Potentially fatal is the sword the Indiana Pacers have fallen upon.
It wasn't long ago that the Pacers were overlording darlings, imposing their well-balanced will on opposing NBA teams, both lottery- and playoff-bound. Lately, though, they've been nothing more than a disheveled nightmare, seldom rising to the occasion and rarely flaunting the resilience that landed them atop the Eastern Conference.
Despite recent struggles, the Pacers are still there, above every other Eastern Conference team, including the Miami Heat. But barely.
These Pacers are towering over no one, not even lowly, star-crossed lottery teams. They're still riding early season dominance, clinging to top-seeded hopes that seemed like a formality.
For a team openly chasing first place, this is the worst, the absolute bottom. Patience is a luxury the Pacers do not have, and assurances are comforts they cannot offer.
Panic is the extreme the Pacers have taken this season to, fitfully sinking to new lows, in danger of losing everything they were once working so hard to maintain.
Catastrophe in Cleveland
Now is when the Pacers must win the games they're supposed to win.
So much for that.
Sunday's showdown against the Cleveland Cavaliers served as a stark reminder of how far the Pacers have fallen. Kyrie Irving was still on the sidelines, and Anderson Varejao was held to under 14 minutes courtesy of a shoulder injury.
This was a game the Pacers shouldn't have just won, but won easily. They lost instead.
The Cavaliers held the Pacers to just 37.2 percent shooting and 90 points, coasting through a game that stopped being close after the first quarter.
Pacers offense is in crisis, they failed to crack 80 for 4th time in 5 games today. They scored 84 in 1-point win over Heat.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) March 30, 2014
These are the same Cavaliers, who, according to NBA.com (subscription required), rank 20th in defensive efficiency. And yet, the Pacers' bedraggled and disjointed offense made the Cavs look like impregnable defensive sages.
Just finished Pacers-Cavs. IND offense a mess. Spacing/timing, never great to begin with, are just off. They went hard for that game, too.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 30, 2014
Paul George continued to struggle, shooting just 38.5 percent from the field. He hasn't cleared a 45 percent conversion rate in eight games, which, per Basketball-Reference, is the longest such streak of his career. The Pacers are 3-5 during that stretch.
Not that anyone else is off the hook. The Pacers were collectively terrible. Only Chris Copeland and Luis Scola shot over 45 percent from the field, and they combined for a beggarly nine shot attempts.
More from Coach Vogel, "I think we're playing against ourselves right now... We're not close to where we need to be."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 30, 2014
Afterward, esteemed veteran David West sounded the alarm, per the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner:
Asked David West if this loss was rock bottom. "Yeah, I would say" "We can't get - I don't know what else we can do."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) March 30, 2014
The shrill of Indiana's alarm comes not a moment too soon. Its victory over the Heat already seems like forever ago.
Whatever corner the Pacers were thought to have turned, they're still cowering behind it, searching for answers to questions they shouldn't be asking this late in the season.
If only these were isolated incidents, then, maybe, the Pacers could rest easy knowing everything would be fine.
But they can't. Their offense has been that bad, and their defense is no longer strong enough to carry them toward contention.
|When||Record||Off. Rtg.||Off. Rank||Def. Rtg.||Def. Rank|
|First 54 Games||41-13||102.0||20||93.9||1|
|Last 15 Games||6-9||95.7||29||100.4||5|
|Last 8 Games||3-5||90.3||30||95.2||2|
Offensive inadequacy spells doom for the Pacers. Using Basketball-Reference's playoff index, we find that only three teams have won an NBA title since the ABA-NBA merger while also ranking in the bottom half of offensive efficiency. Right now, the Pacers have one of the worst offenses in the NBA, so you do the math.
Their defense has been equally concerning. Though they've stepped it up over the last eight games or so, it's been to no avail and hardly erases the struggles in previous games.
With their offense in shambles, devoid of ball movement and spacing, the Pacers cannot afford to worry about defense. Slipping there puts them in worse shape than they're currently in.
That cannot happen.
Balance—not defense—wins championships in the NBA. Before the Pacers can resume legitimately contending for a title, they need to find that happy, non-negotiable medium.
Continue to play like they are now, relying solely on their still meticulously executed defense, and they're only going to get more of the same—which isn't even close to good enough.
Urgency, Urgency, Urgency
This is it for the Pacers. Their season is hanging in the balance.
And no, that's not a hot take.
"We're all frustrated," Coach Vogel says postgame. "We just need to win the next game."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 30, 2014
Maybe the Pacers finish atop the Eastern Conference. Maybe they stave off the Heat, who have also been a less-than-impressive team of late. But even if they do all that, even if they secure first place, they're not going to win a championship playing like this. They can't even dispatch inferior opponents—Cavaliers, Washington Wizards, etc.—like this.
The fact is, they won't even successfully outmaneuver the Heat like this.
Only one game separates two of the NBA's biggest rivals. At a time when the Pacers should be buckling down and playing like the powerhouse they were thought to be, they're crumbling, fading without a semblance of consistent fight or effort.
Worse still, pinpointing why remains difficult. The symptoms are obvious, but the origin of their abrupt regression remains inexplicable.
Is it time for the Pacers to panic?
Did signing the injured Andrew Bynum subliminally fracture their psyche? Did Danny Granger's departure and Evan Turner's arrival rattle their chemistry that much?
Or are the Pacers not yet truly accustomed to life as a favorite, incapable of maintaining the us-against-the-world mentality that proved invaluable one year ago?
"I'm lost right now," Lance Stephenson said after the loss to Cleveland, per Buckner. "I don't know."
Both he and the Pacers better figure it out. And soon. Otherwise, what they cannot figure out, what they don't know will certainly turn a season once teeming with promise into an empty, futile endeavor.