At the beginning of the regular season, the physically imposing Indiana Pacers appeared to be the perfect team to dethrone the Miami Heat. Between winning 18 out of their first 20 games along with having a stout roster that could shut down even the most potent offenses, the Pacers were firing on all cylinders and appeared to be poised to make it to the NBA Finals. Unfortunately, the Pacers dominant majesty has worn off as they have relinquished 10 of their last 17 games (four of which were against sub .500 teams) while Roy Hibbert has simultaneously hit a rough patch in terms of his accuracy from the field (has completed only 27.64% of his shots in the Pacers last five losses). Although the Pacers aren’t in any danger of missing the post season, the battle for the highly coveted one seed in the Eastern Conference is still an accolade that the Pacers would like to achieve. As of now, this deflated Pacers squad has yet to revitalize itself down the stretch and desperately needs to finish strong if they hope to overcome the defending champions in the Miami Heat.
Although Hibbert’s lack of production may be the most blatant discrepancy amongst individual players, he isn’t the only one who has had issues on the court. For small forward Paul George, his missteps may even be more disconcerting considering how erratic his shooting prowess can be from game to game. In the Pacers victories, George is a dual threat-scoring machine that can shoot from the perimeter almost as easily as he can from within the arch. However, in the Pacers devastating defeats, George regresses past the point athletic adequacy as his overall shooting percentage drops dramatically (shot 37.7% from field in last five victories, shot 32.1% from the field in last five losses). Luckily, the one aspect of George’s game that never wavers is his impressive poise at the charity strike where averages 87.1%.
Despite the lack of production from the Pacers two most prolific athletes, shooting guard Lance Stephenson has been the light at the end of tunnel for this woeful Pacers squad. Not only has Stephenson improved immensely from last season in terms of his scoring proficiency (scored 9.1 PPG last season, scored 14.1 PPG this year), he has also become an avid rebounder as he garners 7.2 boards per game (4.4 RPG last year). Even in the Pacers bitter defeats, Stephenson has done an exceptional job of being patient in waiting to take high percentage shots at the right time rather than simply throwing up a contested perimeter shot out of frustration. It is this type of developed maturity and continuity that could ultimately resurrect the Pacers burning desire to dominate vigorously rather than remaining offensively timid as they have in their recent losses.
While it may be easy to lambast the Pacers incomprehensible athletic slide, it’s important to bear in mind that this still a very young team that is still learning to play as an efficient unit rather than has several one man show stoppers. Out of the Pacers entire roster, only four players are 30 years of age or older, while George, Hibbert, Stephenson and George Hill are all still in their twenties. Despite the Pacers head scratching failures, this team is still very much an intimidating force to be reckoned with and when they are in the midst of an emotional hot streak, there really isn’t another team that can take them down regardless of their intriguing skill sets.
In the end, the Pacers have to find a way to rally down the stretch if they want to establish some confidence going into the playoffs. While the early goings of the playoffs shouldn’t diminish Pacers perseverance initially, they’ll inevitably have to find their dominant stride sooner rather than later. While it may be unfair to put so much pressure and elevated expectations on such a young team, the Pacers have been in the spotlight since the beginning of the season as the team that has what it takes to topple the Miami Heat in a seven game series. If the Pacers can rediscover their stingy defensive ways while using their physicality to force their way to the basket, they could easily be the dangerous post season juggernauts that they were projected to be at the beginning of the regular season.