Dear Indiana Pacers: We get it. You're bored. We want the playoffs to begin just as badly as you do.
But there's a fine line between coasting to the finish line and accepting mediocrity. You guys are coming dangerously close to that line.
Once owners of the NBA's best record at 39-10, Indiana has cooled to the tune of a 13-10 record since Feb. 9. Paul George's instant transcendence into superstardom has been put on a temporary hiatus, and even the most seemingly harmless of foes have no trouble giving the Pacers fits.
Friday's 13-point loss to the sixth-place Washington Wizards was a prime example.
The Pacers put up just 78 points and trailed by as many as 20 points in the fourth quarter. George shot just 6-of-22, Lance Stephenson 3-of-13, while Roy Hibbert and David West combined for just nine rebounds in the defeat.
"We've been in this rut for a month. I don't know. I made my suggestions. You take one step forward and three steps back," Hibbert said, according to The Indianapolis Star. "We've talked about that at great length, amongst ourselves, privately, team meetings, all that crap and I don't know."
Wall, Beal and Ariza shot a combined 13-46 against Indy...and the Wiz won by 13. Something is going on with the Pacers.— Joseph Flynn (@ChinaJoeFlynn) March 29, 2014
Though it seemed like point guard George Hill, who finished with five assists against the Wizards, was right on the money in his postgame comments (per Candace Buckner of The Star):
I don't know what's the right or wrong answer. I'm not sure. I mean, we just got to play for each other. Move the ball...You can't turn on the light switch. You can't just go on and off. I feel like when we play people that have that stature of a dominant team, we get ready to play them. Teams that we may think are less dominant for us, we kind of stoop to their level. But those are the teams that are going to burn you. They're playing for a reason and with a purpose and that's what we haven't been doing.
And there you have it. Professor Hill has found it. What started as innocently easing off the gas pedal has evolved into a full-fledged concern with just nine games remaining in the regular season.
Even during the team's recent victory against the Miami Heat, there was serious cause for concern. George shot just 42 percent, Hibbert grabbed only four boards and the bench scored just 10 points.
Blessing or a Curse?
A cause for concern, which Hill brought up after the Washington game, is Indiana's inability to get up for games against lesser teams. Several good teams often come across this dilemma, especially relatively younger groups like the Pacers. But in a year that Indy is supposed to make the leap to a championship contender, this is more than just a concerning trend.
Five of their last 12 losses have come at the hands of teams not currently in a playoff position, and four of those five losses were decided by at least eight points. In the month of March, they've gone a pedestrian 7-4 against Eastern Conference foes—teams they had been pulverizing all season (they were 28-6 against Eastern Conference opponents entering March).
To equal the 61 wins of the 2003-04 team, the @Pacers must win their final nine games (five are on the road).— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) March 29, 2014
Under normal circumstances, failing to find motivation for battling lesser teams becomes a non-issue in the postseason. Well, one look at the standings indicates that this season doesn't bring these circumstances.
The teams against which Indiana is lowering its performance will be playing in the postseason. Charlotte, Chicago and now Washington have defeated the Pacers in the last three weeks, and that's not even counting Indy's loss to the ninth-place Knicks.
It's also worth noting, however, that last year's Pacers seemed to suffer through this also. That group managed to drop two postseason games—by double-digits—to the Atlanta Hawks, before marching to the conference finals.
Earlier this year, the current Pacers team worked hard to erase the reputation they established last year: a good team that couldn't win outside its own home. They went just 19-21 on the road last season, despite finishing third in the conference. In the postseason they dropped two games on the road to lowly Atlanta by blowout margins.
In 2013-14, Indy has already matched its win total on the road from last season. At 19-17, it is certainly improved away from home, but the team has began reverting to old habits of late. The loss to Washington marked the team's fourth consecutive road loss, equaling a season high. In each of the last three road defeats, Indiana hasn't exceeded 80 points.
The Pacers will likely own home court advantage thought the playoffs, but, as they showed the New York Knicks during last year's postseason, all it takes is one slip-up to give it away.
Road, offensive woes continue 4 @Pacers. 4th straight and 6 of 9 below 40% fg. 3rd time in 4 roadies below 80 pts. Now lost 4 str road gms.— Chris Denari (@ChrisDenari) March 29, 2014
They've posted an astounding 33-4 record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, though all four home losses have come to teams with lesser records.
The Pacers have long been suspected to prance to the Eastern Conference Finals, but all it takes is one poor home showing, and considering their mediocre road showings of late, the heat would undoubtedly be felt by Frank Vogel's young group.
Another concern is just how strong the Pacers are—not on the floor, but in the mind. Luis Scola and David West are the team's only rotation players over 30 years old, and four of the team's five starters are in their fifth NBA season or less. It's reasonable to question the playoff poise of a team without a true locker-room contingent of battle-tested veterans.
Of Indiana's 21 losses, 13 have come by double-digit margins. That mark is higher than Miami's seven, Toronto's five and every Western playoff team (six of the eight West qualifiers have nine or fewer).
Once opponents find a weakness and spark a run against the Pacers, for whatever reason, it's been difficult for Indiana to regain an edge. This was the case Friday, when Washington went up by 13 in the opening minutes of the second quarter. The Pacers could get no closer than six points the rest of the way.
What is the likelihood of Indiana missing the conference finals?
In all likelihood, the Pacers will breeze through the postseason's first round. But if they're pitted against resilient teams like the Chicago Bulls—who play a similar style of basketball as Indiana—or the Toronto Raptors in a second-round series, they'll need to dig much deeper than what we've been seeing of late.
Because when it's come down to determination, Indiana has looked far worse than its standing would suggest.
They're sleepwalking through the final weeks of the 2013-14 season with a Miami Heat rematch in mind, but if the team doesn't manage to regain focus soon, that matchup could be snatched from them before it even takes place.