Are Indiana Pacers Poised for a 1st-Round Playoff Upset?

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Are Indiana Pacers Poised for a 1st-Round Playoff Upset?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Prematurely whaling on panic buttons is frowned upon in the NBA, a league that, despite its "What have you done for me lately, as in 10 seconds ago?" attitude, acknowledges and subsequently rejects shallow, offhand thinking.

One game in a best-of-seven clash, one loss isn't enough to define and destroy an entire season worth of success. Yet, in the curious case of the sinking Indiana Pacers, it's enough to incite concern and spawn fear.

While their 101-93 loss at home to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 is just that—one loss—it's not an isolated incident unique to a single contest. The Pacers have been drowning in self-inflicted issues for a while, long before they opened a postseason once teeming with promise by laying an egg against a clearly inferior opponent.

Bending to the Hawks was an extension of longstanding problems that nearly cost the Pacers first place in the Eastern Conference. Their offense has been failing them for months, their chemistry rattled since February. The collective edge that had them threatening to run away from everyone in the East—the Miami Heat included—is gone, supplanted by disjointed two-way play and ruptured confidence. 

Before they even reached the postseason, panic buttons were in sight and within reach. It was up to the Pacers to render them pointless and to use the playoffs as proof that the sky wasn't falling and they weren't failing.

But instead of regaining their previous swagger and silencing doubters, they sent out a distress signal, confirming in one game what we began to realize long ago: The Pacers aren't a lock to make it out of the first round.

 

Opening-Game Follies

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

All of that effort put into and placed on securing first place is gone. Home-court advantage, at least for now, means nothing to the Pacers. One game is all it took for the Hawks to taint a benefit the Pacers spent an entire season chasing.

Nothing about the Hawks' performance was especially complicated. Both their offense and defense was middling throughout the regular season, and it remained simplistic through Game 1. They played small, frequently kicked out to shooters hovering behind the three-point line and avoided challenging Roy Hibbert at the rim like he was a perspiring, Speedo-sporting stranger asking for a hug.

Playing with an unenviable inability to adjust, the Pacers made the Hawks look like tactical Einsteins. Hibbert couldn't hack it against their small-ball lineups, and said as much afterward.

"We just have to get certain guys under control as a team," he said, according to the The Indianapolis Star (subscription required). "I’m sure we’ll look over film. I’m the main culprit in terms of being the weak link on defense because they have a spread-five lineup. I guess we’ll have to adjust."

You guess? That's Hibbert's evaluation after Game 1?

If that's the case, additional words of Hibbert wisdom must also include:

  • I guess you should use a parachute while skydiving.
  • I guess you shouldn't swim with saltwater crocodiles.
  • I guess you shouldn't marinate your steaks in cyanide.

The Pacers absolutely need to make changes to their defense. Jeff Teague cannot be carving up their top-rated system on a regular basis. They shouldn't be caught off guard by a steady dose of drive-and-kicks and three-point shooting.

Defense is the Pacers' bread and butter. If they cannot serve said bread and butter, they're screwed. A dour Hibbert didn't seem so sure, but Paul George did.

"I would love to, just to change it up a little bit and give him a different look," George said of defending Teague in Game 2, who went for 28 points in Game 1, via ESPN.com.

That's one adjustment. There must be others. One of them could include sitting Hibbert, the self-proclaimed defensive liability when facing smaller lineups, for stretches at a time. While not ideal, it has to be an option. The Pacers aren't going to win when allowing 100-plus points.

In games where they relinquished at least 100 points, the Pacers were 7-14 during the regular season. They don't have the offensive firepower to successfully combat what they saw in Game 1—not when their offense is a mess of isolations and struggling shooters.

George Hill was the only starter who shot better than 45 percent from the field in Game 1. The Pacers' ball movement was better, but their shot selection was iffy and players just weren't nailing open looks.

Among the most guilty parties were Hibbert and George. Hibbert was his usual, clumsy self on offense in Game 1, going 4-of-9 from the floor for eight points and four turnovers. He was also blocked by Kyle Korver. Twice.

George wasn't any better. He went 6-of-18 from the field en route to scoring 24 points, nine of which came at the foul line.

This team should be punishing smaller squads down low, not struggling to score on a pedestrian, undersized defense. If this keeps up, there's no predicting just how far the Pacers will fall.

 

More Than Game 1

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Playoff disappointment was a possibility before now.

The Pacers closed out the regular season struggling immensely. They defended well but were laboring through a lot of the same strategic pains as we saw in Game 1.

Through their final 15 games, the Pacers went 6-9 and ranked dead last in offensive efficiency and ninth in defensive efficiency, according to NBA.com (subscription required). For a team so dependent on its defense not just being good, but great, this was, and remains, a problem.

Indy's Steady Fall From Grace
When Off. Rank Def. Rank FG% Rank Win% Rank
2013-14 Overall 22 1 17 4
Last 15 30 9 30 20

NBA.com

Only two starters converted more than 45 percent of their shots during that time. George was shooting 35.2 percent. Hill was connecting on just 39.6 percent of his field-goal attempts. Hibbert made just 33.3 percent of his shots. Their offense was a mess. It's still a mess.

Game 1 against the Hawks was one in a strand of many. The Pacers haven't simultaneously played good basketball on both ends of the floor in some time. They regressed from an Eastern Conference Goliath that was pulling away from the pack into a diffident bunch, no better than any of the opponents—inferior or not—they were facing.

To believe they will simply turn it around or flip a switch that restores order is the truly bold move. These issues didn't resolve themselves then, why should we believe that they're going to now?

 

Will the Pacers Rebound?

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The fate of this first-round series isn't up to the Hawks.

On paper, the Pacers are the better team. The more talented team. If the Pacers play like the Pacers, they won't stand a chance of staging the upset.

But the Pacers aren't playing like the Pacers. They don't look anything like the team so many came to appreciate months ago.

Moreover, this isn't about the Hawks. We can't look at them and discount an upset entirely just because they're the Hawks, a team that stumbled into the postseason with only 38 victories. 

Despite what some might think, the Hawks aren't going to win this series for the Pacers. There will be no deliberate or accidental tank job. 

Three-pointers will be shot. Small lineups will be fielded. Teague will be told to exploit mismatches. That's not going to change. It's the Pacers who need to modify and improve their broken model.

Some semblance of a cohesive and efficient offense must materialize. Adjustments must be made to reflect the opposition's game plan. Promises to play better, to be better, cannot be rendered empty, meaningless guarantees, as Bob Kravitz of USA Today opines:

They said they had to keep Hawks point guard Jeff Teague out of the paint. They didn't. Not once. Hill consistently got worked over and didn't get much help from his teammates.

They said they needed Hibbert to make Atlanta's Pero Antic pay on the defensive end. They didn't.

They said they needed to play with force and passion, yet they didn't corral a single loose ball and somehow gave up 14 offensive rebounds to an undersized team that is near the bottom of the league in offensive rebounding.

These current Pacers—the ones we saw in Game 1, the ones we saw fall to Atlanta 107-88 in early April—won't make it out of the first round. Not like this. They're talented enough, yet searching for answers at the wrong time. 

Which team will win this first-round series?

Submit Vote vote to see results

"Right now, no," West said of making drastic changes, per Kravitz. "We can't change who we've been all year."

The Pacers don't need to change who they've been all year. They just need to remind themselves of who they are. The sooner they do that, the sooner they can avoid a major postseason letdown.

Slog through any more of the first round without an identity, playing listless, directionless basketball like they are now and an upset becomes not only possible, but likely.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise attributed.


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