Posts Tagged ‘Steve Aschburner’

First spiraling, now splintering, Indiana loses grasp of its No. 1 goal

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime discusses the Pacers losing grip on No. 1 in the East

INDIANAPOLIS – Be careful what you wish for. Someone might snatch it away. That’s not quite how the saying goes, but it’s the queasy version that applies now to the Indiana Pacers.

All season long, from back in training camp through the many trips and back-to-backs, despite the physical dings and emotional drain of trying to go wire-to-wire, the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 playoff berth in the Eastern Conference as their goal within a goal. They get that, and any Game 7 against their rivals from Miami would be played in Indiana.

It was a marvelous carrot for an 82-game schedule that wields some serious sticks. A rabbit to chase and, once claimed, to flex. A fix for what slipped away last year, when the Pacers did so many things right in Game 6 against the Heat, only to step on that plane to South Florida for one more.

And then, on the final night of the season’s fifth month, it was gone. With the thud of Indiana’s 103-77 embarrassment against the San Antonio Spurs Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, combined with Miami’s home victory over Toronto, the top of the East looks like this:

1. Miami, 51-22, .699
2. Indiana, 52-23, .693

The Pacers just hit the snooze button on their own nightmare.

“Good for them. We don’t deserve it,” center Roy Hibbert said in a home dressing room that was more demoralized than angry. “We’ll see, in the playoffs. But we’ve got to figure things out. Miami is a good team. They’ve had a couple hiccups themselves. But we don’t deserve that No. 1 seed.”

Indiana forward David West, who hinted at a variety of basketball and chemistry issues ailing his team now, said: “We’ve got to concede that we haven’t played basketball well enough to deserve the top spot. That’s pretty much it. We haven’t played well enough. We haven’t been a good-looking basketball team for quite some time now. That’s on the guys in this locker room.”

It was only their third loss at home since Feb. 1 and their fifth at the Fieldhouse this season (33-5) but it was the worst one by far. Giving up 107 points? Very unPacers-like, with the Spurs free to score 42 in the paint and hit 8-for-17 3-pointers. Scoring a mere 77? All too Pacers-like. This was the fifth time in six games they failed to crack 80. The last team to do that, as noted by the Elias Sports Bureau, was the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59 (.106) in that post-lockout season to set an NBA record for lowest winning percentage.

Not “a good-looking basketball team?” West was given another crack at his description of the Pacers at the moment. “We’re probably the most downtrodden, 50-plus win team in the history of the game,” he said. “We watch film from a few months ago, we don’t even recognize ourselves.”

Said Hibbert: “We should all go to group therapy. … We’ve been spiraling. Now we’re splintering a little bit.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s breaks down the Heat taking over No. 1 in the East

Pegging the start of swoon seems easier than explaining or solving it. Point guard George Hill claimed the mojo dipped about two weeks before All-Star weekend. Indiana won a few close ones, then dropped two of three right before the break; it is 12-11 since then. Hill had a heated timeout exchange with backcourt mate Lance Stephenson in the second half Monday, but chalked it up to “wanting to win.” Stephenson likened it to “brothers” squabbling but still being family.

Maybe.

But West sure seemed to be catching himself, declining to address the stress this stretch has put on what had been been Indiana’s strength, its bonds and chemistry at least in the good times.

“There’s things I’m not going to speak on, but we’ve just got to figure it out,” the veteran forward said. “We’ve got to change some things internally, inside the locker room, before we can even consider talking about winning and getting back the trust.

“As a group, we didn’t have the energy or the mindset to compete with that team tonight.”

Sure, that was part of Monday’s mess. When your offense is as sick as Indiana’s, facing the Spurs goes against every possible doctor’s order, especially if he’s named Erving or Rivers. San Antonio has won 18 in a row with its meticulous offensive execution and stifling work at the other end. The Spurs held their hosts to a season-low 26 field goals and zero fast-break points. They got 17 points off 12 Pacer turnovers just in the second half. Kawhi Leonard was so up in Paul George’s business all night, George would have had more elbow room flying middle seat, coach.

“We’re not playing the game the right way right now,” George said after scoring 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting and, later, citing a severe lack of screen-setting. “We’re not playing for one another. It’s tough to score on any team in this league when you’re trying to do it against the whole team.

“San Antonio is the perfect example. It’s hard to guard them because they move the ball, they share the ball. And it’s regardless of who’s shooting. They want the best shot on offense. That’s the problem we’re having right now.”

Keep in mind, Indiana just flopped over the weekend in games at Washington and Cleveland (minus Kyrie Irving), so no pedigree is required nowadays to pester the Pacers. Still, things went so badly Monday that criticisms and accusations that had lift before the game were dive-bombing and barrel-rolling by night’s end. Such as:

  • A couple of the Indiana players need to toughen up, with Hibbert and George hinted at as the likeliest culprits.
  • One or two of them want too much to be “the man,” without regard for the game’s actual outcome. George was fingered in our man David Aldridge‘s Morning Tip chat with Hibbert this week and Stephenson surely has tendencies to dominate the ball. The team’s high number of contested shots suggests that someone or somebodies occasionally force things, considering how many capable scores Indiana actually has.
  • They got too satisfied by their blistering start and haven’t had anyone, including coach Frank Vogel, hammering on them enough to keep them humble and hungry.

Well, guess what: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, while minding his own business, spanked the Pacers a little by extension, simply by talking about his team’s historic disregard for the No. 1 seed. What has loomed so large for Indiana all year – and now is like a psychological sword hanging over their heads – didn’t matter one bit through 17 consecutive playoff appearances, five Finals trips and four NBA championships in the Duncan/Popovich era.

“Never,” Popovich said Monday evening. “This will sound really strange to you, but we’ve never had any numerical or positioning goals – ever. Not one time. We’ve never talked about it the entire time I’ve been here.

