The Blue and Gold used to mean something to the Indiana Pacers.
Every time they donned those jerseys, they were throwing on the uniforms of an underdog squad that played with pride, unrelenting focus and a serious sense of swagger. The chip on their collective shoulder spurred them on to greatness, which in this case seemed to be best represented by a stranglehold on the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Lately...not so much.
A four-game losing streak has the Pacers down in the dumps, even if a simultaneous dry spell from the Miami Heat has allowed them to maintain their grasp on the top record in the East.
Indiana may have the same players on the roster and the court, but they sure don't look the same. Even if the numbers and sizes of their frames are identical, they're playing without the same heart that got this team into such a promising position during the 2013-14 season.
Something has to change. Actually, go ahead and replace "something" with "a lot."
Roy Hibbert Starts Remembering He's a DPOY Favorite
One hundred and five, 112, 109, 98, 91, 97, 96, 98, 100 and 104.
Those are the point totals the Pacers have allowed during their past 10 games, and they're shockingly high. This is a team that's ceding 92.2 points per game to the opponent over the course of the season, a mark that includes that 10-game stretch of poor defensive performances.
And you can stretch it back even further. The defensive decline truly began on Jan. 22, when the Pacers gave up 124 points in regulation to the speedy Phoenix Suns.
At the heart of the issue is Roy Hibbert, who used to be the unquestioned favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. Lately though, he's been surpassed by Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah, both of whom are spearheading defensive charges, not lackluster falls from grace during the closing trimester of the 2013-14 season.
According to Basketball-Reference, his defensive rating over the past 10 games is a putrid 110. He's only been on the right side of 100 once, when he earned a 92 defensive rating on Feb. 25 while helping to hold the inept Los Angeles Lakers to "just" 98 points.
During the 53 games prior, Hibbert's defensive rating was a much more impressive 95.
In fact, you can literally count the number of times that Hibbert had been on the wrong side of 110 without bringing a second hand into the equation. There are only five:
- 118 DRtg against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 16
- 126 DRtg against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Dec. 8
- 119 DRtg against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 16
- 115 DRtg against the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 8
- 128 DRtg against the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 22
That number has almost doubled if you include the past 10 outings for the Pacers, five of which have resulted in losses. He's been on the wrong side of 120 in each of the last three.
Indiana is allowing plenty of points in the paint recently, and it all stems from Hibbert's ineffectiveness guarding the rim. Those principles of verticality aren't working in his favor, and he's been abused both by physicality and finesse.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, the Georgetown product is at the center of everything that happens on the less-glamorous end of the court.
Without him shutting down the paint, the stellar defenders surrounding him aren't able to do much. The perimeter opens up, and jumpers start finding the bottom of the net in bunches.
Lately, Pacers opponents have been a little freakish with their accuracy. Dallas hit 8-of-20 three-pointers. Houston hit 13-of-20. Charlotte hit 9-of-18. Golden State hit 10-of-20. Those teams wouldn't shoot that well in an empty gym a lot of nights. Utah, the last team they beat, hit 12-of-24. Even Milwaukee, one of the NBA's worst teams, shot well from the three-point line against the Pacers.
Montieth argues that this is more opponents being hot than the Pacers being bad at defense, but there's more than luck at play here.
Until Hibbert starts protecting the interior like he did throughout the beginning of the season, performances like these will keep popping up.
Paul George Begins Hitting Shots
At the beginning of the season, Paul George was an unquestioned superstar.
Now there are questions. Plenty of them.
His offensive performance was slipping throughout the season, but it's been particularly bad during the Pacers' four-game skid. He's averaged 17 points per contest during that quartet of lackluster outings, and he's shooting only 36.2 percent from the field and 28.6 percent beyond the arc.
Against the Golden State Warriors, George needed 23 shots from the field to score 26 points. Then he went 0-of-9 against the Charlotte Bobcats, failing to follow in the footsteps of Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James against the team. He was only 5-of-12 against the Houston Rockets during his next outing, and he finally rebounded with a great game in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
It's not exactly the most promising stretch, and it's even more unfortunate that it coincided with the four-game slump from Indiana as a whole. Problem is, it's not a coincidence.
The Pacers have never exactly been a great offensive team. They're scoring only 105 points per 100 possessions, which is the No. 21 mark in the Association, per Basketball-Reference.
When George isn't hitting, though, things get even worse. His ability to create shots for himself and knock down looks from the perimeter bring new elements to the offense, and the splits are fairly telling:
Maybe George really does need to be mentored by LeBron James.
Every star player goes through offensive slumps, but this isn't the first one George has endured during the 2013-14 campaign. It probably won't be the last either, as he's still more of a standout defensive player than a consistent offensive powerhouse.
The key behind a workable offense, though, rests in his hands.
Just as Hibbert must take responsibility for the defensive woes, so too must George shoulder the burden on offense.
Think That No One Believes in Them
"Like they say, success can kill you. It can make you or break you. How well you cope with success determines how good you're going to be," George Hill told Candace Buckner of IndyStar.com after the Pacers lost to the Houston Rockets on March 7. "I feel like we coped with (success) as far as relaxing, thinking teams are going to lay down and let us win and that's not the case."
Things have changed from the beginning of the season.
As Hill went on to claim, "We're marked. We've got a target on our back, everybody's going to go at us. Last couple games we haven't been going back."
When the Pacers got off to a scorching start, winning 16 games in 17 tries, they had the vaunted "nobody believes in us" mentality working in their favor. They were the upstarts. They were the team trying to dethrone the Heat, not the squad the Heat were trying to catch.
But change often flies in on the back of success.
The Pacers are no longer playing with an edge. Nor are they fighting for every 50/50 ball, as that power has been shifted over to the Chicago Bulls in recent weeks. The chip on their shoulder has disappeared, and it's been replaced by pride and the hubristic laziness that can often accompany it.
My stance on Pacers lately has generally been unconcerned -- regular season malaise. But last night was really bad.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 8, 2014
Remember how the Heat spent the early portion of the season sleepwalking and accepting that they'd finish as a top-two team in the Eastern Conference no matter what? That seems to be the latest mentality for the Pacers, and it's one they can't afford to have.
Unlike Miami, Indiana has made a goal out of the No. 1 seed. George, Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers are the challengers, and they need that cockiness and swagger back if they're going to dethrone the two-time defending champions.
Disinterested play isn't going to cut it any longer, but neither is a cocksure attitude. It's all about rediscovering that edge.
Is the Pacers' recent decline something to be worried about?
There are plenty of flaws you can point to as reasons for the recent troubles, troubles that go beyond the recent skid and involve the close victories against lackluster competition. Hibbert's defense and George's offense are big factors, as are the inability to mix Evan Turner into the rotation and injury woes.
But above all else, it boils down to effort.
The Pacers thrived by playing harder, faster, stronger and meaner than the opposition during the early portion of the 2013-14 season. That's what gave them their biggest advantage.
Until they find that type of mentality once more, the clock is ticking on what could become a Cinderella season with a midnight ending.