Which Struggling NBA Team Should Be Most Concerned: Heat, Thunder or Pacers?

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IMarch 10, 2014

Which Struggling NBA Team Should Be Most Concerned: Heat, Thunder or Pacers?

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    PAUL BEATY/Associated Press

    What would an NBA season be without a few springtime swoons from the league’s elite?

    Over the course of an 82-game season, it’s inevitable that even the most mettle-tested and polished teams will hit a few frost heaves and potholes along the way.

    The Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers have each experienced their own stings and setbacks coming out of the NBA’s dog days of winter.

    We’re fairly certain all three of these teams will be squarely in the mix come May—they’re simply too talented and too proven to suggest otherwise.

    But which of these elite squads should feel the most concerned heading into the season’s final month? What flaws and failures can be chalked up to temporary lapses, and which present systemic risks going forward?

    All forthcoming stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 9, unless otherwise noted.

Indiana Pacers

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Don’t read anything into the Indiana Pacers being first—we’re just doing them in alphabetical order. Relax!

    Although, yikes…Indy sure has come crashing down to earth of late. Take a look at these team-wide numbers from before and after the All-Star break:

    Time PeriodORtgDRtgNetRtgTS%W-L
    Before ASB102.293.6+8.6.54040-12
    After ASB103.2105.1-1.9.5436-5

    Following a 105-94 loss to the Dallas Mavericks Sunday night, the Pacers have now dropped four in a row for the first time all season. And while their offense has been mostly up to snuff, their once-dominant defense looks like it's simply going through the motions.

    That Indy's slide has coincided with the trade-deadline acquisition of Evan Turner might strike some as an unhappy coincidence, but CBSSports.com's Matt Moore is having none of it.  "I'm really confused how the Pacers trading a non-entity for a young player with athlteiicism [sic] is shomehow [sic] a failure after two weeks," he tweeted on Sunday night.

    For his part, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel eschewed the panic button when a reporter asked him what needed to be fixed after the Dallas loss.

    "Stay the course," Vogel said in his postgame press conference. "It's a tough stretch of the schedule. We knew it was going to be tough. You're going to have to play at your best to win at Dallas, at Houston."

    Luckily, Indy's got some easy feedings on the docket, with its next five tilts coming against Eastern Conference teams well below .500.

    Luckier still, our next team seems to have little interest in making Indy pay for its sluggish play.

Miami Heat

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    Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

    Did LeBron James' epic 61-point blitzkrieg cause the NBA universe to unravel?

    After rattling off 11 wins in a 12-game stretch from February 1 to March 3, the Miami Heat followed up King James' incendiary performance by dropping a trio of duds, keeping them 1.5 games behind the Pacers for the East's No. 1 seed.

    The silver lining: All three losses came against top-flight opponents (the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls) and all three came on the road.

    Let’s be honest: If any team has earned the right to casually coast into the postseason, hand on the throttle all the while, it’s the two-time defending champs.

    At the same time, Miami knows better than anyone how important having home-court advantage throughout the playoffs can be. Just ask, well, last year’s Heat, who needed a home Game 7 in each of the final two rounds to capture the crown a season ago.

    It feels like the Heat are missing a golden opportunity to pounce on the reeling Pacers. Will it come back to haunt them?

Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Don't look now, but the Thunder are 3-5 since the return of Russell Westbrook on February 20.

    As a result, The Thunder have slipped down to second in the Western Conference standings, a half-game behind the San Antonio Spurs.

    A big reason for the early-spring slide: OKC's defense, which has charted a middling 108.3 efficiency in the eight games since Westbrook's return.

    It would be silly to suggest the Thunder would be a better team in the long run without Westbrook weighing Durant down. At the same time, there's bound to be a re-learning curve when two of the league's most talented scorers are suddenly forced to mesh on the fly.

    To finally exorcise their championship demons, OKC has to be KD's team. To what extent Westbrook allows that to happen will go a long way in determining the team's near-term fate.

Conclusion: Stop Pacing

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Unlike the Heat and Thunder, the Pacers have yet to cross the conference finals threshold. Those other guys are allowed to coast. You? Not so much.

    Indy's defense will almost assuredly return to form in the coming weeks. And if there's one thing history tells us separates the pretenders from the true contenders, it's being able to get multiple stops when you need them. Needless to say, Indy has proven itself in that department.

    But can the Pacers keep up at the other end of the floor? When their defense suddenly hits a wall, can they summon a string of productive possessions to put them back in the mix?

    As things stand, all three of these teams have some hay to make ahead of the playoffs. The way the Pacers are constructed, however, means they might be stuck having to make more of it.