The Indiana Pacers—beaten, battered and bowed—aren't broken.
Maybe it's crazy to say that, especially after the merciless 103-77 beating the ruthlessly functional San Antonio Spurs laid on the Pacers on March 31. With a losing record in March and nothing but negative vibes emanating from the locker room, the Pacers' surface fractures have many former supporters hopping off the bandwagon.
But the damage isn't irreparable. There are ways to fix this.
At the risk of being overdramatic, the Pacers have a chance to save themselves before a season that began with championship dreams gives way to the nightmare of an early playoff exit. Best of all, the solution is uncomplicated, requiring as much inaction as action.
Before action, though, these Pacers need to do some talking.
Talk It Out
Most of the chatter during Indy's troubling swoon has been of the unproductive variety. For example, Roy Hibbert has been vocal about some of the me-first agendas dragging the Pacers down, per TNT's David Aldridge: "Some selfish dudes in here. Some selfish dudes. I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month."
Lance Stephenson and George Hill have been doing the wrong kind of talking as well, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst:
The Pacers are experiencing a leadership void at the moment and the only thing they're racking up faster than turnovers and bad shots is finger pointing. During a timeout in the second half, George Hill got into a verbal confrontation with Lance Stephenson on the bench and they had to be separated by teammates.
Nobody's saying the Pacers should hide from the media or bury whatever personal grudges they might have with one another. But the circumstances surrounding the team need to be discussed, and in as honest and thorough a manner as possible.
Talk won't fix everyone's problems on its own, but it seems especially necessary when it comes to Stephenson. His attitude has grown more defiant, and his play has featured more style than substance since the praise for his early-season play started pouring in. He's acting entitled, playing with more flair than necessary and seems to bristle when confronted with those facts.
That's a problem, and it appears Stephenson hasn't been receptive to solving it through conversation.
Lance Stephenson walking back to the timeout huddle barking at everyone and no one in particular. #Spurs extend the lead back to 14— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) April 1, 2014
It's easy to say Indiana needs to talk things out. Amid crisis, it'll be extremely hard to do. This roster's core has been around one another for three years, and whatever personal differences exist are close to calcifying by now.
But they have to try.
Maybe Hibbert's on to something, per Windhorst:
We've had plenty of players-only meetings and plenty of sit-downs as a team with coaches and we've had some upper management in here, so I don't know. Maybe we should all go to group therapy or something ... figure out some of our grievances.
Hey, whatever it takes, right?
Take a Break
The impulse to panic among fans of the team and the Pacers themselves is understandable. Indy has now spent a full third of the season playing .500 ball and hasn't scored with any kind of efficiency for weeks.
It has failed to crack the 80-point barrier five times in its last six games and the offense (if it's even accurate to use that term for whatever it is Indy is doing with the ball) has looked completely disjointed. On the year, the Pacers rank 22nd in the league in offensive rating, per NBA.com.
Since the All-Star break, they rank 29th.
The Pacers have never been a good offensive team, but they've been downright awful lately.
Pacers have now lost their last five games by double digits against teams that aren't back-to-back NBA champs. Margins: 11, 12, 13, 14, 26.— Jared Wade (@8pts9secs) April 1, 2014
Bad chemistry has cropped up right in line with the team's offensive nosedive, which makes it seem like one is causing the other. In fact, it's now commonplace to cite the trade that sent away Danny Granger as the catalyst for everything that's gone wrong since.
But maybe the explanation is simpler: Maybe they're just tired.
It takes an uncommon amount of energy, focus and effort to defend like the Pacers do, and head coach Frank Vogel still doesn't have the kind of quality bench play that allows him to keep his starters off the floor for long stretches.
For the aging West and the hulking Hibbert, those are some serious playing-time demands. And when you consider the strain of Indy's style and the sheer volume of games its deep playoff run required last season, it's no wonder everyone on the roster is wearing down.
The looming question, of course, is this: Is rest more important for Indiana's playoff survival than the No. 1 seed in the East?
It's hard to be sure what will matter more, but we know the Pacers can't expect to survive if they continue to play like this. They need fresher legs to make their defense elite and their offense passable. Unless Vogel eases off on his starters' minutes, or even rests a few key players during games down the stretch a la Gregg Popovich, the Pacers might not survive a first-round series.
The No. 1 seed was a great goal at the beginning of the season, but the Pacers say they don't care about it anymore.
Hibbert on losing the No. 1 seed to Miami: "Good for them. We don't deserve it."— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 1, 2014
That's the proper approach, because it won't matter what seed Indiana has if its key players aren't rejuvenated come playoff time.
The prescription here is "rest."
Trust the System
Viewed in a vacuum, it's hard to say Indy's recent play resembles that of a title-worthy team. But we can't just pretend the last two years never happened.
The Pacers have been among the league's most dominant defenses for a full two seasons now. They have a near superstar in George, an elite rim-protector in Hibbert and the recent experience of taking the Miami Heat to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Shouldn't the vast amount of evidence that says the Pacers are a great team outweigh the recent weeks that say they aren't?
Remember, Indy lost five of its final six games to close out the 2012-13 season. They did just fine in the ensuing playoffs. Granted, the stretch of worrisome play is longer this time around. But if we look back further, we see these Pacers aren't the first purportedly elite group to sputter toward the finish and then course-correct when it mattered:
This is always an appropriate time to note that the '10 Celtics, en route to the Finals, went 10-10 over their last 20 with a DRtg of 110.2.— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) April 1, 2014
Paul Pierce was an exceptional leader during that stretch, but there was finger pointing, fan panic and questions about Doc's future.— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) April 1, 2014
We can't just discount everything that's gone wrong in Indiana lately. But it's foolish to forget that we've seen things like this in the past—and they're almost never as disastrous in hindsight as they appear in the moment.
There are no major injuries hampering the Pacers. There are no irreparable interpersonal rifts. There are no sudden strategic tweaks around the league that render Indiana's schemes ineffective.
What we're seeing from the Pacers is the result of excessive wear and tear, fatigue and perhaps the disappointment of not meeting outsized expectations. These are all fixable issues if Indy steps back and realizes the system isn't broken.
The Pacers need to talk to each other, agree to keep personal agendas at bay and rest a little down the stretch.
What made the Pacers so good before is still there. They just need to trust the system.