“The only thing we do is talk about trying to be the best team we can be come playoff time. That’s what we harp on, period. We don’t talk about anything else.”

Then there are the Pacers, who gave Miami – mildly disinterested as the two-time defending champions navigated through the regular season – something they could steal away, turning the screws some on these wannabes.

“It puts us in reality now,” said George. “We’re really missing out on an opportunity right now.”

So what’s the first step for the Pacers now to begin digging out, with seven games that include Miami, Oklahoma City and a trip to Toronto?

“If we knew that, I think we’d be a lot better than we are right now,” George said, appreciating the conundrum. “I think that’s the first step – identifying it.”

As George spoke a couple of times with reporters – with a long, solitary bowed-head-in-hands moment in between – a self-help book rested against the wall of the open stall next to his. You Can Make It Happen – A Nine-Step Plan. The author in pensive pose on the cover: Steadman Graham.

It looked uncracked, which might not be a bad thing. What ails the Pacers might be better addressed on his gal pal’s couch, if only it still were in business. Or on Dr. Phil’s.


VIDEO: Indiana’s players discuss Monday’s blowout loss to San Antonio

Pacers, Spurs arrive at East-West showdown in very different spots

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews tonight’s Spurs-Pacers game

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.

Miami lineups change, LeBron plays on

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron dunks on the Bucks on a night when he rested during the fourth quarter

MILWAUKEE – In the last game of LeBron James‘ seven seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he took the floor against Boston in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Antawn Jamison and 38-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. Combined points-per-game of the four starters besides James: 50.9.

Against the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday night, James stepped on the court with Chris Bosh, Toney Douglas, James Jones and Udonis Haslem. Combined scoring average at tipoff of this “supporting cast”: 26.2.

This was not what the smoke, lasers and dance music were all about back in July 2010.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has shuffled through 19 different starting lineups in 72 games this season. One – the familiar one from the past two Finals, with James, Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier – has been used 30 times,with the Heat going 20-10 in those games. The other 18 actually have yielded better results – 30-12 – despite none getting more than eight starts together and eight of the combinations going one-and-done.

None of this is by design, mind you. Injuries and ineffectiveness have pulled the handle on Miami’s lineup slot machine, not Spoelstra, the fruit tumbling and landing based on who’s available and contributing. Everyone knows about Wade, whose increasingly brittle body has been nursed through the 2013-14 schedule (51 games in, 21 games out) as if it’s Stephen Strasburg‘s right arm. Ray Allen at times has looked every bit of his 38 years, eight months, one week and three days. Battier’s planned retirement after this season has had a few false starts.

Eternally rehabbing Greg Oden has been more mascot than center, the way this season has gone.

“People think we’re overanalyzing it, we have some plan right now,” Spoelstra said Saturday evening before his guys did their work early in the 88-67 breeze past the Bucks. “Guys who are able to play right now are playing, period. Guys who cannot play, who are not passing the test, they’re not playing. The thing about this season, we’ve had a lot more of those than we’ve had in the past where guys aren’t able to play.”

In the middle of it all stands James. He’s the constant in the Heat’s season of change – OK, Bosh has missed one game and Norris Cole none but they orbit James the same as Miami’s other planets and moons. The four-time MVP has missed three games himself – broken nose, groin and ankle sprain, he recounts swiftly when the topic comes up – but no one on the roster has played within 300 minutes of his time. At 2,592, he has played nearly seven full games more than Bosh (2,258) and the equivalent of twice that compared to Chalmers (1,887).

James sat down after 30 minutes Saturday, skipping the fourth quarter entirely thanks to the score and who the Heat were playing. He orchestrated and facilitated more than dominated – two shots and two points in the first half, 13 points and seven rebounds by night’s end – but he was out there. Wade again was sitting on the bench in a suit. Chalmers and Oden were sidelined, too, and the flu sweeping through Allen’s family kept him off the three-game trip entirely.

Frankly, James would be within his rights to look around and wonder whether this patchwork attack and relative M*A*S*H unit of teammates will be enough to reach and win another Finals. And if he did, the opt-out in his contract this summer would loom so large, it’d throw a shadow over Miami’s entire postseason.

If James’ teammates feel sheepish or some extra obligation to pick up the pace and durability in fairness to him, they’re not saying. “We’re a team. We have to come through for each other,” Wade said after the Milwaukee game. “So we all are obligated for each other. Obviously myself, LeBron and Chris wanted to play together.”

Then again, if his heavier work load while others sit is an issue, James hasn’t let on.

“It’s gotten to the point now where I don’t even think about it,” the Heat star said, “and if I’m in the lineup tonight, then I’ve got to do my job. You just worry about controlling things you can control. Us having injuries, us having guys in and out of the lineup, that’s something I can’t control.”

It is something he’s noticed, at least. Never before has James played for a team with such a revolving door on its trainers room.

“I can’t really recall it, as many guys as we’ve had [out],” he said. “In that sense it’s challenging, not only for myself but for the guys who are in – they may not have played for two months – and then out and they may not play for 14, 15 games.

“It’s the luxury of having unselfish guys. That’s what we have. I don’t know too many teams who can do this – that can have guys like James Jones who – I don’t know, has he played this year [before Friday]? – then to start [in Detroit] and contribute. Guys like that, it’s amazing.”

For the record, Jones had played a total of 70 minutes in a dozen games across Miami’s first 70, before logging 54 minutes in the back-to-back against the Pistons and the Bucks. But what about James? Has fatigue made him crave a couple games off just to rest or reset?

“Only if I’m injured, for the most part, will I sit down,’ ” James said. “I don’t have too many ‘mental days.’ “

In past seasons, when Miami’s playoff berth has been secured, Spoelstra has spotted James a game or two to set up for the playoffs. He will again, unless Indiana keeps the East race for No. 1 close till the end.

But the Heat aren’t there yet. And James has no hand up in search of a breather.

