Orlando Magic 118 – Indiana Pacers 98
It seems to me that the low point of this season occurred during the four-game West Coast swing at the beginning of March. The road trip started with twin 23-point losses to the Lakers and the Blazers, then finished up with a pair of eight-point losses to the Nuggs and Suns. While the Suns game was hotly contested (though a little overly fake-tough-guy-macho, in my opinion), the final score on the Nuggets game was only that close because of a 10-0 Pacer run late in the fourth, long after the Nuggets stopped giving a tinker’s damn (whatever the hell that is).
I’m sure that, if asked to pick a specific moment when this season reached rock bottom, most would agree that it came in the post-game interview after the loss to the Lakers. When asked to comment on Josh McRoberts’ performance (then a career high), Pacer Coach Jim O’Brien uttered his now infamous “irrelevant” response. To some, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back with O’Brien, causing a huge outflow of animosity and leaving Pacers Nation with a continuing flow of snarky “irrelevant” jokes of the same quantity (and same general quality) of “you are the weakest link” and “you are voted off the island” quips of years past.
It was, in fact, a stupid thing for O’Brien to say. It was pointless, and more than a little petty. Of course, it was also 100% accurate, but I don’t think that makes it any less of a dick move.
So, the Pacers trudged home from that trip a whopping 23 games below .500, the furthest under water (in terms of games) the franchise had been since February of 1989. They came home in what looked like total disarray, with a team pulling in 14 different directions. It seemed almost without question that the coach had lost the team, and, quite possibly, the players had lost themselves.
Then, for reasons I don’t fully understand, they found themselves. Coming into last night’s game, the Pacers had won 12 of the 17 games since that trip, including 10 of the last 12. Granted, it was no murderer’s row. Eleven of the 17 games (and 10 of the 12 wins) came at home. One of the road wins came at Detroit, who is 99 different kinds of crap. The other came at Cleveland, a team that was resting so many players that they started a video tech guy, and the first player off the bench was actually one cheerleader on another cheerleader’s shoulders wearing a Cavs uniform and a trench coat.
Still, there was clearly progress made. There were impressive (almost dominating) wins against Oklahoma City and Utah, both of which are currently regretting their losses in an insanely tight Western Conference race. There was a good solid win against Charlotte, also involved in playoff race. The once-incompetent offense, averaging 101.9 per 100 prior to this stretch, was now clocking along at 112.3 per 100.
There were some very good things to be seen from some of the players.
Consider the following:
- Danny Granger playing like the guy we expected coming into the season. After averaging 23.1 points on a very disappointing .491 eFG% through March 6th, Danny averaged 28.3 points on .539 eFG% over his next 15 outings.
- Troy Murphy had respectable numbers coming into this stretch, with 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds on .542 eFG%, but his core numbers were stratospheric over this stretch. His scoring jumped to 18.1 points on a gaudy .598 eFG%, while his rebounding numbers grew to 12.1 per night. More importantly, the team performed better with him on the floor. Over the first 63 games of the season, Troy’s regular +/- was -10.4 per 48 minutes, by far the worst of the core players. The team was a net 12.2 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor than when he was off the floor. During this stretch, his regular +/- of +8.9 was the best of the core players, and the team was a net 9.4 points per 100 better with him on the floor.
- Earl Watson finally took control of the point guard position and stabilized it. His assists jumped from 4.5 per night to 7.1, and the team scored 114 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
- A.J. Price and Josh McRoberts finally got some consistent minutes and both performed admirably. Price averaged almost 18 minutes a night after T. J. Ford went down with a groin injury, while McRoberts logged 15 minutes per in his role as first big off the bench. Price was more consistent, as his role was more defined. He showed some good things, but also showed that he has some trouble with quicker guards. Early in the stretch, it looked like McBob might alternate with Solomon Jones as that first big off the bench, but he pretty much got control of the minutes after a few games. On a team pretty much devoid of athleticism, Josh’s hops and occasionally spectacular plays provided some of the more memorable moments of a forgettable season.
Then There Was Last Night
Last night was pretty much a flashback to the bad (and not-so) old days. Other than a roughly five-minute stretch in the second quarter when the Pacers used a 16-2 run to cut the lead to nine, the Magic thoroughly dominated. I don’t think anybody who watched the game would disagree that Orlando won virtually every aspect of the game. They outshot the Pacers 48% to 41% and outrebounded them 53-37. They took 19 more free throws than Indiana, and hit 16 more.
The Magic took their first double-digit lead at the 6:22 mark of the 1st Quarter. Over the remaining 42:22 of game time, the lead only dipped below 10 points for 16 seconds. The Magic held a lead of 20 points or more for 26:31 of clock time, or about 55% of the game. Alas, this one had no alibi, it was U-G-L-Y.
Here’s the deal: I said the Pacers found themselves. I didn’t say they found the ’96 Bulls.
Last night’s game was a reminder of what this team is, at least in terms of its limitations.
What last night reminds us of was how thin the margin of error is for this team. It reminds us that, if Danny can’t get it going, and if Roy can’t get it going, then it’s all over but the shouting. It reminds us that the “puncher’s chance” shooting the three gives this team can leave them flat on the canvas if all they get are swings and misses.
So do we wad up the previous 17 games and throw them in the trash? Nope. We don’t. That all happened. It may not have been great for the franchise in terms of draft position. In fact, it almost certainly wasn’t.
But it had to have been good for these players individually — and collectively — on some level. It gave them some idea that they are (OK, at least some of them are) legitimate NBA players. And while last night’s game was an obvious reminder that they aren’t great NBA players, hey, at least it wasn’t the last game of the season.
They will have one more opportunity to wash that terrible taste out of their mouths and go into the Summer with some semblance of confidence that this team, while by no means good, may not be as bad as they were for the first four months of the season.
That doesn’t say a lot, no … But it does say something.
Bring on the Wizards.