Indiana's Starters Aren't Starting Well

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Last season, the Indiana’s starters — “The Five” — took the league by storm, playing at a level of dominance that is rarely seen by individual five-man units.

The collective of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert became the Pacers’ superstar. Even though many people believed that the Heat had the three best players in the Eastern Conference Finals last season (although the leaps of George and Hibbert have made that argument hard to support now), Indiana came within one game of sending home one of the greatest players ever to play basketball.

One quick way to see just how good the starters played is to look at the team’s quarter-by-quarter net rating (the number of points per 100 possessions by which they out-score their opponents).

2012-13

With The Five logging heavy minutes in the first and third quarters, Indiana dominated the opposition, outscoring them by 7.0 and 8.7 points per 100 possessions, respectively, in these periods. Those are the numbers amassed by the team no matter who was on the court, however. When it was just the starters, the rate of dominance increased to 13.3 and 14.3 points per 100 in the first and third quarters.

Early this year, we saw more of the same.

Led by The Five, Indiana dominated first quarters. And in third quarters? The utterly destroyed opponents, with the starters outscoring the competition by an utterly insane rate of 31.8 points per 100 possession through 116 minutes.

2013-14 First 20

While the third quarter is when the starters were at the best early this year, it really didn’t matter when they took the court together. Except for the lull in the few minutes The Five logged together in second quarters (when they were actually outscored by 0.3 points per 100), it was tough for the other team to survive.

Something has changed of late, however.

Starting with Indiana’s blow-out loss in Oklahoma City, the starters have not been starting off games well. Check the numbers.

2013-14 Last 14

As we see in the chart above, the team has been outscored by 5.6 points per 100 in first quarters while going 10-4 since December 8. And this is almost entirely due to the starters getting smacked around; in their last 110 first-quarter minutes, The Five has been outscored by a whopping 10.7 points per 100 possessions.

We have seen it all over the scoreboard.

Last 14 - First

The Pacers have trailed in six of their past 14 games after one quarter, and that doesn’t include their poor performances in several opening periods in which they’ve managed to eek out a meager lead despite playing badly (in Brooklyn, vs. Boston, at Cleveland).

Now, Indiana has recovered in most of these game, often blowing out the opposition. And the record during this stretch (10-4) certainly speaks for itself, and let’s not forget that Indiana has won eight of its last nine after a short stretch of mediocrity. They have also continued to kick hell out of everyone in third quarters.

But the numbers remain somewhat troubling, especially when you note that the starters have also been getting dominated in the fourth. The minute count (40 minutes in 14 games) is low enough that an anomaly or two (or just some pointless, late-game “comebacks” by desperate opponents) could be skewing the results, but getting outscored at that rate to start and finish the game is not ideal.

Nor is it characteristic of one of the best starting lineups the league has seen in recent years.

I’m sure there are reasons for the decline. Other teams are juiced to play the Pacers this year, especially after this fast start to the season. It’s also possible that The Five has learned to pace itself a little better, understanding that the regular season is a marathon and ultimately less important than the playoffs.

Like Michael Jordan’s famous 1990s Bulls teams, The Five often comes out in the third quarter and throws down the gauntlet. Over time, the cream rises to the top, and The Five in the long run will still beat just about anyone else.

Still, one has to wonder how much different things might look were The Five to once again start coming out and giving their bench a lead to work with in the second quarter. How much better could guys like C.J. Watson and Luis Scola be able to perform if they could simply nurse a healthy lead as opposed to fighting and clawing to get the Pacers back into a game?

Until the weak early starts lead to more loses (like the one we saw against Detroit), this is more just something to keep an eye on than a true concern, but as we saw against the Raptors last night, even the defense can be shaky at times late in games. So the Pacers — and especially The Five — need to make sure they focus on starting and finishing games better if they want to keep piling up the wins against tougher competition.

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