“If I tried to sit him out of a shootaround or a practice, he would look at me cross-eyed,” Spoelstra said. “This summer he had more rest than he’s had any other offseason. So that’s probably triple [rest] for most people, because he loves the game so much, he loves to compete.”

Consider Friday, the day Miami played in Detroit. James showed up at Oakland (Mich.) University not long after sunrise to work out at the gym where his childhood friend and high school teammates Sonny Weems serves as an assistant coach. Then he went through the Heat’s shootaround later than morning. Nine or 10 hours after that, he posted a triple-double against the Pistons.

During warmups against the Bucks, James took time to meet and visit with Ebony Nettles-Bey, a girls high school basketball player from Verona, Wis., who is battling a Stage 4 cancer. He shot around with her prior to tipoff, then spoke warmly about their encounter after the final horn.

“What she’s going through every single day, the challenges she’s facing every single day with the Stage 4 cancer that she has,” James said, “she’s the stronger one out of us two.”

After that, any further questions about work load and rest, not just James’ but any NBA player’s, seemed a little silly.

“There’s no such thing as well-rested at this point,” James said. “Every season is different. My mentality changes from season to season. Every challenge is different. You just go about it however it presents itself.”

With Aldridge back, so is Blazers’ edge

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Trail Blazers cruise past Bulls in Chicago

CHICAGO – LaMarcus Aldridge realized early that it wasn’t going to be his night offensively.

“My first shot, I took it quick but I saw Bulls coming baseline,” the Portland Trail Blazers All-Star power forward said. “And I remembered [in Portland in November] they doubled me the whole game. I’d had some good games versus them in my past, so I felt like they wanted to take me out. So I knew early I was going to try to be more active defensively.”

What mattered more to Aldridge was that it was going to be his night at all. He had missed seven consecutive games with a bruised lower back prior to Thursday, then got busy against the Hawks in Atlanta for 25 points, 16 rebounds and 32 minutes. The Blazers won, pulling up ever so slightly in what had been a nosedive (3-4 without Aldridge, nine losses in 15 games overall).

This game against Chicago, at the end of their five-game Eastern trip, was no time to start plummeting again.

“As long as I woke up and I could walk, I was going to play,” Aldridge said.

This wasn’t one for the portfolio – five points, 2-for-10 shooting – at the offensive end but he represented well on defense. Aldridge grabbed 13 defensive boards and had four steals, clogging up things inside against a Bulls team that was no threat outside (3-for-17 from the 3-point line).

And frankly, Aldridge’s mere threat, misfiring or not, drew extra defenders often enough to free up other Portland shooters. Free up and energize even. Hey, LaMarcus is in passing mode!

“They get more energy, and they get more happy of course,” Aldridge said after the Blazers hit 10 of their 22 attempts from the arc. “When teams double-team me, I feel like guys pull over to the ball faster, I think guys are more locked in. When I have the ball normally, I’m going 1-on-1 and I’m always shooting it. But I feel like tonight, my teammates were more engaged.”

Better now than never. Portland’s struggles over the past 10 weeks have been well-documented, notably by our guys Fran Blinebury and Sekou Smith here and here in the past few days alone. The Blazers’ freefall was all the rage as a media topic, certainly in Portland, and even though the players and coaches were on the road, they couldn’t escape it.

“Look, we all know where things are in the standings and the playoffs,” coach Terry Stotts said after a solid, assertive 91-74 victory at United Center. “Every game is critical. We let a couple get away on this trip but I didn’t have to say anything – the team knows where we are and what we need to do.”

Getting Aldridge back was their top priority – a big no-duh, frankly – because life without him was a double-whammy: the Blazers lost his production and opponents felt freshly enthused, eager to test Portland’s vulnerability.

But there was more, perhaps some unconscious acknowledgement that, with or without their big guy, they weren’t the same team that had blitzed the league in the first two months. “Maybe not sustainable,” Aldridge said of the swift start.

Every team has lulls, but the Blazers’ looked more like doubts.

“Other than us getting our best player back – which changes everything – our urgency has gone up after the loss in Orlando [Tuesday],” point guard Damian Lillard said. “You realize, ‘All right, it’s time to turn it around right now. We can’t wait. We can’t have one of these lackadaisical efforts.’ The last two games we’ve really defended and done everything together.”

The unity Portland has flexed at its best was there particularly on defense, where having the other man’s back is king.

“I think the biggest example I can give you,” Lillard said, “is how consistent we were [against the Bulls] chasing over ball screens and communicating and pushing the ball up and moving the ball. Just everything the coaches are telling us and constantly on us about, we’ve been able to execute those things on the floor consistently.

“We were really missing that over that tough stretch.”

Aldridge made sure not to rush back, lest his back pains reoccur and he miss more time even closer to the playoffs. The Blazers are 7-5 without him this season, 40-22 when he plays. They locked up a winning record on the road in 2013-14 (21-18 now) and are 12-7 on the tail end of back-to-backs.

Going through the hard times – with no guarantees they’re gone, of course – did put a chip back on the Blazers’ shoulders, if that’s any help.

“I think we’re at our best,” Lillard said, “when everybody starts to doubt us and says, ‘Oh, they might not be in the playoffs. They’re falling off.’ That’s when we come together. We want to prove people wrong.”

Heat-Pacers packs punch as playoff preview, palate cleanser

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pacers edge Heat in chippy East clash

INDIANAPOLIS – Surely, Washington and Detroit would understand. Same with Cleveland and Milwaukee and the other teams on the Indiana Pacers’ and Miami Heat’s schedules over the short term.

If the NHL could shut down for a few weeks to accommodate the Winter Olympics, the NBA and its member teams no doubt would oblige by staging the Eastern Conference finals now, wouldn’t they?

This one – Pacers 84, Heat 83 – was that special. And raggedy. And nasty. And hot.

There were grimaces and grumbles in the visitors’ dressing room afterward, smiles and a couple of exhales over on the home team’s side, and for a night – portending, soon enough, a fortnight – all was right with the NBA world.

