With their win over the Utah Jazz, the Indiana Pacers went a step further towards their coach’s goal of stringing together a series of wins after the All Star break. Frank Vogel was hoping that his team could recapture some of the early season magic that was seeming a little lost to a team that had gone 7-5 over the final few weeks heading into the break. Six wins in seven tries should seem to fill the bill.
But, it’s not really feeling all that magical. Those six wins came against five teams who have barely managed to win a third of their games. The lone loss was a 13-point defeat in Minnesota, where the Pacers trailed virtually wire-to-wire. Of greater concern is this: Other than a 20-point blowout of the injured and hapless Lakers, all of the recent wins have been much more difficult than they needed to be.
And that creates a rare – and somewhat perverse – situation where a five-game winning streak actually raises the question, “How worried should we be about the Pacers?”
But, inside the Pacer locker, there’s a different view. “I actually feel like we’re playing pretty well,” coach Frank Vogel said before Sunday’s game vs. Utah. “As I watch it on tape, I honestly think that these teams — despite their records — are really playing above themselves. Throwing in a lot of shots that they don’t normally make, against good defense. I think you just see that at certain points of the season. I thought we played as hard in the Boston game as we’ve played all year, and I was pretty impressed with our performance.”
After eking out a victory over Utah, Vogel said he was very proud of his guys. “A quality win,” he said. “A mental toughness win.”
That’s comforting, in as far as it goes. It serve Vogel little to say his team is playing badly. Further, it would be largely out of character for someone who has established himself most certainly as a “glass half-full” kinda guy.
The numbers tell a mixed story. Since the All-Star break, the Pacers have scored almost 106 points per hundred, which is well above average offense, and the defense has remained a relatively stout 99.7. However, context — both competition and the Pacers’ lofty standards this season — make both of those numbers feel vaguely disappointing.
“Because we got of to a good start,” said David West on Sunday, “I think folks may look at us only beating some of these teams by a few points here and there, that we’re not playing well, but, it’s just a part of the NBA.”
There is some merit to that. It is hard to watch what is probably the best defensive team in basketball and not expect them to be invincible. It is impossible to watch the Pacers play teams that already have more losses than Indiana could possibly get this season, and not expect them to run away and hide. On paper, these games were already won.
But, the NBA isn’t played on paper. The NBA is a grind — especially in February and March. In the NBA, everybody has some talent – though I’ll reserve judgment on the 76ers for the moment. The combination of the two makes on paper expectations unreliable, and on court results hard to judge and impossible to translate to different competition.
Pacer star Paul George echoed his coach’s sentiments. “I feel like we’re playing well,” he said. “Being out there, it just feels like they’re playing their best basketball when they’re playing against us.”
Being “the hunted” is a common refrain. “We’re playing against professionals,” West reminded reporters. “These other teams have pride. Teams are going to use how they play against us as a measuring stick.”
For that reason, West isn’t being picky. “We’re gonna take the wins as they come,” he laughed. “Regardless of whether its ugly, pretty, blowout, close, last second — we just wanna win the game.”
And that is ultimately the only sensible approach. It is hard to win in the Association, and you can drive yourself crazy by trying to count style points. Still, that doesn’t mean the manner in which you win is entirely unimportant. This Pacer team has the highest of goals, and they always have to be mindful of playing at a championship level.
So, are they?
The Pacers will tell you, “Yes and no.”
Paul George doesn’t think there’s a problem defensively. “We feel like our defense — there’s nothing different than how we were playing, when we were holding teams to 70 or 80 points,” George commented. “It just feels like we’re getting the best out of teams.”
After Thursday’s win, Vogel didn’t think the Bucks’ 12-for-24 performance from 3-point range was indicative of bad defense. “Guys like O.J. Mayo and [Brandon] Knight and [Khris] Middleton, they’re looking you in the eyes, and pulling shots in your face. You could argue some of them are bad shots, but they’re making them.”
Paul George touched on the same theme after the Utah game. “Again, this team shot a lot of jump shots, and they made a lot of contested jump shots,” he explained. “It’s just about teams being hot. That’s how I see it.”
That could be true, but it also sounds awfully close to excuse making. But, let’s take a look.
This shot chart does indicate a team getting a lot of mileage out of some low efficiency areas of the court. It is also worth mentioning that, while 91 points feels like a lot against the Pacer defensive standards, the Jazz managed only 97 points per 100 — a mark below what the second-best defense in the league has allowed this year.
Looking further indicates there could be some merit to Pacer claims that “teams are getting hot” and giving “their best against the Pacers. First, take a look at the Pacer defensive shot chart from before the All-Star break:
Now, take a look at the seven games after the break:
Opponents are shooting almost four percentage points better post-break, but all of that growth is coming on jump shots, something that seemingly supports some of the conclusions made by Vogel and George. Indiana is actually defending the rim better (46.8% vs. 49.2%) over the last seven games.
However, from 16 feet to the 3-point line, Pacer foes have drained a ridiculous 50% of their attempts. They’ve been even hotter on corner threes — notching 19 of their 35 attempts (54.2%). Those compare to 38.3% and 34.1%, respectively, before the All-Star Game. The difference in success on those shot zones adds about 7 points per game to the opponent’s box score. The sheer level of this success screams “unsustainable.”
But, of course, this isn’t all hot hand. There are Pacer defensive lapses that contribute at least some to the issue.
“Defensively, we’re not as sharp as we have been,” West admitted. “Teams are scoring a little too high for us, in terms of numbers, but we’ve been able to win, in spite of that.”
But, how much of it is lack of sharpness, and how much is it teams figuring ways to be successful against the Pacer defense? One of the side effects of being “the hunted” is that teams pay attention to your game in great detail. Prior to Sunday night’s game, Utah coach Ty Corbin said that the attention paid to Indiana wasn’t just to learn how to defeat their defense, but also to emulate it.
“Yeah, you study it,” Corbin acknowledged. “You study what they’re successful with, although the personnel is different. You want to understand what they did and what they’re trying to take away, and how they play situations. If you can use some of the things with the personnel that you have — that is working for them and working in this league — you can steal some ideas from them.”
The heightened focus the Pacers receive as one of the best teams in the league doesn’t just mean opponents play harder or better against them. It also means that opponents put far more attention into understanding the Pacers and how they succeed.
West sees teams adjusting. “Obviously, teams try to run us. Teams are playing pick-and-roll against us,” he noted. “We’ve responded at times, you know, not so great, and, at times, we’ve been OK. That’s just what it is. Teams have scouted us. They’ve loaded up on Paul. They’ve loaded against Lance. We’ve just got to continue to adjust as they adjust.”
And because of that, the Pacers aren’t just tested when they play the Heat, the Spurs, or the Thunder; they’re tested pretty much every night. This is a phenomenon welcomed by the Pacers.
“These younger teams are coming in full of energy, and we’re getting challenged,” West continued, “but it’s good for us. As long as we just continue to practice our habits — we’re trying to get better defensively, trying to improve offensively, tie new guys in — with all that, if we’re getting wins, we’re in good shape.”
A schedule that appeared “easy” on paper for the last couple of weeks now turns “hard.” The 36-24 Golden State Warriors visit the Fieldhouse on Tuesday, followed by a three-game road trip featuring the Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday and a weekend trip to Texas, where the Rockets and Mavs await.
The testing continues.
Tags: Winning The Wrong Way