With a payroll coming in at a touch over $66 million, the small-market Pacers were the smash hit the league yearned for when its new collective bargaining agreement was put into action three years ago. Indiana's young, close-knit group was fun to watch, fun to talk about and, most importantly, dominant.
At 25-5 entering the new year, and later 40-11 on Feb. 10, Indiana found itself in control of the league's best record through most of the first half of the season.
But a 16-15 stretch to close the season was alarming and eye-opening, to say the least. Not only because the team was dropping games against seemingly harmless competition, but for the way its players were indicating that they had no idea how to fix what was going on. Quotes like these from Pacers players after a Mar. 29 loss to the lesser Washington Wizards opened more eyes than any pitiful box score.
Per the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner:
"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," center Roy Hibbert said. ... "We've talked about [the team's offensive struggles] at great length," Hibbert continued, gruffly. "Amongst ourselves, privately, team meetings, all that crap, and I don't know."
The most telling bit from that night, though, may have came from George Hill:
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.
That stretch to end the regular season was alarming, but the team's postseason lifelessness has filled the NBA in on a depressing secret: The Pacers are toast.
Regardless of their Game 7 fortune Saturday against the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, the team is light-years away from figuring it out. After turning on their season-long formula, and turning on each other, Indiana is just as hopeless as they appeared to be two months ago.
A Matchup Nightmare
At this point, the Pacers are all figured out, and the NBA has no one to thank—besides Indiana themselves—but the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks.
The East's No. 8 seed has forced Indiana to play a style of basketball different than any type they'd put together over the last two seasons. Atlanta's five-out, three-point-centric offense has forced Frank Vogel's hand in playing smaller lineups, something that last season's New York Knicks could have just as easily done but were restricted by Mike Woodson's narrow-minded approach.
Instead of hopelessly trying to match the Pacers' size, Mike Budenholzer's unit has shot their way to three victories against the conference's top seed. They've connected on 37 percent of their shots from deep and have rendered Pacers center Roy Hibbert irrelevant over the course of the series. Indiana has actually posted a better defensive efficiency with Hibbert off the floor this series. The center has posted a comically bad 0.7 efficiency rating and has averaged just 17 minutes of action since Game 2.
The most perplexing factor from an Indiana standpoint is how effective the team defense has been. They've posted a 100.5 defensive efficiency through six games, per NBA.com (subscription required), which would still rank top-five in the league over a full season. The Hawks have shot just barely over 40 percent from the field and have been outrebounded on offense and defense in terms of percentages.
Atlanta's three-point success has simply been the difference. Over the regular season, Indiana was the fourth-best team at defending the three and allowed the fifth-fewest shots from deep, as its defense did its best to funnel most shots toward the mid-range. With 186 and counting, Indiana has seen the most threes so far this postseason.
Indiana is doing its usual best to contest the three, but the Hawks don't care—they're launching them up anyway. Call them stubborn, but they know they can't win this series any other way. And their strategy may just be crazy enough to work.
Signs of Cracking
Frank Vogel led last year's Pacers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals by rarely deviating from the team's two-big lineups, which none of their playoff opponents could match up with. Instead of playing to the oppositions' favor and matching up more directly in position, Vogel stuck to the team's core value: brute force.
The primary reason they were able to rely on this tactic so heavily was the effectiveness of Roy Hibbert in the paint. During the 2013 postseason, Pacers opponents were held to 8.4 points less per 100 possessions when the 7'2" center was patrolling the paint. In 36.5 minutes per contest, he was able to pull down 9.9 boards and swat two shots over the team's 19 games.
Though scoring isn't Hibbert's emphasis, he managed to shoot 51 percent within three feet during the playoffs last year. This postseason that mark is down to 32.3 percent.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the center has been monumentally bad this series:
Hibbert has been virtually unplayable against the Hawks, unable to play competent defense away from the rim. What the Knicks failed to do last postseason—pulling Hibbert from the rim—the Hawks are doing now, and proving how vulnerable Indiana can be when small-ball is forced upon them.
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal accurately summed up the way Vogel should utilize his starting center after Game 5:
Glue his 7'2" frame to the pine and don't allow him to remove the warmups he wears before the opening tip until the Pacers are back in the locker room. If he wants to stand up and cheer, that's perfectly fine, but he shouldn't be able to cheer any of his own contributions.
Ironically, Indiana's Chris Copeland, the player Mike Woodson neglected to run at center to stretch Hibbert out last postseason, is now Hibbert's primary sub.
Paul George has played fantastically for the better part of the series, but neither George Hill nor Lance Stephenson has made more than 33 percent of his threes thus far. Stephenson's assists are down from 4.6 in the regular season to 2.7, and David West stands as the team's leading disher with five. George and Stephenson are the only Pacers averaging more than six boards per game.
Last year's Pacers—a title contender—relied predominantly on outmuscling you into submission, while the smaller players filled roles and George took control when necessary. This postseason, the only carryover is George's fine play, but even he has struggled shooting for some of the series.
Let's say the Pacers escape their first-round matchup with Atlanta and then luck into a rematch with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. A year after taking Miami to seven games, this Indiana team, simply put, would be food. And the Heat are hungry.
Miami had a difficult time adjusting to the Pacers' rugged approach, and they had an especially difficult time getting to the rim when Hibbert was practicing his patented verticality directly in front.
According to NBA.com, Hibbert is allowing 47 percent shooting at the rim in the postseason, which is second-worst on his own team among players who face at least two shots there per game.
Last year's Pacers prided themselves on home domination, losing just 11 times at home during the regular season and going 8-1 inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the playoffs, losing only to Miami in Game 3 of the conference finals.
This year, their road woes resurfaced, and their doldrums in their home building have been insurmountable. The team has already lost two home games to Atlanta, including Game 1's miserable showing in which the Pacers trailed by 20 in the fourth quarter.
Indiana took Game 6 on the road, primarily due to Atlanta's 26 percent shooting from three-point range.
Against a team similar in size, defensive and offensive efficiency, the Heat took down the Charlotte Bobcats in a clean four-game sweep. Against the sixth-best defense in the NBA, Miami posted the postseason's fourth-best offensive rating of 109.8, according to NBA.com.
Taking on Miami again—the only team that was able to steal a playoff game in Indiana last postseason—is all the Pacers have been looking toward all season long. They became so enamored with the matchup that they began to overlook the rest of the league, including lesser playoff teams.
As a result, the Pacers have faced adversity that has torn their team apart at the seams. The matchup they've been dreaming of for a full year—if they even get there—would only turn out to be a nightmare.
Stats gathered from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.