Not all right in the sense that Miami lost and, with it, an opportunity to squeeze the Pacers a little harder in that chase for the East’s No. 1 seed. But all right in the way storm clouds over both teams got shoved aside by the sun burst of playoff-worthy basketball from all involved.

No one mentioned doldrums. Whatever the bad math lately – seven losses in 12 games, or was it eight in 13? – it was rendered irrelevant. Both teams clinched their divisions, one by winning, the other by losing (thanks, Washington), and naturally that meant nothing to them either.

Getting a game like the one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Wednesday, one that lived up to the hype and then transcended it, has the effect of a palate cleanser at this point in the regular season. Of course, that’s way too genteel a metaphor for what went on – clotheslines and elbows and flagrants, oh my! – unless we sub out the sorbet for a squeegee, a bar rag and some styptic pencils.

The Pacers and the Heat hadn’t faced each other in anger (and that’s no mere cliché in this matchup) since Dec. 10 and Dec. 18, back before the season had gotten much traction. The battle everyone expected, and still expects, them to have as the East’s last two standing was, well, out there somewhere.

Now it’s right there, in relative terms. And the margin was as slim as Indiana strongman David West‘s shocking 3-pointer on an inbounds play with 50.2 seconds left that made it 84-80, followed by Miami forward Chris Bosh‘s hurried 22-footer to win just before the buzzer on what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admitted was a “gunslinger” play. The ball had come in to LeBron James with just two seconds left and he followed orders by shoveling it to Bosh. Two passes in two seconds, yeah, a little gunslinger.

But it was that sort of night.

“It was definitely a playoff game,” Bosh said. “Close, going back and forth. Each possession was crucial. We just had [19] turnovers and didn’t do a very good job of taking care of the ball. Especially down the stretch [two in 21 seconds late in the fourth quarter]. Against a good team like that, you have to get good shots. You can’t come away with empty possessions, because that puts them in position to really strangle you.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about Miami’s loss in Indiana

Strangle? Nah, that was one of the few forms of mayhem not on display Wednesday.

Emotions ran hot, as evidenced by the dueling technical fouls on Lance Stephenson and Dwyane Wade for barking close in the third quarter. Later, both were gone, done in by their respective fatal flaws: Stephenson’s immaturity and Wade’s assorted ailments.

The Pacers’ mercurial guard taunted Wade after a basket with 5:01 left in the fourth and foolishly got his second T, earning an automatic suspension. Wade grabbed at his left hamstring three minutes later and had to exit.

Physically, this was May, not March. James, one of the league’s brawniest players, was in the thick of it. On one play, he got dragged down by Indiana big man Ian Mahinmi. It was reviewed as a flagrant foul but recast as a shooting foul. Next, he was whacked hard by Luis Scola, his recently broken nose taking impact. It too was reviewed as a flagrant but recast as a common foul.

“I see me and Blake Griffin take some hard hits,” James groused afterward. “They call it how they want to call it.”

So naturally, when James drove strong soon thereafter, his right elbow caught Pacers center Roy Hibbert smack on the jaw, sending the big man to the floor and briefly on rubber-leg street. And that was ruled a flagrant-1 foul.

James, unhappy most of all with the outcome, clipped his answers to postgame questions off at three or four words. But he went longer when someone wondered if the hit on Hibbert was retaliatory.

“If I could jump in the air, elbow somebody in the face in the air and still try to finish the play, I must be a kung-fu master or something,” James said. “I mean, his face happened to hit my elbow or my elbow happened to hit his face.”

Bosh stuck up for his friend.

“Our guys are getting punched in the face and clotheslined out there and we’re getting two shots,” Bosh said. “Then we get an offensive foul called – and it’s a flagrant. I guess we really need to decipher what ‘flagrant’ means. Because I don’t feel they were going for the ball. Especially in those two situations.

“If you can come down and clothesline somebody, I mean, it’s open season. People are going to get hurt. I don’t know, we’re going to have to revisit what ‘flagrant foul’ means to see if it’s even. But they had one and we had none, even though LeBron got punched in the face and clotheslined.”

West, when he heard about Bosh’s complaint, was incredulous: “He [James] shot 15 free throws!”

How perfect was this stuff? There had been no handshakes before the game, no chit-chat or fraternity hugs. There certainly won’t be any next time, not now, not after the bodies spent sprawling and the blood spilled Wednesday.

West had an air of satisfaction about him as the Pacers’ locker room cleared. He and some teammates had given Stephenson a talking-to after the final horn, reminding him to knock off the foolishness. Their team, for the most part, also had eased some of Paul George‘s burden by getting the ball out of his hands, sending him through and around the Miami defense as a cutter and generally keeping the Heat guessing.

But best of all, as West saw it, Indiana matched Miami in rugged play and giving as good as they got. With the game in their gym, they felt they had a solid chance to stay even on the whistles.

“They’re a tough team and psychologically, against most teams, they have the edge,” West said. “They have the best player in the game. Wade and Bosh are Hall of Fame guys. They’ve got that pedigree, their entire organization. You understand what you’re gonna get.”

Better than that, fans of both teams and the league in general understand what they’re gonna get when these two teams meet again. And, soon enough, again and again and again.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers discuss their big win over the Heat

Pacers’ George shouldering, slumping under load of NBA stardom

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Paul George looks ahead to tonight’s Heat-Pacers matchup

INDIANAPOLIS – Paul George generated headlines and criticism when he spoke recently about his desire to be mentored by LeBron James.

At this point, George and the Indiana Pacers might settle for not being schooled by him.

With the Miami Heat in town tonight (8 ET, ESPN) for the third of the teams’ four meetings in 2013-14 — they’ve split the first two and clash again on April 11 in south Florida — the Pacers are struggling with some Xs & Os issues. They could stand a little R&R and while they’re at it, a few Z’s, too. But right now, it is George’s DNA that is getting much of the attention, as he tries to finish strong a season unlike any other he has experienced.

