Game #77 Recap: Lessons to be Learned

The Pacers held off the Bucks 89-88 in Conseco last night, putting themselves within two games (Indiana wins/Milwaukee losses) of eliminating the Deer.  Charlotte lost in Orlando last night, meaning the “Magic Number” for a return to the Playoffs is down four with five games to plays.

So things are looking pretty…

… you know what …

… considering what happened immediately following the last two times I confidently projected the Pacers in the playoffs, I’m just gonna say that all is lost and these guys have no chance and they’ll lose out and I heard from a guy who talked to this woman who dated this guy whose cousin’s nephew’s uncle drives past Conseco on the way to work everyday that most of the players and coaches already have their vacations planned and have already purchased their airline tickets for the day after the last regular season game.

Anyway.

While watching the Pacers get a win that will in no way, shape or form make me say that they’re headed to the playoffs, I was struck by the opponent, and what the Blue-and-Gold could possibly learn from Milwaukee’s situation and experiences.

The Best Defenses are Systemic

Milwaukee has the fourth best defense in the Association, and they’ve done this despite the fact that virtually every key player has missed significant numbers of games this seasons.  They’ve done it despite the fact that their defensive anchor — Andrew Bogut — has been less than 100% while recovering from last year’s catastrophic arm injury.

Skiles’ squad has been able to do this because they play with intelligence, they play with tenacity but, most importantly, they play together.  Everybody knows where they fit and where to be, and that allows both a high level of trust and makes the “next man up” philosophy more workable.

The Pacers were showing signs of this early in the year, but it fell apart in January and hasn’t been back since.  If they truly want to become a top defensive team, then the players have to understand that it can only happen as a unit.

You Have to Play at Both Ends

Despite having a top defense, the Bucks will miss the playoffs and currently have only a .400 winning percentage.  The other nine teams that populate the top third in Defensive Efficiency have won at a .650 clip (53 wins over an 82 game season), and the second worst record is Philly’s .526.  This is because Milwaukee’s offense is abysmal.

The Bucks trot out the second worst offense in the league, barely scoring more than a point per possession.  Some of it is talent, but there really appears to be no semblance of a plan.  Skiles does a lot of good things as a coach, but offensive game planning isn’t one of them.  Milwaukee finished 23rd in each of their first two years under the Plymouth, Indiana, native, and no team coached by Skiles for a full season has rated higher than 21st in Offensive Efficiency.

The lesson here is that you simply cannot just give away one end of the floor.  The Pacers had first hand experience with this in December, when they went 5-10 despite the fact that they were in the top five in defensive efficiency for the month while scoring less than a point per possession.  However, it’s always good to have such lessons reinforced — particularly at the expense of others.

This should also be a consideration when looking at the next coach.  Mike Brown’s name has been bandied about, but this is a guy who freely admits that he spent zero time on offense in his first two years.  Granted, this was largely because of the luxury/limitation of having LeBron James, but a head coach’s primary job is the big-picture game plan.  He is the implementer (and sometimes architect) of the identity.  He must have clear, practical ideas at both ends.  Otherwise, he’s just a high-functioning assistant.

Past Performance Does Not Guarantee Future Results

This time last year, you needed to “fear the deer.”  Milwaukee finished the season 26-11 and were without question the feel-good story of the 2010 NBA season.  Even after losing Bogut to injury, they treated NBA watchers to some playoff excitement.  I found the atmosphere around Game 6 in Milwaukee eerily reminiscent of Game 6 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals.  There are really very few more exhilarating feelings in fandom than when your team surprisingly makes a leap into relevance.

Unfortunately, Game 6 in 2010 worked out the same way as Game 6 in 1994 — the upstart hosts fell, eventually losing the series.  Further, what felt like a launching pad turned into a short-lived peak that descended into the very disappointing valley this season has become for the Bucks and their fans.

Some of it is injuries.  Some of it was questionable offseason moves.  Some of it was just the fickle finger of fate.  What this underscores is the fragility of success — even progress — in the NBA.  When something is happening that seems special, or even magical, then it may very well be fleeting.

The 2011 Pacers have not been anywhere near as good or successful (or captured as many imaginations) as the 2010 Bucks, but they will make the playoffs, and that is important.  They cannot take that for granted.

