On New Year's Day, the Indiana Pacers were 25-5 and looked to be, if not the runaway favorites, an infinitely more formidable challenger than even the upset-minded upstarts that took the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.
Not only was Indy’s defense trending toward a historic efficiency of 93.7, per NBA.com (subscription only), but its offense—at times ineffective to the point of anemia in seasons past—was finally starting to look serviceably Finals-grade.
Fast-forward 10 weeks, and the Pacers suddenly look like they’d struggle to get two tickets out of the Pop-a-Shot machine. Not exactly the hallmark of a supposed championship contender.
The Chicago Bulls handed Indiana its seventh loss in 12 games Monday night, 89-77—the second straight time the Pacers have failed to crest the 80-point mark.
You know that thing in sports about “peaking at the right time”? This is the exact opposite of that.
The reasons for Indy’s struggles are manifold, having been dissected ad nauseam over the past few weeks.
Some, like CBS’ Ken Berger, point to head coach Frank Vogel relying too heavily on his starting unit—so heavy, in fact, that Paul George had managed to run the equivalent of 6.5 marathons as of that writing.
To say the Pacers are no longer the dominant team that sprinted out to a 16-1 start and spent much of the season with the best record (and best defense) in the league would be an overreaction. But there is a dilemma that the Pacers may have to confront before it is too late. Indiana's Big Three of George, Hibbert and West have played in every one of the Pacers' 68 games this season. Not a single game off for any of them. This is in stark contrast to how Gregg Popovich has handled the Spurs for years. Erik Spoelstra has strategically scheduled nights off for his stars, too.
Others, including Bleacher Report’s Michael Pina, chalk the Pacers’ poor play, at least in part, to sheer boredom.
The slog of a long regular season could have a detrimental effect on a team that sometimes is playing just to get things over with (Indiana). An underdog who’s already out of the playoffs might circle its match-up with Indiana and come out swinging with something to prove. Some guys on bad teams are unrestricted free agents playing for their NBA lives; dropping 25 on the best defense in basketball could go a long way in contract negotiations this summer.
All of these things and more can be true, of course. But in simply assuming their malaise might be shut off with the wanton ease of a water faucet, the Pacers are setting themselves up for an early spring vacation—if not in the first round, then certainly in a potential semifinals date with the surging Bulls or Brooklyn Nets.
Scarier still, even Indy’s D has begun showing signs of atrophy, having logged only the seventh-best mark (100.7) since March 1—a full seven points off their aforementioned pace to start the season.
While their play of late has left much to be desired, the Pacers aren’t alone in their springtime woes: Miami, losers of seven of its last 12, has fallen on equally turbulent times.
Appropriate, then, that the two teams should meet twice more before season’s end, including a prime-time date on Wednesday. Fair or not, whichever team loses will likely have its eulogy read for all to hear.
The winner, meanwhile, will have been lifted from the ledge just in the nick of time.
Indeed, that the Pacers and Heat could hold such huge leads over the Toronto Raptors (11 and nine games, respectively) shows just how top-heavy the Eastern Conference has been.
The difference being, of course, that Miami has shown the ability to shrug off the cobwebs when the stakes are at their highest—a switch Indy has yet to flip, assuming it even has one at all.
To be clear: Indy didn’t bludgeon its way to the NBA’s third-best record by being a team beyond repair or a fundamentally flawed pretender. The surprising play of Paul George and Lance Stephenson—these were no happy accidents.
At the same time, there’s a certain risk to a too-early anointment: the possibility of reputation getting in the way of what first earned it.
If we’re to glean anything from Vogel’s recent interview with CBS’ Matt Snyder, however, it’s that ego won’t get in the way of the task at hand.
With this team [ego] isn't [an issue]. It can be with a lot of teams, especially at this level. Not just egos, but individual agendas or goals can derail a lot of team performances. The great thing about our team is we have such selfless guys -- team-first guys -- top to bottom. Because of that, this element for me has been very easy.
Basketball, to cut the old cliche, is a team game—a game these Pacers are struggling to execute as a team.
But if past performance and a coach’s vows are any indication, even if the Pacers end up bowing out prematurely, it won’t be because the team we're seeing now—faltering, floundering, doubting its own abilities—is what the team really is.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription only) and current as of March 23, unless otherwise noted.