Through his first three years, the Pacers’ rapidly developing wing player faced minimal individual pressure. From something of a sleeper as the No. 10 pick in the 2010 Draft, the 6-foot-8 Scottie Pippen-playalike blossomed from helpful rookie to rotation player to starter to All-Star. His production and his minutes went up, up, up — from 7.8 ppg to 17.4, from 20.7 mpg to 37.6 — always staying a few steps ahead of expectations. The Pacers made the playoffs every year and, kind of like George, went a step further each time.

George’s game has taken another step again — he started for the East in the All-Star Game in New Orleans and he was a regular in MVP conversations through the season’s first four months. But the expectations have caught up to him lately and so, it seems, have the defensive game plans.

Like the Heat, the Pacers have lost seven of their last 12 games. Unlike the Heat, the Pacers don’t have two rings or nearly the established track record for pulling out of a nosedive. Especially since Indiana is the one that staked out a wire-to-wire run for the East’s No. 1 seed that has gone vulnerable at what could be the worst possible time.

Their rivals know it, the Pacers know it. One of those crews is grasping to fix it.

“We’ve got to do a better job of playing with energy,” George said after Indiana’s loss in Chicago on Monday. “We’ve just been dead, it seems like on the court lately. That’s not us. That’s not us.”

After the Pacers’ practice Tuesday, he added: “We just haven’t been having fun. We’re making the game much harder than it needs to be. Somewhere along the line we forgot how much fun this game can be. … We went through a streak of games where we were just getting by because we were the more talented team. Where now we have to play good basketball to get wins.”

It’s probably not a stretch to hear “I” each time George says “we.” Sure, the Pacers’ offense is the primary problem, but he has been so instrumental in it that the overlap is vast.

George is carrying a big load in Indiana’s attack — 21.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.5 apg — and with what’s been going on, has tried to shoulder more. It looks like pressing: He’s shooting 36.6 percent over his last 13 games –including 19 of 71 from 3-point range — and has had five games of 13 points or fewer (including nights of 2 and 8).

When he has shot less than 42 percent in this stretch, the Pacers are 3-6. He has had off-the-court distractions too – a paternity case from a woman in Florida, some photo-texting claim that broke over the weekend that he termed “a fake” — that surely have not helped.

Asked Monday if he has seen Indiana players try to do too much through the team’s slump, George said: “We have it at times. You’re going to need it sometimes. We choose the wrong moments.”

Asked if he’s been one of those guys, he said: “At times. I’m not going to say I’m not one of ‘em. I only have good intentions to get something going for us offensively and just be aggressive.

“Our execution isn’t where we want it to be. We’re nowhere where we want to be as far as screening. Setting guys up. Moving with energy, playing with some energy. And cutting without the ball. You know, everything has just been so lackadaisical. That’s going to get you beat. We’re putting too much pressure on ourselves to score against great defense in the halfcourt.”

There is no break coming Wednesday night, not with the way Miami traps the ball out top and, if all else fails, can ask James to throw a bruising defensive blanket over Indiana’s best player.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged after the loss in Chicago that he has talked with George about not overburdening himself, forcing matters, or taking personally too much of the team’s struggle.

“All the time,” Vogel said. “He’s learning. He’s growing. I don’t want to share the details, but it’s a grind. It’s a grind right now. He’s just got to work his way through it.”

George is, after all, still 23. When Michael Jordan was George’s age, he had played in seven playoff games total. OK, Kobe had two rings at 23, but he also had Shaquille O’Neal. It took James — another high schooler with a head start — until his fourth season to reach The Finals and his sixth to win an MVP. Everyone’s into the hurry-up, but George has been doing fine.

These are teachable moments, this game, the next one against Miami and these next three weeks. Everything George and the Pacers want to achieve still is right there for them.

“I really wish I could tell you [the "book" on stopping George],” Chicago’s Taj Gibson said after George’s 8-of-22 shooting Monday. “Paul, over the years, hass added so many different things to his arsenal. The best thing you can try to do is play with a lot of energy and try to contest every shot. That’s the most I can tell you — every time he shot the ball, we tried to do a hard contest. Hand in his face, like Kobe kind of. You’ve just got to try to frustrate him any way you can.”

Lately, George has been starting halfway there, a situation he and the Pacers will try to remedy Wednesday.


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Miami Heat

 

Blogtable: Tweaking Indiana

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s roster tweaks | Style police | Most dynamic duo



VIDEO: Paul George on rival Miami, and Indiana’s own offensive struggles

> Indiana does not look good. Are Larry Bird’s roster tweaks (Evan Turner, Andrew Bynum) ever going to help? What next?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Yes, it is getting late for the Pacers. Bynum was a calculated risk who might not pan out after all – maybe he can sign with and not play for all 30 teams before he’s done. Turner needs only to be better than more-rusty-than-recovered Danny Granger, and that still might happen in time to make a difference. Indiana’s stagnant offense has slowed Turner’s impact (not the other way around), but ultimately this team rises or falls on its starting five

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Turner has been underwhelming and Bynum barely on the court.  It was always questionable how much Turner would help them because, in order to get the most out of his offense in Philly, he needed the ball in his hands a great deal of the time.  He’s just not an instant-offense type player.  If Bynum is nothing more than an occasional contributor, the thin offensive production has not been improved.  The Pacers are going to have to do it all with their defense and that’s probably too much to ask.

