Tonight the Pacers dropped their sixth game in a row at Conseco Fieldhouse, falling to the Orlando Magic, 111-96.
Dwight Howard led the way for Orlando, with 19 points and 16 rebounds. The Magic had six players score in double figures. Danny Granger put in 27 points for Indiana, while Darren Collison added 21.
While the game was never close after the first quarter, there were some interesting notes in this game. Even though Mike Dunleavy got the start in place of Brandon Rush, rookie Paul George actually played 33 minutes in this game. He finished with ten points, and seven rebounds for the Pacers. Head coach Jim O'Brien had been hinting that this could happen, and many fans are glad to see O'Brien actually start playing the younger guys.
Brandon has been labeled as "inconsistent" throughout his entire NBA career, and rightfully so. Tonight he played just six minutes, finishing with three points. Even though Tyler Hansbrough only played 19 minutes tonight, that was more of a match-up issue with Orlando, than anything else.
James Posey played more than usual in his place because the Magic had Ryan Anderson out there at PF. Hansbrough can't really play out on Anderson on the perimeter, but Anderson finished with 14 points, so apparently neither can Posey.
People seem to forget just how young this team is. When some people think about the Pacers, they think of Dunleavy, TJ Ford, Granger, and Jeff Foster. Many of them are surprised to find out that Paul George is a rookie, and they have four other players that have played less than four years in the league. Many fans would like to see what Lance Stephenson has to offer, but the back court is awfully crowded at the moment.
If the Pacers were to put George into the lineup at SG, they would have the youngest starting lineup in the NBA. Collison is 23 years old, George is 20, Granger is 27, Hansbrough is 25, and Hibbert is 24. Add to that the fact that AJ Price has solidified the backup PG spot over veteran TJ Ford, and George is already getting more minutes than Dunleavy. The Pacers actually only have four players over the age of 27.
Ford, Dunleavy, and Foster are all in the final year of their contracts, and don't appear to be wearing a Pacers jersey after this year. Even though Jim O'Brien has said he wants Dunleavy to come back next year, O'Brien himself will be out of town at season's end, so it really doesn't matter what he wants for the future.
While it is nice to have all of this youth and athleticism, it rarely works unless you have one of two things: a strong veteran leader, and/or an NBA superstar. The young, exciting Oklahoma City Thunder are probably the best young team in the league, but a lot of that has to do with Kevin Durant. I think Russell Westbrook is a top-five point guard in the league, but they wouldn't be where they are today without Durant's talent.
The Pacers will need one of two things to happen in the foreseeable future for this team to have success. They will either have to trade their expiring contracts for a top-ten draft pick/star player, or use the money from those contracts to bring in a big free agent in the off-season. There have been rumors of them trying to trade some of those contracts for guys like Anthony Randolph, Zach Randolph, and Luis Scola. In my mind, the perfect guy that they should go after, is David West. Sure, things are great in New Orleans with Chris Paul, but the franchise is up in the air, and CP3 wants out. Playing with Collison again will be a great fit, especially with talented guys like Granger and Hibbert. He is the perfect fit for the team, and hopefully the money will convince him to head north to Indy.
Another obvious problem that has hampered this team this year is the coach. O'Brien has never liked playing young guys, and his "tough love" isn't helping the confidence of the players. Roy Hibbert was looking like a front runner for the most improved player award when the Pacers were 11-11 this year. His numbers were way up, and he was rolling. He then told the media that he didn't think Hibbert was playing well at all, and he has to improve in a lot of areas. Since then, Hibbert has fallen like a rock, averaging just eight points and six rebounds over his last five games. The Pacers are 5-15 since O'Brien's insane comments. Oh yeah, and Hibbert is seeing a sports psychologist.
Fortunately, Brandon Rush is back to his old ways, being wildly inconsistent, and unreliable. This has paved the way for Paul George to get some playing time, and he is making the most of it. He has scored 27 points in his last two games, and his minutes have gone way up. The last two games he played a total of 60 minutes.
For the past four years, Pacers fans have had to watch guys like TJ Ford, Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, and Dahntay Jones take the floor and play terrible defense. This year, the younger guys are playing more minutes, and the defense has improved tremendously. Unfortunately, their offense is struggling compared to last year, due in large part to Granger having the worst shooting percentage of his NBA career. If he can find a way out of his shooting slump, and the group of young guys begin to establish some chemistry playing together, perhaps this team will get on the right track.
Luckily for Indiana, the schedule gets much easier over the course of the next month. They will play teams that are very similar to them: the bottom feeders in the Eastern Conference. This could also be the opportunity that Roy Hibbert has been looking for to break out of his slump. He won't have to face many great centers over the next few weeks, which should help his confidence.
The next few weeks are likely going to determine where this team is headed. Will they keep melting down in games and not be able to finish, or will they finally step up and fight their way back into the playoffs? It looks like it will be up to the young guys to decide that for themselves.