VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses Paul George’s slump and the Pacers’ struggles
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The playoff bid is clinched, locked up before anyone else in the league. Yet after five games in seven nights, there is suddenly a lingering fog surrounding the Indiana Pacers.
That brash, bruising, defensive-minded machine we saw before the All-Star break doesn’t look nearly as intimidating these days. That team that vowed to chase the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, in an effort to play host a potential showdown against reigning two-time NBA champion Miami Heat in the conference finals, has been humbled lately with crushing defeats both at home and on the road.
The Pacers’ best players — All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert, as well as Lance Stephenson and David West — have all endured their fair share of struggles. Coach Frank Vogel remains as confident as ever, something you’d expect from a coach who understands that seeing the Pacers reach their ultimate goals is a painstaking process fraught with trials and tribulations. Vogel and his crew know that unmitigated attention to detail is required to overcome any adversity.
Still, it’s enough to make you wonder — have the Pacers lost a little bit of the edge that led them to the top of the standings? They were so good so fast this season that a bit of a letdown was inevitable. But it’s dangerous to play this game this close to the end of the regular season.
“Over the last 20 games or so, we just haven’t had our mojo,” West said after the Bobcats beat the Pacers Wednesday night in Charlotte on the back-end of a back-to-back. “We’ve got to change some things up because these last 20 games is going to be a battle.”
“Right now I think we’re on our downs,” Stephenson said. “We just got to get back on our ups, work together and play as a unit.”
The Pacers also have to return to the identity that led them to the top of the standings.
They were a defensive juggernaut to start the season, holding teams down in every facet and allowing just 90.3 points per game through All-Star weekend. In the nine games since then, they are giving up close to 100 points a night.
“We can’t get teams under control,” West told the Indianapolis Star. “Nobody’s afraid of us and we got to regroup. We got to get back to the basics. We got tough two-game trip out West and it’s got to mean something to us to go out and do whatever we have to do to win these games.”
The road trip he’s speaking starts Friday with a date with the Houston Rockets, who have the league’s best record since Jan. 1. Then comes Sunday’s game in Dallas against the Mavericks. They’ll be tested by two Western Conference playoff teams with the ability to make the Pacers uncomfortable in many different ways.
There is also a seven-games-in-11-days stretch looming at the end of the month, a grind that includes two games against the Chicago Bulls (home and away), road games in Memphis, Washington and Cleveland and showdowns with the Heat (March 26) and San Antonio Spurs (March 31) that will shed more light on whether or not these Pacers are as ready for prime time as they appeared to be just a month ago.
Changes to their make-up (Evan Turner and, eventually, we assume, Andrew Bynum) will also force the Pacers to continue to tweak their chemistry. They have to be proactive in terms of how they make their own internal adjustments.
But when you build up the sort of reservoir of victories and the quality body of work the Pacers did out of the gate, it’s almost impossible to squander it now. A two-game tailspin can be survived.
If there are cracks in the foundation, though, you better believe the other contenders on both sides of the conference divide have noticed. And they’ll be sure to do whatever they can to exploit that in the future.
VIDEO: The Bobcats thumped the Pacers and shut down Paul George and Roy Hibbert in the process