This was just a pathetic performance, and the Rockets blew the Pacers' vaunted defense to smithereens while showcasing a pretty stellar point-preventing unit of their own. Indiana somehow allowed James Harden to explode for 28 points, four rebounds and four assists without even stepping on the court during the fourth quarter.
And he wasn't the only one who had an early night.
Dwight Howard also sat out during the final period, and he finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and four dimes. Chandler Parsons, Donatas Motiejunas and Jeremy Lin also looked fantastic.
Going 0-for-3 is fine. Going 0-for-3 while coming off a stretch of uninspired victories is less fine.
The biggest problem, though, is that the Pacers are no longer alone in the driver's seat for the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. They now have the same amount of losses as the Miami Heat, though they have an additional three victories.
Should Miami go 3-0 over their next stretch of outings, they'd have the same record as Indiana at this stage of the season. That's not what this team needs, since it's made such a priority out of finishing with the top record and earning homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs.
So, What's Going Wrong?
The defense has regressed rather significantly, and Roy Hibbert is no longer making quite the same impact as a rim protector. Ian Mahinmi is making the same impact, but that's not exactly a good thing for the dominant defenders.
According to TeamRankings.com, the Pacers had allowed only 35.1 points per game in the paint heading into the beatdown they suffered at the hands of the Rockets. That's the top mark in the league by a rather significant margin, as the Chicago Bulls (37.3) are the only other team on the right side of 38.
They only allowed 32 points to the Golden State Warriors, but that quickly changed when they were forced to play a team with a go-to post player. That's not meant to be a knock on David Lee, but rather an admission that the Dubs often fall in the habit of playing perimeter-oriented basketball, which they did that night with 20 three-point attempts.
Charlotte torched Indiana's interior defense for 44 points in the paint the very next night, and they were led by should've-been-All-Star Al Jefferson. Big Al finished with 34 points on 16-of-25 shooting, and it's not like he ever strays too far away from the basket, although he did luck into a 31-foot three-pointer to beat the shot clock in the fourth quarter.
"I think everybody needs to question the Eastern Conference voting on why Al Jefferson wasn't on the All-Star team because clearly he is one of the best in the game," Frank Vogel told The Associated Press via ESPN after the game. "He showed it tonight. Give him credit."
I'll absolutely give him credit, but I'll also give the Pacers a few red marks. The interior defense has been struggling, and that didn't change against the Rockets.
Houston dropped 48 points in the paint, many of which came on either drives to the hoop or surprisingly effective post moves from D12.
This isn't so much a schematic problem as it is a dearth of consistent effort.
Indiana can't afford to take its defensive dominance for granted, as so much of it stems from playing with a constant nobody-believes-in-us type of edge.
It's also worth noting that in addition to problems stemming from a shooting slump by Paul George, Evan Turner has been more detrimental than anything else since he and Lavoy Allen were brought aboard in the deadline-beating deal that sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The swingman went into the Houston game averaging 11.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists since the trade, but he's struggled with his shot inside the arc and from the free-throw line. The result is a 12.5 player efficiency rating, per Basketball-Reference, and that was before his lackluster 15 minutes on Friday night.
Turner's versatility has actually helped out Indiana a bit, but he clearly isn't used to playing this style of defense. The Sixers ran a movement-heavy system that forced players to run incessantly and often ignore the point-stopping efforts, and the Pacers are just about the exact opposite.
Is it any wonder that Indiana is allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court?
If that seems like a bad number to you, it should.
It's one that would leave him making a negative impact on many terrible defensive teams, much less the top one in the Association. And that's not all, as ESPN's Bradford Doolittle (subscription required) suggests that the Pacers could be approaching things incorrectly:
The Pacers have struggled in recent games, losing back-to-back for the first time since December. George's shooting slump is the prime reason for the recent slump, and you can't really hang that on Turner. But while it's encouraging that Stephenson has remained efficient alongside his new teammate, it's also true that he's getting a smaller slice of the pie, while Turner has put up virtually identical numbers to the ones he put up for the Sixers.
Again, the samples are tiny, but you can interpret all of this to suggest the Pacers are fitting in around Turner, not vice versa. If this, and the team's struggles, continue, what happens? It's a wild card, an uncertainty created where there was not one before.
In a way, this is a related application of the principle that a coach should build his scheme around a roster, not his roster around a scheme.
The Pacers had a good thing going, and they can't change that to adjust for the skill-set of a midseason acquisition. Especially when that midseason acquisition is a player who was largely the product of up-tempo play and more opportunity than he'd receive elsewhere.
Despite all of these problems, though, the Pacers aren't necessarily in big trouble. They are a confident bunch, after all.
After tonight's loss, Coach Vogel said, "We've got a good team. We'll re-group."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 8, 2014
A three-game losing streak is not the end of the world. Dropping enough games that the Pacers and Heat are tied in the loss column is not a sign that the apocalypse is quickly approaching in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
This collection of defensive stalwarts isn't going anywhere, even if they're ice cold right now and heading into a tough matchup with the Dallas Mavericks.
There are questions that need answering, and there's reason for concern. But concern is not the equivalent of panic, and the cover over the proverbial red button should not be lifted anytime soon.
Will the Pacers finish with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference?
A few more losses, though, might do the trick.
The time is now or never for the Pacers, and the No. 1 seed is in danger of falling out of their grasp. When trying to play keepaway with the Heat over a spot in the standings, losing creates a bit of a slippery slope.
It's a slope the Pacers certainly can't afford to fall down.