Cap Space and Financial Flexibility Is Only As Valuable As What You Get With It

Though Milwaukee didn’t have nearly as much flexibility last summer as the Pacers will have after this season, they were still able to make some moves.  They traded to get veteran swingman Corey Maggette, added journeyman power forward Drew Gooden, and re-signed John Salmons, their deadline acquisition from the previous spring.

The problem isn’t so much that these moves are unexciting.  It’s that — with the exception of the Salmons re-signing — they don’t really make sense given Milwaukee’s apparent identity.  Maggette is a high-usage scorer and ball-stopper.  Drew Gooden is working on his tenth team, and his eighth in the last four seasons.  Neither has ever seemed integral — or even like a contributor — to their teams’ success.  Even Salmons is arguably problematic — a low-efficiency swing man who has shown flashes of winning basketball, but nothing he’s sustained.  Now, the Bucks are on the hook for a combined $80 million for these three guys in the seasons to follow this one.

Either Bird or his successor need approach the Pacers upcoming financial flexibility with a good understanding not only of who they want to be — their ideal identity — but of who they are now — their current identity.  It is imperative to comprehend the difference between the two and how to fill those gaps.

They can’t look at only at missing attributes and find players that have those skills.  They have to understand the attributes and the system that will give them their ideal identity.  The decision-makers will have to accurately decide who to keep and who to add and how those will all fit together within the framework of a team.

Milwaukee was looking for more offense, and they added capable offensive players in Maggette and Gooden.  However, those players, at least to me, are poor fits for the team.  They are disconnects in a game that is, at its core, about connections.

Again, the Pacers are experiencing “disconnects” of their own firsthand.  The current starting lineup of Collison/George/Granger/Hansbrough/Hibbert is arguably the most talented fivesome on the roster and would be considered the “line up of the future” by many fans and other observers.  However, it has been extremely unsuccessful.

Coming into last night’s game, that unit had been outscored by 45 points in their 245 minutes together.  They were poor defensively, allowing almost 111 points per 100 possessions.  Offensively, they only score only 100 per 100.

Their starts have been their downfall.  In 111 1st quarter minutes, they have been outscored by 59 points, “losing” 16 of the 24 1st quarter rotations they’ve played.  They score only 88 points per 100 in their stints at the start of the game, but they give up 116 per 100.

And it’s getting worse.  Looking at the seven games prior to the Milwaukee game (3/19 @ Memphis through 3/30 vs. Detroit), they’ve been outscored by 37 points in their 45 minutes on the floor in the opening stanza.  For every 100 possessions, they’ve scored 77 points while allowing 120.  Last night against Milwaukee, they had scored 10 points, made six turnovers, and trailed by two by the time Mike Dunleavy entered the game at the 4:18 mark of the first to break up the unit.

They simply don’t fit together.  Granger, Hibbert, Hansbrough, and Collison are all between 22% and 28% in usage, and Paul George largely stays out of the way.  Worst of all, they don’t have any connective tissue between their games.   When ISOs or mid-posts are called for Danny,  the other four stand and watch.  Same with post-ups for Hibbert or the pick-and-roll/pop action between Collison and Hansbrough.  They basically run one-option sets that are easily defensible.

The powers that be must understand whether this is a permanent issue or if it can evolve beyond the current state.  If it is more permanent — and I think there are limitations on how far these five players will be able to adapt to each other — then decisions must be made about how to adjust that situation.

This concept will be crucial in trades and free agent acquisitions.  The Pacers have issues at both ends of the court, but that doesn’t just mean that bringing in a scorer or a lock-down defender will fix the problem.  In fact, I’d argue that if you bring in another high-usage scorer, it will be absolutely necessary to move one of the current high usage players.

The Pacers have a lot of work to do, and a lot of decisions to make.

Though it’s crucial the front office, coaching staff, and players have a crystal clear understanding of themselves, they must not intently gaze at their own navels.  There’s a lot to be learned by looking up and around at what’s happening to other teams — and there may not be a better place to start than the once-progressing, now-stagnant Milwaukee Bucks.

Tags: Andrew Bogut Corey Maggette Game Recap John Salmons Mike Brown Milwaukee Bucks Scott Skiles

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