Evan Turner (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Evan Turner (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Help? Looks like those moves have demoralized his team, not that I heard anyone, including myself, suggest such a thing might happen at the time of either big move. Andrew Bynum’s done, so forget that. Shipping off Danny Granger seems to have done a psychological number on this young team who looked up to the former All-Star. It really was a great feel-good story with Granger coming back, albeit in a reduced role, and, yes, he didn’t exactly sprint out of the gate, but … now he’s helping the streaking Clippers, who really needed a boost on the wing.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Evan Turner will help a little, which is all anyone should have ever expected. How good did people think he was when the 76ers couldn’t give him away? Turner for Danny Granger was a good trade for the Pacers because it gave them someone with a better chance to contribute here and there than Granger. If Turner wins a playoff game for Indy with a bench spark, that’s a reasonable return. Take that approach and multiply it times a thousand for Bynum. He may never help, which, again, should have been expected all along. What next if neither help? There is no next. Just the roster that will defend their guts out and can beat anyone four times in seven games without Turner and Bynum.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I doubt that Bynum’s going to help. Even if he does get healthy, Frank Vogel might trust Ian Mahinmi more in the postseason. Turner has never been an efficient scorer, so even when he has a good game, he’s not going to give them a huge lift. But there doesn’t necessarily need to be a “what’s next.” This was the best team in the league for four months with a defense that was able to stop the most potent offenses. They could certainly find their footing and get back to that level.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comI didn’t think the roster tweaks were necessary. When you are already running ahead of the pack in the conference, roster tweaks are a luxury. Larry Bird was praised by most for being proactive, as he should have been. Turner and Bynum aren’t the Pacers’ problem. It’s their core guys — Paul George and Roy Hibbert specifically — who are not playing at the consistently sky-high level they were earlier this season. What’s next is the Pacers’ core group relocating that defensive focus and offensive flow that led them to the top of the Eastern Conference standings … a spot they might not hold on to much longer.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: Put it this way: I don’t really thing Bird’s roster tweaks are going to *hurt,* at least long-term. I just think we’re seeing what happens when you make changes on the fly — you have to learn on the fly. This goes against how the Pacers have built their team, taking their time and growing nearly organically. They lost a guy averaging about 9 points a game, sure, but that shouldn’t take a team from being a contender to a pretender. Hopefully they have enough time to figure it all out before the playoffs roll around.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Actually, I’m not as concerned about the Pacers as many other people. Indy seems to coast a little, which affects their offense. Paul George has been off lately, Roy Hibbert recently appeared to criticize Lance Stephenson (without mentioning his name) for ball-hogging. All of that indicates that Indy is bored, at least to me. It’s true that Bynum and Turner haven’t helped yet, but the moves also haven’t hurt the team as Bynum came for free and Granger hadn’t given Indiana much. I’m hopeful that both of them will be valuable come playoff time. The only thing that worries me is that the Pacers might lose home-court advantage to the Miami Heat.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: Is this even about Bird’s roster tweaks anymore? I mean, in any case, the rotation during the playoffs is much shorter than the regular season, with the starters seeing a lot more playing time. If the Pacers have to do better, Paul George’s 30-for-95, David West’s 26-for-72 and Roy Hibbert’s 20-for-48 field-goal shooting efforts in Indiana’s last six games have to improve. If not, Indiana will cede home-court advantage to Miami and could possibly exit the playoffs even before the Conference finals.

Blogtable: On-court style police

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s roster tweaks | Style police | Most dynamic duo



VIDEO: The GameTime crew weighs in on the topic of ads on game jerseys

> Sleeves, leg warmers, ads on game jerseys … what are your thoughts on the state of the NBA’s on-court style?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comSome of these players have on more armor and apparel than NFL or NHL players. And regarding the marketability of sleeves, I don’t see what the problem is with fans wearing T-shirts under their replica tank-top jerseys. But swooshes and other logos embroidered on the shirts as a source of revenue? No one is stepping in front of that gravy train. As for sheer style, I’m hoping the league goes back to belted shorts, just so I can throw around the adjective “Mikanesque.”  

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: After trashy cheerleaders, silly mascots, every timeout sponsored by somebody, blaring music that won’t allow you to think, playoff games that tip off at 10:40 PM Eastern and TV timeouts that drag on longer than the gestation period of an elephant, NOW you want to ask about the purity of the game?  Where it’s headed is to whatever brings in the highest dollar amount.  Maybe next year Chick-Fil-A can sponsor the Heat uniforms and LeBron could see how he likes shooting while wearing a cow costume.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Don’t like the sleeves, don’t really care about the tights (although didn’t the NBA outlaw these once before?) and HATE ads on jerseys. They are only as “inevitable” as new commissioner Adam Silver wants them to be. Sure, ads on jerseys will produce new revenue, but I thought NBA franchises were doing just great? Just because European soccer splashes logos on their game jerseys doesn’t mean we might as well do it over here. It cheapens the uniform and, simply, it looks tacky. The revenue generated from ads on jerseys will not be immense and therefore the ads are unnecessary, as inevitable as they may be. Maybe owners should work harder to put forth a better product, work harder to sell sponsorships and work harder to market their product. Jersey ads are simply a lazy way to create new revenue.

Harrison Barnes in a short-sleeved jersey (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Harrison Barnes in a short-sleeved jersey
(Rocky Widner/NBAE)

