The proximate causes of the Pacers’ game one loss have been well discussed. Missed shots, turnovers, missed free throws, and a four-minute scoreless stretch to end the game by Indy conspired with a couple of plays beautifully designed by Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy to give home court advantage to the underdog Magic. However, to me, most of those were just things that happened. Disappointing, sure, and certainly harmful to the Pacer playoff goals, but I didn’t find them particularly troubling. I was more bothered by the way the game was played than by any individual plays. Specifically, it bothered me how slowly this game was played.
Past as Prologue
The Pacers were supposed to handle the shorthanded — and just plain short — Magic in short order. When 8p9s posted our predictions, we weren’t any more optimistic about Indiana’s advantage than most third-party projections. A “gentleman’s sweep” was widely predicted. And 8p9s, I, and the rest of the NBA prognosticating world made that prediction despite Orlando’s 3-1 record over Indiana in the regular season series. There was one very clear and valid reason: those games had Dwight Howard, and these games would most certainly not.
So, it was pretty much my worst-case scenario when I found myself watching a game on Saturday night that looked very much like the regular season contests between these squads. In fact, it had an almost startling resemblance a game played on another Saturday night way back in February. The night before the Super Bowl, Orlando beat Indy 85-81 in a game where the Pacers held the Magic to only 92 points per hundred possessions but could muster only 88 per themselves. You’ll forgive me thinking I’ve seen a ghost when I watch Orlando win 81-77 in a game during which they were held to a little over 92 per, but only permitted the Pacers to score 88 per hundred.
All night long, all I could think was, “Too slow.”
When asked about it on Sunday, Paul George acknowledged that the players felt it, too. “Yeah. We wanted to make [running] an emphasis,” he said. “Coming into the game, we wanted to run more and really challenge them to guard us in the open court. They did a good job of running to get back.”
This was a common refrain among the Pacer players. “We do have to continue to push the pace a little bit more,” said Darren Collison. “We’ve got to use our speed to our advantage. We played right into Orlando’s hands with that type of pace.”
Danny Granger said the Pacers had discussed tempo after the loss. “Honestly, [tempo] was another issue that we talked about why we lost.”
Your Move, Pacers
Pacer coach Frank Vogel touched on this subject before the game on Saturday. “Tempo is always important,” he said. “No matter who we’re playing, we want to run. Stan Van Gundy is one of the best coaches in the NBA. He has his team prepared — no matter who’s in uniform — to handle what your team’s strengths are. It’s going to be a series of adjustments.”
And after losing home court advantage a mere 48 minutes into the postseason, it is Vogel’s Pacers who have to make the first adjustments. My instinct gravitated towards speeding up the game, because it seemed more in line with what made the Pacers successful this season. But on Sunday, Granger outlined the pitfalls of relying too heavily on a half-court attack at this time of year.
“In the playoffs, everybody knows everyone’s plays,” said Danny. ” You know what’s coming before it even happens, and the only thing that separates the teams is the ability to execute.”
That response was specifically regarding the Pacers’ lack of execution in their half-court offense, but it also dovetails into the idea of pace. Granger continued. “We like to push the break, and when we don’t, and we rely on the half-court offense, especially in the playoffs, when the defense is so locked into what you’re doing, it makes it even more difficult to score.”
So, the obvious adjustment is to play faster. The question is, “How?”
Is That All?
I asked, and the first few answers I got didn’t fill me with confidence. George Hill’s response: “I don’t know. We’ve just got to continue to play. I don’t think there’s anything we can do to keep changing a lot of things. We’ve just got to play basketball and hope everything works out for the best.”
On Saturday night, Collison and Leandro Barbosa both spoke non-specifically about playing with speed. Their comments pretty much foreshadowed Paul George’s statement on Sunday afternoon, “It’s going to take more or a commitment on running and speeding the tempo up,” said George.
Once, in a performance review at work, my manager told me that one thing I need to improve upon was my patience. When I asked for direction on ways I could enhance that skill, I was answered with a shrug. “Well, you know. You should just … you know … be more patient.” Discussing how the Pacers could dictate the tempo for the rest of the series strongly reminded me of this.
Vogel’s take was both more of the same, but also something else. “We’ve got to commit to the running game,” the coach said. But then he went on. “We’ve come and gone with that throughout the year. When we’ve run, we’ve been lethal. We didn’t run last night. You try to play half-court basketball against a great defensive team like [the Magic] are, and you’re gonna struggle.”
My background is in operational planning and analysis. My instinct is to look for a concrete plan of action and mistrust generic platitudes. However, I’ve also learned that sometimes a generic platitude is simply the easiest, most direct way of stating the truth. And the truth is that the Pacers need to commit to the running game.
But, still, as I walked away from the Pacer coach on Sunday afternoon, I asked Fox Sports Indiana’s Chris Denari, “Is it really that simple?” He shrugged, and brought up players not running with the point guards. “Early in the game, I thought they looked to create transition opportunities,” said Denari, “but after awhile, George [Hill] saw nobody was coming with him, so he started walking the ball up.”
