CHICAGO – At the risk of overreacting, on a night when Indiana was cleaning up the tail end of a back-to-back, on the road, playing without both David West and Danny Granger, the not-so-big “84” that glowed from the scoreboard after the Indiana Pacers’ loss to Chicago at United Center Saturday remained a little troubling.
Against a beat-up Bulls teams missing its Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Joakim Noah) in the paint, taking on a defense that has sagged this season overall and been shredded recently for 121 points (Sacramento), 101 (San Antonio), 119 (Denver in OT) and 101 (Cleveland), the Pacers stalled out with just 84. Four shy of what they needed, way shy of what they’ll need to be logging when every team they’re facing in the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs is, well, a playoff team.
Look, the Pacers have a formidable starting lineup when healthy. They have one of the league’s bright young stars in Paul George, a legitimate center in Roy Hibbert in a league where they’re hard to find, a throwback post-up power forward in West and enough pieces (if not always consistency) off the bench to go toe-to-toe with almost anyone in the East.
Defensively, they are close to lockdown, with an NBA-best rating of 98.6 heading into Saturday’s game, the stingiest shooting percentages (41.4 FG, 32.2 3FG), disruptive coverages (opponents have passed for the third fewest assists) and size enough to grab even the streaking Miami Heat’s attention. The Pacers had been getting better, too, limiting teams to 39.6 percent shooting and 87.6 points over their most recent 20 games prior to facing the Bulls.
Offensively, though, Indiana hasn’t developed and sustained the sort of punching power it will need when facing Miami, Boston or maybe Chicago again in a best-of-seven situation. In three losses in a week earlier this month, the Pacers scored 91 against the Heat, 93 against the Lakers and 91 against the 76ers. It represented a regression to a very mean mean for them; they had picked the pace to average 98.5 points on 44.9 percent shooting since sputtering through their first 36 games at 90.9 and 42.0, respectively.
As an ensemble (i.e., superstar-deficient) team, Indiana faces questions of long-term postseason viability not unlike those heard by George Karl and the Denver Nuggets. The difference being, Denver has no trouble scoring. The Pacers, too often, struggle to put points on the board, such as in the fourth quarter Saturday. Their defense bothered Chicago into 6-of-22 shooting and just 19 points, but that went for naught when the Indy offense did even worse (4-for-20, 17 points).
Frank Vogel believes that the attack he’s seen – more often, at least – in the season’s second half is enough, with the playoffs’ opening weekend four weeks away.
“I think we do [have enough],” he said. “The first part of achieving something like the NBA Finals is believing you can do it. Are we the best team on paper to get to The Finals? No. But does that mean we can’t beat [Miami]. No it doesn’t.”
Like the Nuggets, the Pacers have no obvious “closer.” Like the Nuggets, they rely on one of those committee approaches forged out of necessity, not by choice. Vogel, like Karl, feels he has three or four scorers to whom he can turn in the clutch.
“It’s the open man, really,” Vogel said. “We have guys who have hit big shots. In some ways, that’s better. In some ways, it’s harder to prepare for that when you don’t know who it’s going to go to.”
George Hill has done it, George has done it, Granger might be able to if he ever gets back (his sore left knee might argue otherwise). But the fellow they most rely on is West, the one considered “a lion” in the Pacers’ locker room and one of the few guys who keeps LeBron James away from the “4” spot. West has missed the past four games with a lower back sprain.
“When David’s in, he’s someone we go to late in the games,” George said. “That’s something we’ll always miss, win or loss. Still, we’ve been playing well with David out.”
What West does not or cannot do, George increasingly will be expected to.
“I feel like the depth and versatility that we have, it can be crucial come playoff time,” the Indiana shooting guard said. “Of late, we’ve been scoring in the 100s. Our winning margins have been in the 20s. That’s always encouraging. Especially starting the year off, when our offense wasn’t clicking, we always had our defense to rely on. Now our offense is starting to click, we’re starting to play for one another, our assists are going up.”
For most of the next four weeks, the Pacers will try to improve. After that, it’s less a matter of improving than of proving.