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: You would have to search a long time for someone who cares less than I do. Maybe it’s better to say I care since style is important, but this issue is somewhere in triple digits on the list of priorities. As long as the long sleeves don’t affect play. As for the ads on uniforms, that has been coming for years and teams in other sports around the world have already tapped into the revenue stream. Someone should grab Chico’s Bail Bonds as a sponsor for the back of jerseys before it’s too late.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It doesn’t matter to me much. I don’t mind the sleeved jerseys, but can understand why players would. I like that all of a team’s accessories (headbands, arm sleeves, etc.) need to be the same color and wonder why they started allowing guys to wear different colored shoes.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I don’t have to work in a uniform, so I cannot sympathize with LeBron James or others who are worried about sleeves and other style details that have absolutely nothing to do with one’s ability to complete whatever their daily tasks are on the job. If we’re headed for a world of sponsorship logos on jerseys, so be it. NBA players wouldn’t be the first group of professional athletes to operate with that as a part of their mandated attire. In the grand scheme of things, uniform details seem like a rather inconsequential element of the entire process. No offense to the uniform makers, but as long as they look good and everybody’s uniforms match … this from someone who played on a team as a kid where our uniforms consisted of white t-shirts with numbers that had to be ironed on by our parents and whatever pair of shorts you could muster.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: I am probably the wrong person to ask about this. I’m one of those people who loves it when the players want to be as accessorized as possible, who enjoys sleeved jerseys and is an enthusiastic supporter of teams rocking nicknames instead of surnames. I appreciate very much that the NBA has for the most part not legislated individuality out of the game the way the NFL has the last few years. I know ads on jerseys are a hot-button issue among fans, but I feel like that’s an inevitability going forward. I own my share of soccer jerseys with ads on them, and the ads don’t take away from my enjoyment of the sport.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: The sleeves don’t concern me too much. I like them as an extra jersey for teams and understand the commercial reasons. I must admit that I’m slightly concerned about the advertising on game jerseys because one of the things I love about the NBA compared to other professional leagues is that they’ve shied away from this is in the past. Clearly it was trialed during the All-Star Weekend and didn’t really cause too much of an issue, though, and I don’t think NBA fans are too concerned. Adam Silver is  a smart guy, so I’m sure he’ll be able to manage the ads in a classy way and make sure they don’t dominate the jersey but I do hope this doesn’t come in for a little while yet.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: That’s the way fashion rolls. In cycles. Wearing accessories isn’t something new. It was something Allen Iverson and his generation brought to the table (and the hardwood). I am not against it. I like watching players with different stylistic choices. Sometimes it becomes part of their character (LeBron’s headband for example). And you know what? Basketball is a game of confidence, so let the player feel as confident as they can possibly can. If it that means that they want to wear their lucky sleeve on their shooting arm, so be it. But I believe that we are still far away from having any real idea about where this is going.

Blogtable: The NBA’s most dynamic duo

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Indy’s roster tweaks | Style police | Most dynamic duo



VIDEO: LeBron James and Chris Bosh combined to snuff out Portland’s chance at a win Monday

> Right now — taking health problems and everything else into consideration – who would you name the most formidable pair of teammates in the NBA?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: This reminds me of the trivia question about baseball’s all-time brother act among HR hitters. Of course it’s the Aarons, on the strength of Henry’s 755 and Tommie’s 13. To me, any pair of teammates that includes LeBron James as one of them is a serious contender as top tandem. Some might argue that Chris Bosh is Miami’s second-best player now, but I’ll stick with a rested and recuperating Dwyane Wade as wingman to the NBA’s best player (not necessarily the 2014 MVP), based on how well Wade and the team have managed his health and workload.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Because there are questions going forward about how Russell Westbrook will hold up over the long haul of the playoffs and because there are constantly questions about Dwyane Wade’s knees, you have to go past the obvious.  I’ll put Chris Paul and Blake Griffin at the top of my 1-2 punch list.  Paul can run the break, get everybody a good shot at any time and Griffin has raised his all-around game to be part of the MVP conversation.  Formidable isn’t the word to describe Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, just incredibly efficient.  The pairing that could leap up and make an even bigger splash still in the playoffs is James Harden and Dwight Howard.

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Blake Griffin, Chris Paul (Noah Graham/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comKevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I know Westbrook’s been in and out of the lineup and might be a knee bump away from potentially being shelved again, but together this tandem of 25-year-olds is a two-way terror like none other. Durant is the best player in the game right now, simply unguardable. Put the strength and speed of Westbrook, practically unguardable in his own right, next to KD and say goodnight.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comFour first names and two players equal one top tandem: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin. The best point guard in the world and one of the top, maybe the top, power forward gives the Clippers a dynamic inside-outside pairing with a season of Griffin’s commendable improvements and Paul coming back from the shoulder injury. James Harden-Dwight Howard and Paul George-Roy Hibbert (defense, defense) are in the conversation. Paul is not 100 percent, but the potential challengers of Westbrook-Durant, Lillard-Aldridge, Rose-Noah have larger health issues.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comLeBron James and Chris Bosh. James is the best player in the world and Bosh is the next most important player on the Heat, with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll and space the floor offensively. Dwyane Wade can create more offense when James is off the floor, but Bosh is the better complement. He’s bigger and a better perimeter shooter.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The most lethal pair of teammates, injuries included, remains Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. There aren’t two guys working in tandem that can wreak more havoc or affect more change, on both ends of the floor, during the course of a game than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dynamic duo and their Miami Heat counterparts. When they crank it into high-gear, who else can wade into that deep water and still stay true to what they do best? Sure, Westbrook and Wade have dealt with more than their fair share of injury issues this season. But the entire league knows what happens when they have it going. They are the obvious choices for the most obvious of reasons, we’ve seen them go to that next level so often over the past three or four years that there should really be no argument here.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: I’m sure we’ll see nominations for Westbrook and Durant, Harden and Howard, maybe even LeBron and Bosh. But I think I’ll go with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. I don’t think CP3’s leadership or toughness have ever been questioned, and with CP3 missing time this year due to injury, I think we saw exactly how good and complete a player Blake has become. The thing I also like about these two is that they combine to form a terrific inside-out combination, or at least as much of an inside-out combination as exists these days in the NBA.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: Right now it’s the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo. The smartest PG in the league paired with one of the most athletic big man gave us Lob City, but now that Griffin is evolving into something more than just a spectacular dunker, the Clippers have a spectacular duo who’s winning a ton of games. They can both win games by themselves, as a duo or involving their other teammates. I really like what Doc Rivers has turned them into. Without injuries, I’d go with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade over Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: I was thinking about Howard/Harden, Nowitzki/Ellis, Paul/Griffin and Westbrook/Durant. But right now I don’t believe that any duo is as good on both sides of the floor as LeBron James and Chris Bosh. In his fourth season with the Heat, Bosh is so much more than the third-best player of the team. You could argue that Miami would be going nowhere if they didn’t have the lefty big man. He takes and makes big shots with great regularity and is capable of a key defensive play anytime. And LeBron is just the best player on the planet. I really believe that if you have those two players working together, you’re guaranteed a shot at the title. And they’re the only duo I think about in those terms.

