Game #31 Recap: Points? Check. Good FG%? Check. Boards? Check. Defense? Not So Much

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Shocker. Pacers got off to a poor start.

As far as positives to kick things off, Dahntay Jones was key early, getting to the hoop for a power dunk and a nice drive that ended in an impressive little opposite-hand, flip-shot layup. Him and Solomon Jones (no relation) were really the only things going for Indy in the first few minutes, as they combined to score 10 of the team’s first 12 points. Still, after weathering that initial drought while relying entirely on the law firm of Jones, Jones & Solomon, the rest of the Pacers did eventually show up, scoring on 4 of their next 7 possessions and, later, finishing off the quarter with a 9-0 run.

For once, it wasn’t the offensive execution or even the good ol’ fashioned open shot-making that was the problem. They scored enough in the first quarter to stay competitive and the offense was, by and large, fine. OK, the 5 first-quarter turnovers definitely directly led to some easy transition buckets for Memphis and that certainly gave the young, athletic Grizzly wing players a nearly tangible confidence injection.

But, really, it was the defense that opened the unsealable floodgates and prevented this game from ever being close.

The Pacers couldn’t contest jumpers and, while the Dahntay-at-PF thing did lead to him scoring 8 quick points, he was clearly overmatched down low by Zach Randolph, who scored three times from within 10 feet in the opening quarter — including a dunk. (For those of you unfamiliar with how infrequently Z-Bo actually dunks, it’s essentially a Halley’s Comet-level event — something the reactions of his former Knick teammates can attest to.)

Marc Gasol took advantage of the soft interior as well, going to the line early and often. Just 16 minutes into the game, Pau’s brother had already tallied 12 points, 6 boards and 7 free-throw attempts. And with the middle caving in quicker than a Death Star trash compacter, OJ Mayo, Mike Conley and Rudy Gay had all the time they needed to stick jumper after jumper after jumper, combining to hit five outside shots for 12 points in just the first 8 minutes.

The second quarter wasn’t much better defensively and the Pacers offense couldn’t hold up its end either, going on one of its patented 1-FG-in-5-minutes stretches. But, again, it was ultimately a defensive failure that left them down by 17 at the half with no real hope of slowing down a Memphis squad that put up 68 points in the first half.

The second half, while never close and essentially more of the same on defense, did prove surprisingly interesting, however.

And it was entirely due to the play of Roy Hibbert — who owned the third quarter and finished the game with a career high 25 points — and Luther Head — who owned the fourth quarter and ended up tying his career high with 30 points.

Hibbert dominated the paint after checking in 4 minutes into the half. He relied on his increasingly reliable hook shot and some power moves down low to drop 12 third-quarter points that came largely on the strength of 6 FTAs — 2 of which came on and-ones. He showed little indecision and made a few calculated moves that the guy guarding him could simply not handle. It was Roy at his best and hopefully something he can duplicate more often in the future. The last time he looked so good on the block was against the Spurs and that was, what, two weeks ago now?

But while watching Roy go to work down low may have been the most impressive and silver-liningy aspect of the game, Luther put on an even better show.

Head scored his 30 on just 19 shots and poured in his 15 fourth-quarter points with such flair that he may have nearly tricked any viewers who were still in the building/awake into thinking that Indy might feign a final comeback push. Obviously, most of us didn’t fall for his three-pointer- and ball-handling-fueled ruse, knowing that the Pacers would be incapable of stopping Memphis on the other end on this night.

But we shouldn’t let Luther’s outburst be deemed inconsequential just because it didn’t ultimately change the outcome. His efforts led to what I’m just going to presume without researching is the highest-scoring quarter any Pacer not named Danny Granger has had this season. On December 30, in this offense, after this many games of offensive futility, with this many players seemingly so content with just standing around the perimeter doing nothing, a guy putting the onus on himself to put points on the board by any means necessary is not just notable — it’s deserving of the Nobel.

OK … I fully understand that in a game that was this ugly and was never in doubt for the Grizzlies despite being played in Indiana, it’s hard to get too excited about anything. I get it. This thing was gross and this team is really, really bad.

