- Heat vs. Pacers: Series Hub
MIAMI – Paul George‘s season ended before the Indiana Pacers’ did, which was pretty ironic, considering how much shorter it would have been without him in his new and Most-Improved incarnation from November to June.
But George picked up his sixth foul with 7:43 left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Miami. The young All-Star got slammed, competitively, by the defending champions: 2-for-9 shooting, seven points, hounded almost start to finish by LeBron James. And so did the Pacers, who had stayed within five points of the Heat through the series’ first six games, only to get beaten Monday by a disappointing 23.
Of all the players on the floor, though, from the Finals-worthy Heat to the summer-bound Pacers, none has a brighter future than George — the 23-year-old Scottie Pippen-play-alike whose reach has yet to exceed his grasp.
And given where other teams are at in their life cycles, none has a brighter future than Indiana. George’s breakout season and series sparked the Pacers as they pushed a team built around Hall of Famers that strung together victories at a historical rate to the max.
From Feb. 1 through the East finale, Miami went 42-2 against the rest of the NBA and 5-5 against Indiana. The Pacers are not going away.
“I’m proud of what we had this year,” George said in the tight visitors’ dressing room. “I don’t know, I just think what we had this year and going through what we did, gave us the experience. So us being in this situation this year and being young, I think this was what we really needed. … I don’t know what moves we need or what moves we’ll make, but we needed this to take that next step.”
Indiana has followed one of the NBA’s most time-tested blueprints, taking steps in each of the last three postseasons in building itself into a contender. Two seasons ago, it pestered Chicago in a feisty first-round series. Last year, Miami put the Pacers out in six semifinal games. This time, it took the Heat seven, with their veterans summoning all the desperation and will they could muster.
But they’d be kidding themselves if they thought that time and a good thumping one round later than a year ago would transform them. Indiana does have a future brighter than just about any other team – if it can address some key flaws.
Here are some areas for all of them – from basketball boss Donnie Walsh and GM Kevin Pritchard to coach Frank Vogel and the players – to address:
- Maybe it will take stickum, Velcro, duct tape or staples, but the Pacers must find ways to take better care of the basketball. They had 15 turnovers in the first half — Vogel had hoped they might stay below that number for the entire game — and committed 121 in the series to Miami’s 83. That’s 46 percent more giveaways. Just as legendary coach Pete Newell ran an offseason camp for the game’s most dedicated big men, you almost wish someone would open up an immersion program for ball handlers and entry passing. They could make a fortune off the Pacers alone, considering how much that otherwise disciplined team struggles with those fundamentals. Granted, any team would have struggled against the blowtorch defense applied by the Heat Monday. “They pressured the ball real well,” George said. “They double-teamed constantly and made it tough for us to see the weak side. We know that’s how you beat this team. They just did a good job of making it hard to see the weak side and we just didn’t adjust to it.”
- Danny Granger will be back from the knee injury all-but wiped out 2012-13. Many view the veteran small forward as a tradeable asset but the truth is, Granger would be as valuable to the Pacers as any other single piece. He was their leading scorer for years before George blossomed and Granger’s shooting range and accuracy on the weak side was what Indiana lacked. His failed attempt to return after the All-Star break lasted just five games, leaving a huge what-if in the Pacers’ season.
- Granger would be just one piece, however. The Pacers need to be a deeper bunch, which means a bench worthy of their starters. Vogel took heat after Game 7 for trusting a largely untrustworthy group with pivotal minutes in the horrendous second quarter. But what was the alternative, playing five guys 48 minutes each? That probably would have been a better way to go, when you absorb this stat: When the Pacers’ starting five was on the floor together in the series, they were a plus-46 points on the scoreboard. When even one Indiana reserve broke up that group, they were a minus-74. Sam Young, Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Ian Mahinmi show up looking like Pacers, then check into the game as Bobcats. Walsh and Pritchard need to make some surgical additions to fix that.
- Better bring back David West, too. The old-school power forward is a locker-room rock whose game shouldn’t lose much to age (he’ll turn 33 in August). There will be a market for him in free agency, but parties on all sides — West, Vogel, teammates — talked late Monday about how he helps set the tone for Indiana’s system. As for West, he didn’t seem worried about hurting his bargaining position when he said: “This group … gives me as an individual the best chance to accomplish the goals that I have left and that’s competing at this stage of the game every single year from here on out.”
- Work on that pick-and-roll game. Neither member of the starting backcourt, George Hill nor Lance Stephenson, thrives or sometimes even recognizes the advantages available to them there.
- George needs to match or top the strides he took this season. He talked again after Monday’s elimination about not fully preparing last summer for everything that got thrown at him this season — the scoring load in Granger’s absence, heavy minutes and leadership duties. George said that, whenever he heads to California after some brief stop back in Indianapolis, he’ll be in the gym one day after that, working on his conditioning, strength and shooting.
- Gotta get an edge. Look, it’s laudable that the Pacers take their status as role models, particularly for young fans and especially in America’s heartland, so seriously. They don’t need Hansbrough getting all tattooed-and-Mohawked up. But Miami came out mean Monday night, aggressive physically and mentally in ways that made the Pacers shrink from their very important task. West is tough, but he doesn’t initiate things with the ball and works in a small area of the floor. Granger at least showed a knack for getting chippy in past seasons.
“Last year, Miami was in our way,” Granger said. “This year, Miami’s still in our way. So we’ve really got to get over the hump.
“Paul will have another year under his belt. [Hibbert] will have another year under his belt. Lance will continue to show improvement. Y’know, experience in this league wins. Just look at Miami. A lot of quote-unquote old guys, but they know how to play the game.
“We’re compiling our big moments. And once you get accustomed to them, you control your adrenaline a little more and you play a lot better. I think we’ll be there.”
Sooner rather than later, as long as they play the offseason better than they played Game 7.