This problem has plagued the Pacer transition game all year long, and it fits with Vogel’s characterization that their commitment to running has “come and gone.”
However, Denari didn’t dismiss the Pacers’ need to “commit” out of hand. In fact, after speaking to him, I came to conclude that the problem was actually less about the practical, concrete mechanics of the Pacer running game. While there are areas like defensive rebounding and outlet passing and awareness that can be improved, the limiting factor on tempo really is commitment. They just don’t consistently prioritize dictating the tempo.
Who Do You Want To Be?
The players all see the value of running. Many are well aware that they actually play better in an uptempo game. Vogel is a true believer in tempo. If you spend any amount of time speaking to the man, it becomes readily apparent that he is a philosophical disciple of Rick Pitino. So what’s the obstacle?
Well, it can be found in something that appears to be a conflict, but really doesn’t need to be. In my opinion, it’s driven by the self-imposed cognitive dissonance of a team whose identity is really more of an idea than a fact.
When Paul George spoke about more commitment to the running game, he didn’t stop there. “But at the same time, we’ve got two power post guys,” he said, “and we definitely want to play through them.”
The “power post guys” are, of course, Roy Hibbert and David West. Neither of these two are going to change ends quickly, and the natural instinct is to assume that more uptempo means less Roy and David. And that concern, particularly when playing against a small team like Orlando, hinders the commitment to running.
Sometimes, interesting things can be inferred from the way someone answers a question. I had spent most of the media availability session Sunday asking Pacer players about how they could speed up the game. Each response informed how I questioned the next interviewee. By the time Danny was available, the conflict between pace and power post was near the forefront of my mind.
I asked Danny if he thought there was a tug-of-war between the fact that Indiana has an advantage when they run, and an advantage in the post. “You have to balance it,” he said. “Because if you get heavy doses of either one without the other, it will be bad news for you.”
And there I had it. The quote that nicely rounded out my preconceived conclusion. The Pacers had fallen in love with the post too much on Saturday, and by getting away from an important part of their game, put themselves in a position to lose.
Then, however, Granger kept speaking,
“[But] I think if we just constantly run the ball up and get quick shots, and tried to take ‘em in transition, we wouldn’t be taking advantage of Roy, 7-2, and David. They don’t have really big post players, and that’s our advantage in the series.”
I had just outlined the Pacers’ five fastbreak points and the fact that Orlando dictated the pace. Granger had just agreed that Indy’s inability to push the tempo was a contributing factor to the loss. Yet, when Danny talked about the need for balance, his expressed fear was about running too much.
The Power of And
This piece started out to be both a plea to the Pacers to play faster, and a dire warning of the consequences of allowing Orlando to control the pace in this series. However, as I listened over and over to what the Pacer players and coaches were saying and thinking, and bounced ideas off of others, I was forcefully reminded of a few things.
First, this team is only 12 months removed from being an 8th seed with a losing record. One of their most important players — David West — has only been a Pacer for five months. Their starting point guard has only had the job for about three weeks, and their backup point guard got almost no meaningful time with second unit due to injury. Their best bench scorer — Leandro Barbosa — has been a Pacer for about six weeks.
However, most importantly, they have never had a real training camp or offseason with their coach. Vogel was hired on an interim basis, and by the time his job became officially permanent, the players were locked out.
This is a team still trying to figure out who and what they are. Their outstanding regular season performance has probably obscured the fact that their actual identity is still a work in progress. In some ways, I’m not even sure that they collectively understand what they want to be. West said so directly, although in a different context, less than two months ago.
I think Vogel clearly knows this, but his players are still adapting. I’m sure that if you were to ask Vogel if he wanted his team to be a “power post, smash-mouth” basketball team, or an uptempo team that changes ends quickly, his answer would be simple: “Yes.”
To Frank Vogel, the two are not mutually exclusive. He wants an uptempo power post team. And I agree with him that this would maximize this team’s chances to win. I mean, I spent the 1980s watching the Lakers and the Celtics win eight titles doing exactly that.
In a lot of ways, the Pacers are the team equivalent of Paul George: young, bright, and talented with a diverse skill set. They are more talented than a lot of their opponents, but they still need to become better than their opponents. They have to grow into what they can become, and to do that, they have to embrace “The Power of And.” They need to hold seemingly contradictory styles as equals, and learn how to blend them together. Running first doesn’t mean running most.
This is one area where Orlando has Indiana at a disadvantage. The Magic know who they are, and how they have to play to succeed. The Pacers, to a degree, are fighting themselves. If they shy away from one advantage (pushing the tempo) for fear of damaging another (their size and post presence) then Indiana is doing part of Orlando’s job for them.
Down 1-0 to the Magic, the rest of this series becomes not only one of adjustments, but also on-the-job training for a team trying to get from the things they do to the things they really should.