The Indiana Pacers are stumbling into the playoffs with vulnerability rarely seen from a No. 1 seed.
Indiana has dropped nine of its last 15 games heading into a first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks. While Atlanta finished the regular season just 38-44, they should feel confident playing Indiana given the Pacers' recent struggles.
Speaking of said struggles, the Pacers do seem to be experiencing quite a few due to cracks in their once impenetrable armor.
Here are the three biggest weaknesses the Hawks, and everyone else that may face Indiana in the playoffs, need to exploit in order to take down the Pacers.
Force Jumpers and Guard the 3-Point Line
We know that Indiana hasn't exactly been an offensive juggernaut this season (24th overall in scoring), and it's easy to see why.
The Pacers settle for way too many mid-range jumpers, period.
Since a Feb. 20 trade for Evan Turner, Indiana has nearly abandoned what had previously been a solid three-point shooting game.
Over these last two months, 78.2 percent of the team's shots have been two-pointers, sixth most in the NBA. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it turns into one when a team shoots as poorly as the Pacers have. Indiana is 28th in the league in team field-goal percentage this season at 44 percent, barely topping the Philadelphia 76ers (43.7) and Chicago Bulls (43.4).
Power forward David West is shooting 48.4 percent since the trade deadline, good enough for tops on the team. Even 7'2" center Roy Hibbert is converting at a 38.8 percent clip during this stretch—and just 27.2 percent over his last 10 games.
Where Indiana can hurt you is at the three-point line, where they've shot a respectable 37.2 percent since the trade for Turner.
For whatever reason, the Pacers don't utilize this strong outside shooting enough.
Indiana relies on the three-ball for just 21 percent of its total offense, despite being the 10th-best NBA team from deep since the trade deadline.
Opposing teams need to do their best to close out on players like Paul George (36.4 percent from three), George Hill (36.5 percent), Lance Stephenson (35.2 percent) and Turner (50 percent with Indiana), forcing them into long jumpers instead.
Pressure the Ball-Handler
Part of Indiana's offensive struggle has to do with poor point guard play.
Hill is a nice defender and can hit the three-ball, but he struggles when asked to serve as a playmaker for others.
Because of this, Stephenson and George are often assigned with the task of being the primary ball-handlers when on the floor. While both have done a respectable job, the lack of a true point guard is hurting the offense.
The Pacers finished the regular season 27th in assists with 20.1 a game. Stephenson led the team with just 4.6 dimes, but he turned the ball over nearly three times a game in the process.
Speaking of turnovers, this remains an area of vulnerability for Indiana. The Pacers sport the seventh-highest turnover percentage in the NBA at 16 per 100 possessions of play. Their assists-to-turnover ratio is 1.33, sixth worst in the league.
This is where opposing teams need to be aggressive. Indiana's defense has been excellent for most of the year, allowing just 92.3 points per game. When facing them, it's crucial for the opponent to pressure the ball-handler into making turnovers to create fast-break scoring opportunities.
Mess With Their Psyche
Team chemistry was strong with the Pacers before the trade deadline but has since dissipated with the departure of veteran Danny Granger.
Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today brought up some good points when discussing the team's poor chemistry as of late, saying:
It's also possible Bird underestimated the negative impact of bringing in center Andrew Bynum and trading Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner. It wouldn't be unusual for Hibbert to wonder why Bynum was necessary or for Lance Stephenson to wonder why Turner was acquired when both play the same position. Were the Pacers preparing, perhaps too early, for Stephenson's departure in free agency? Bird might not like it, but sending out Granger, who is well-liked, and bringing in two new players may have disrupted harmony.
Hibbert has already called out teammates for being selfish, and maybe he's right.
Guys like Stephenson and Turner are both young and looking to score their first big contracts in free agency this summer. While the team's success is no doubt important to both, so is securing their financial future. Which aspect has their focus truly been on?
Stephenson can be fiery on the court but needs to learn to pick his spots, as he learned in a recent game against the Miami Heat.
Even George has had his share of less-than-ideal moments. Between the alleged catfish story and word of his possibly becoming an unexpected father, it's clear George has more than just basketball on his mind lately.
All of this drama surrounding George created a stir with teammate David West. He told Candace Buckner of the Indy Star:
"Guys have to be able to keep their personal life that – as personal. A lot of that comes with just maturity and understanding any little thing can derail what you're trying to accomplish on the floor," West said. "We just got to continue to grow. Guys have to continue to be in about this situation and when you make mistakes on the floor, own up to them. When you make mistakes off the floor, own up to them. When you're not playing well, own up to it. And when we're playing well and competing at a high level, we understand that we still got work to do. All of that kinda goes to that same mix, just maximizing what we've got going on."
Clearly, the Pacers' locker room has some issues to work out.
If opposing teams can jump on Indiana early and put them in tough situations, we could see an unraveling of the Pacers.
Opponents need to take advantage of Indiana's weakened mental state as well as its poor offense and ball-handling.
Taking down the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed may never have been this feasible.
All stats via NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.