By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Contender vs. (wince) pretender.
A marvelous 17-game winning streak vs. all sorts of horrible losing shrieks.
A mastermind boss and a core of proven veterans quick to remind themselves they don’t have all the answers vs. a coaching staff and players who desperately are searching for pretty much any anwers they can find.
This is not, in short, what anyone expected for Monday’s late-season meeting of the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV).
Oh, the Spurs have held up their end of things, more than that really, in what technically is a rematch of the Pacers’ 111-100 victory in December. But the Indiana team that dominated that night and left AT&T Center with an 18-2 record is nowhere to be found today. Even the comfort zone of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers are 33-4 this season, offers little, as rattled as they are.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is said to be aching for a loss, eager to wrap up the nicety of the streak and lock in on what’s barreling toward everyone in a few weeks. Frank Vogel, his counterpart, is aching from the losses — five in their past seven games, an 8-9 March so far and five consecutive road defeats (the Pacers haven’t beaten a legit playoff team here in about eight weeks).
After their latest failures at Washington and at Cleveland, Indiana’s reputation nationally is teetering on the brink of mockery, its feel-good result against Miami Wednesday ripped off like a mere Band-Aid over the hemorrhaging. But in losing to the Cavaliers, after scoring only 154 points over the weekend and missing 100 of 157 shots against the Wizards and the Cavs, there’s no teetering in the Pacers’ locker room. They are flat. Pancaked. At rock bottom. That’s how Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star portrayed it:
“Yeah, I would say,” [David] West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”
Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.
“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now.”
In the best of times, Indiana’s offense is workmanlike; lately it has been goldbricking with an emphasis on the bricks. All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert in particular have sputtered, shooting 35.4 percent and 40.0 percent respectively the past 10 games. George’s breakthrough season looks broken, sagging under defensive attention, the workload of being his team’s top offensive threat and perimeter defender and fits of trying to do too much.
Hibbert’s regressing offense is locked in a mutually confounding struggle with his teammates’ inability to deliver the ball where and when he needs it, and he’s a 7-foot-2 rim defender who is averaging 6.9 rebounds.
The Pacers lack any lights-out shooters, so even backup point guard C.J. Watson‘s nine-game absence has stressed their offensive system. And the chemistry questions about shedding Danny Granger and adding Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum won’t cease until Indiana’s players offer tangible proof that things are OK again.
Beyond a game to be won Monday – with no assurance it would have lasting effect anyway – the Pacers have an opportunity to take some notes from an opponent they want to emulate. Who doesn’t, right? The Spurs get called “the gold standard” just about every where they travel, except maybe to south Florida.
“This is a well-oiled machine,” said Denver coach Brian Shaw, whose team faced the Spurs twice in 72 hours last week. “It doesn’t matter who the personnel is. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. If you don’t have a shot, swing it over to your next open teammate and make the appropriate basketball play. They do that probably better than any team in the league, and that’s why they have success playing any style, whether it’s up and down or a grind-it-out halfcourt game.”
Sure, the Pacers don’t have three future Hall of Famers – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker – anchoring their attack but they do have veterans in key roles and more continuity than most NBA teams. They have a defense that, at least until recently, was comparable to San Antonio’s during its run of 17 consecutive playoff appearances.
Then again, you rarely (if ever) heard the Spurs staking out their conference’s No. 1 seed as the be-all and end-all for postseason success. In their five trips to The Finals, the Spurs have been the West’s top seed twice.
And with the exception of the first one (1999), the Spurs have ranked no lower than eighth in team offensive rating in their other Finals seasons. Defense wins in the playoffs, but only for teams that score the least fewer points.
At this point, both the Spurs’ and the Pacers’ priorities have something in common: they want to shake off an overemphasis on the present and focus on the near future. They’re just trying to get there from 180 degrees of separation.
“We don’t care what the streak is,” Duncan said of the 17 in a row. “We’re not playing each game trying to continue the streak. We’re just trying to play the best that we can and have a good rhythm going into the playoffs. Whatever that may be, whatever that turns into — if we win a bunch or we lose — we just want to feel good going into the playoffs.”
One team can leave the gym after Monday’s game feeling fine even with a loss (well, one coach anyway). The other team is reeling so, losing to someone with pedigree might go down easier.
The Spurs, as they do night in and night out, essentially will be facing the Spurs, probing and measuring against their own lofty standards. The Pacers will be facing the Pacers, too, overdue to like what they see in the mirror.