But a night that featured two of the nicer individual offensive performances of the year and — for once — showcased an overall team statistical offensive performance that was uncharacteristically not bile-inducing is at least better than another 42% shooting night where the team scores in the low 90s.

Yes, the Pacers just lost their 8th game in a row. And, yes, this is the worst losing streak of Jim O’Brien’s tenure and the longest overall winless stretch since the 2006-07 season. So, ultimately, nothing in Pacer land is great. Hell, nothing is even good. I’m totally with you on that point.

But we’re Pacers fans, people. We need to take what we can at this point.

And what I do know is that the offense has been the main culprit in most of the other 22 Indy defeats so far this year. So I’m less worried about an off night for a defense that has otherwise been at least par for the league most of the time. That should come back around, theoretically, and if the team can mount an offensive effort like they had tonight — you know, one where a few guys step up and put it on themselves to carry the water rather than just expecting every member of the team to passively jumpshoot their way into 11 points — alongside even an average defensive effort then … well, ladies and gentlemen … we might just have ourselves a .400 ball club on our hands.

Dream big, people. Dream big.

Five Other Things

(1) Luther shot 4/6 from three and Brandon went 3/7. The rest of the team shot 0/11 from behind the arc. (Watson: 0/4, AJ Price: 0/4, MDJ: 0/3)

(2) Jamaal Tinsley’s return to Conseco was fairly uneventful: 15 minutes, 3 points (1/3 FGs), 1 assist, 2 boards, 2 steals, 3 turnovers and 1 Fieldhouse full of boos when he entered the game in the first quarter. By contrast, the night of the Pacers highest profile PG since Jamaal last played was even less eventful: TJ Ford played just 9 minutes — and none in the 2nd half.

(3) Mike Dunleavy, Jr. hasn’t shot above 40% from the field since December 18 (which was coincidentally the last time Indy played Memphis). And he hasn’t looked particularly great within the offense even while missing shots. I mean, he still has a much, much better understanding of offensive basketball than any other healthy player on the team, so he definitely still contributes a lot of positives in terms of ball movement, strong-side/weak-side positioning and all that stuff. But he’s not doing anything for the box score, and he looks tired. Might be time to give him a night off. Indy plays the Wolves twice in the next four games, so one of those may be a night where he can sit and the team can still have a shot at a win.

(4) Considering that Coach O’Brien seems to be just raffling off starter roles in a bingo hall before the game at this point (tonight was Luther’s first start as a Pacer and Solomon made his second start), Josh McRoberts probably deserves a crack. He’s catching alley-oops from Earl Watson like they’re Tyson Chandler and Chris Paul circa 2008, so — at worst — maybe an early dunk in the next game can give the team a Redbull-like lift and wake everyone from thier collective first-quarter coma.

I highlight the dunks because they are, well, highlights, but he has been doing a lot of other good stuff in terms of making the right pass, executing the pick-and-roll properly as the screener and generally just playing the right way, as our old friend Larry Brown would say. Particularly if Troy and/or Tyler can’t go against the Wolves on Saturday, I think it’s best to scrap the Dahntay Jones at power forward idea.

I’m not saying it is in and of itself a terrible idea — hell, this whole rotation of ineffectiveness has basically become an exercise in throwing spaghetti at the wall, right, so what’s the harm in getting weird? But after watching Randolph/Gasol chew up the interior right out of the gates, it’s pretty difficult to think the result will be different against Al Jefferson and Kevin Love. And since both of those guys are poor defenders at best, the chance of Josh catching an alley-oop in the opening minutes while one of them is blowing an assignment sounds pretty high. Honestly, watching him dunk while sporting that haircut is one of the few joys I have left in my Pacer-watching life.

FREE THE FIFTH BEATTLE.

(5) Brandon Rush looked above-average offensively out there for the first time since, roughly, I dunno, Bill Clinton’s second term as president? Nice shooting, buddy. Hit a few shots in a game like eight more times, start getting to the free throw line more than once a night, make a free throw more than once every other night and perhaps I’ll start taking you more seriously on offense than a traffic cone.

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