Pacers’ funk in win column, offense hits at worst time possible

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pacers players talk about the team’s loss to the Bulls in Chicago

CHICAGO – The Indiana Pacers know who they’re playing Wednesday night. They know who they’re chasing and fighting, too, in these dwindling days of the NBA regular season and prelude to what matters most.

One team is the Miami Heat. The other is the one staring back at them from the mirror.

The former, they don’t much like. The latter, they barely know. Who are those guys?

“We’ve just been dead, it seems like, on the court lately,” Paul George said after the Pacers’ 89-77 loss to the Chicago Bulls Monday. “That’s not us. That’s not us. We used to be a team that played with a lot of energy and just had fun out there, and I think we kind of lost that along the way.”

The Pacers, once the sweethearts of the Eastern Conference, aren’t even the darlings of their own dressing room anymore. They’re 5-7 since March 4, flailing about offensively and mired in a funk that center Roy Hibbert admitted late in the evening at United Center has become a “big-time concern.”

“I think so,” the Indiana big man said after an 0-for-5, foul-plagued performance. “It’s getting to that point.”

Never mind the getting part, the Pacers are there. They’ll be facing their nemeses from Miami Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the worst possible moment. It doesn’t even matter that the two-time defending champs are off their own rails with a 5-7 mark over their last 12 games, too. The Heat, in claiming rings the past two postseasons, earned the right to dither around a little with this regular season, setting themselves up however they chose or, at this point, can for a third title run.

The Pacers, by contrast, set themselves up as a wire-to-wire team — they grabbed the conference standings by the throat with a 16-1 start, while identifying the East’s No. 1 playoff seed as their Grail. They’re still on track, but only barely; Indiana’s lead is down to two games (one in the loss column), with two games remaining (Wednesday and April 11) against their rivals.

The Pacers are fortunate they haven’t already been passed, which would make this funk worse. The Heat? They probably have to take this chase-down seriously, even if they hadn’t wanted to.

Pinning down the start of the Pacers’ problems is tricky. The last 12 games are the ones in which they’ve been under water. They were 9-3 in the stretch that preceded it, still a step down from their early pace, with signs of offensive discombobulation creeping in. Troubles showed up in a late January road trip, in which the Pacers went 2-2 with blowout losses to the Suns and Nuggets.

The what is more apparent than the when: George talked some about “hero ball,” the temptation for players — as the cliché goes, one offered by a reporter anyway — to try to do too much when things go awry.

Typically, that makes them merely go more awry. No, in the Pacers’ case, the what is their offense

“All the rah-rah [junk] we always talked about before, I wish we would do that,” Hibbert said. “I don’t know, we do it one in probably six games sometimes. It just seems like some days we’re not hitting shots. Some days we’re not sharing the ball. And it affects our defense when we can’t score. … Whatever we’re doing offensively just isn’t working on a consistent basis.”

For Hibbert, the wheels started to come off before the All-Star break. Dating back to his past 25 games, the Pacers All-Star center is averaging 8.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 44.6 percent. But several of his teammates have struggled lately, too. Over the past 10 games, for instance, George is misfiring at a 39 percent rate. Lance Stephenson, who has four triple-doubles in 2013-14, has averaged 2.7 assists his last 10 games. George Hill is shooting 40.0 percent since March 5.

So while there might be some big-picture issues in play, the immediate concern is Indiana’s struggles to put up points and coach Frank Vogel‘s challenge to make that happen.

“I mean, I think we’ve had a difficulty handling the success,” Hibbert said. “We’ve just got to learn — I’ve been taught, we’ve been saying this for a while — to be able to play for each other like we used to. And set people up for easy shots. Everything we take is, very tough contested shots.

“I just look at other teams we play and they just swing, swing, swing the ball until somebody gets an open shot or a wide-open layup. Sometimes you think, how can we get those type of shots where we don’t have to heave something up at the end of the shot clock? That type of stuff, people can’t get into a rhythm. It’s just a lot of 1-on-1 basketball.”

The offensive frustrations and losing, though, haven’t leaked into team character or chemistry.

“No, I mean, we’re great off the court. Family atmosphere,” Hibbert said. “On the court, it just seems like we’re just not clicking. And we should be clicking now toward the end of the season.”

Also, someone had to ask: Did the Pacers get too clever or too ambitious by half in changing up their roster — bringing in Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen and Andrew Bynum, trading away Danny Granger and shedding Orlando Johnson — so deep into what had been a rewarding season?

“I’m not gonna…,” Hibbert said, sounding as if he was editing himself. “I mean, Larry [Bird, Pacers president] is the man in charge. He made the decision that he felt this is the best group to go out there and compete on the floor. So we have to go out there and figure it out.”

After their big-exhale victory over Chicago Friday in Indianapolis, the Pacers knew the schedule was not their friend. They lost in Memphis Saturday before facing the Bulls’ defensive shredder Monday. Neither would be foes recommended to a sputtering offense.

And now it’s Miami, which is like a visit from the in-laws the same evening you just squabbled over the credit card bill. The game Wednesday might not mean all that much, but it’s unlikely to offer a fix. And it could fester into something worse.

“If we don’t figure this thing out and, if we do get to the point this summer and face those guys again… we have to figure this out now,” Hibbert said. “Because they’re such a good team, they’re going to sniff that out. The way we’ve been playing, it’s just, that point where we got to last year isn’t guaranteed.”


VIDEO: NBA TV’s crew talks about the Pacers’ recent struggles on offense