The Pacers Need to Figure Out Their Identity

Last Thursday in Washington, the Pacers came out with no energy and were down 20 by halftime to the 11-win Wizards. Indiana managed just 31 points in the opening two quarters. This, especially juxtaposed with the Wizards 34-point first quarter, looked like the classic case of a more talented team that thought they could just show up and win. Somewhat ironically, they did, coming back in thrilling fashion to pull off a victory in the final minute.

Some Pacer fans’ fears may have been confirmed the next night, however, as the team went out and surrendered 113 points to the then-sub.-500 Phoenix Suns during an up-tempo loss in Indianapolis. Combined, that back-to-back series wasn’t exactly the finest two days of the year for this franchise.

No matter. All was again right soon enough in Pacer Nation, as the blue and gold beat the mighty Miami Heat by 15 a few days later. It was easily their best win since they beat the NBA champion Mavericks in Dallas in early February. Time to start saving up for those second-round playoff tickets, right?

Of course, these are the 2011-12 Pacers so no good times can last forever.

In this case, they didn’t even last 48 hours.

Tonight, the Pacers turned a should-be, mundane victory over the Nets into a 16-point blowout loss. For New Jersey, it was their largest win of the year. For the Pacers, it was, according to their most-experienced player, quite possibly their lowest moment of the season.

If Pacers fans are confused, they’re not alone. David West was genuinely flummoxed after the game, literally shaking his head in disgust while staring at a post-game stat sheet that he apparently kept thinking might change. “This is a rough loss for us,” said West. “I don’t know if we’ve had a worse loss for the year … There’s just no excuse for us to come out and play the way we played.”

He struggled to come up with words to describe his frustration, something that was as visible in the locker room after the game as it was on the court when he was whistled for a foul after needlessly pushing Kris Humphries in the back under the hoop after the Nets made — yet another — easy basket in the fourth quarter. “This is a hard one to explain,” said West. “We just didn’t play well enough. We had an opportunity to put some [wins] together here. We’ve got back-to-backs for the next two weeks … so we just can’t come out and play like this against a team like the Nets. We’re the ones fighting for playoff position, and we’ve got something to play for. That’s just embarrassing.”

The team’s coach didn’t try to sugar-coat the effort issues either. “I think every team in the NBA has nights where the energy isn’t there — and that was certainly the case tonight,” said Pacers Coach Frank Vogel. “Am I concerned? Yeah. Any time you play like that, you’re concerned. But this team has played hard on most nights this season, and I expect them to play hard tomorrow night, too.”

Tomorrow, the Pacers play those Wizards that, as Vogel termed it, “gave us problems,” again. This time it’s in Indiana, but that might not matter if the team goes into auto-pilot like they did in the first half last week in DC or tonight in Newark.

Of course, it’s not just about energy. You can’t win in a league with this many great players if the effort isn’t there, but it’s rarely just about effort when you have actual talent, like this Indiana roster does. The coming-out-with-no-effort cliché is an easy excuse, even if it was certainly more of an actual explanation than an excuse this evening.

But the execution needs to be there as well. Trying won’t even win you a participation ribbon in the Association.

While I was looking at that same stat sheet that was so disturbing to West, I noticed that Roy Hibbert only took 7 shots tonight. Through my keen means of observation, I also noticed that the Nets start Sheldon Williams, who is listed at 6’9″, at center and were using Humphries at center late in the game at times to guard Hibbert. At the same time this was going on, Gerald Wallace was guarding West. Suffice it to say, the 7’2″ Hibbert should have had a decisive size advantage in the paint throughout his 29 minutes on the court.

I asked Vogel if Roy should have gotten more looks. Not necessarily was his basic answer, saying that the way New Jersey was defending him meant there were more opportunities for others. Unfortunately, he implied, Indiana didn’t exploit those chances.

“They made a decision they weren’t going to let [Roy] get going,” said Vogel. “When that happens, you can’t force it to him, you just have to swing the ball to the [weak] side and attack their weakness, where they’re bringing all the help from. We want to get Roy involved every single time we play, but if they’re going to take that away and make their weak side vulnerable then we’ve got to attack from the weak side.”

So while it’s easy to chastise an NBA team for a lack of energy and effort, it is often just as much a lack of execution that is a team’s downfall. These two are inextricably linked, of course, and — even on offense — you really can’t set the proper picks and flash to the right spots if you’re half-assing it. But proper execution can sometimes make up for a lack of effort.

We saw this just last week from this very Pacers team in Washington.

A key factor in their comeback win last Thursday was a series of offensive rebound tip-outs by David West. He continually kept the ball alive and on the Pacers offensive side of the court in the final minute of the game. It was all effort. But that likely would have all been for naught had they team not executed properly on a key, much-less-exciting possession about a minute earlier.

Indiana trailed by 4 with 1:53 left in the game and had the ball coming out of a timeout. Darren Collison dribbled it up to initiate the offensive set, which featured West setting a down-screen from the left elbow to the block for Granger. David caught Granger’s man, and Danny popped to the top of the key to easily catch a swing pass. As his man recovered, Hibbert came up to set a ball-screen and Granger drove into the lane. With his man again struggling through a pick, he was able to get the advantage and draw a foul from Chris Singleton. He made two free throws to cut the deficit to 2, in the process setting the stage for the dramatic, go-ahead Paul George three-pointer, Collison’s unlikely steal and West’s even-more-unlikely offensive rebounds.

After the game, West emphasized the importance of that play Granger made, in addition to some other nice sets that got Hibbert points in the paint, in the comeback win. “I thought that’s what was the difference,” said West. “We made the plays. We wanted to get Danny in that pick-and-roll up top. He was able to make a good play. Just executing with screens, motion and movement. Running your plays like that makes them have to collapse and shift.”

After that win, Danny echoed his teammate’s sentiments. “It was just execution,” said Granger. “We ran the play for me, I go attack … it was just simple. I get to the free-throw line and make two free throws.”

Granger was especially pleased by his team’s ability to convert down the stretch when they needed every bucket they got — plus a little luck — since this isn’t always the case throughout the game. “The last few minutes, our offensive execution was pretty good,” he said. “A lot of times, offensively, we’re not really in sync. But in crunch time, which is really important, it was good.”

All combined, this starts to paint a pretty clear picture: the Pacers often come out flat energy-wise against teams they think they should beat and expect to make enough plays to win. Perhaps it was early-season success making them over-confident. Perhaps it is the grueling — and it is grueling this season — “marathon,” as Vogel called it, of a schedule they are playing that causes lapses. Or perhaps it is just the natural inclination of the guys on the team.

Regardless, this seems to be a team whose two elder statesman completely understand the value of in-game execution, a team whose coach preaches “smash-mouth” effort as a mantra and a team that we’ve seen is capable of making enough plays to beat any team in this league. But it is also one that can’t be always bothered to show up enough even to best, as West said, “a team like the Nets.”

Ultimately, that should concern Pacers fans who are hoping to see this franchise win a playoff series for the first time since 2005. “We’ve got to figure out our identity,” said West. “We’ve had too many games like this. We’re setting ourselves up for failure in terms of just thinking that we can just come in and just basically lay an egg but play well enough to get a win.”

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Tags: Introspection

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