(Photo: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports)

The Pacers’ Struggle: It’s the Defense, Stupid


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The Indiana Pacers are 1-4 against teams with .500 or better records since the All-Star break. If you count a loss to the Dallas Mavericks in their final game before the break, the Pacers are actually 1-5 in their last six games against teams at .500 or better.

Such a winning percentage, which was publicized today by John Schuhmann of NBA.com in the above chart, is bad enough in and of itself. Way, way, way worse are the offensive and defensive statistics from these five performances.

In the five games Schuhmann included in this research (losses to Minnesota, Golden State, Houston and Dallas, and a win against Chicago on Friday), the Pacers have posted a pathetic 96.4 points per 100 possessions, the lowest of the 15 teams shown on the list and a scoring rate that is worse than the season-long proficiency of every team in NBA except the historically bad 76ers.

On the other side of the ball, they’re giving up 105.3 points per 100, which is nearly 10 points/100 worse than their season-long number (95.5).

I mean …

It’s often disingenuous to use just a single number or two to define a team. But what more do we really need right now to show just how poorly the Pacers have been playing against good teams? They can’t score and they can’t defend. If you’ve been watching these games, that fact has been pretty obvious and these numbers only back up the eye test.

The one other interesting number, and one I don’t often spend a lot of time thinking about, is Indiana’s pace. In these five games, it has been just 90.6, which again is the lowest of any team on this list and about 5 possessions per 48 minutes slower than their season-long average of 95.5.

The Pacers are a slow-playing team. Only 10 teams in the league play slower. But this rate is just sloth-like. For reference, on a season-long basis, the Grizzlies are the slowest-playing team in the league with a rate of 92.2 possessions per 48 minutes. That’s a glacial pace — and Indiana has been playing significantly slower than that in the five games in question.

Now, this is a small sample size. So weird quirks could be throwing off the number, and one of the Pacer games in this sample was against those Grizzlies while another was against the Bulls, which rank 29th in pace. But the other three contests were against the Wolves (4th fastest), Warriors (5th), and Rockets (8th).

Maybe we should be giving Indiana credit for slowing down these teams that prefer quick play? Then again, one of the reasons you try to force the other team to play your style is because it gives you a better chance to win. Instead, what we have is the Pacers continually mucking up the game and slowing down the pace — only to still lose.

So we know exactly what we’re talking about, here are the pace numbers for each of the games.

MIN – 107.7
HOU – 93.3
DAL – 90.2
CHI – 91.8
MEM – 83.8

Looking at that, there are two outliers (Wolves and Grizz), but the Pacers have been playing very slowly overall against good teams since the All-Star break. This compares to an overall post-All-Star pace number of 94.6 in 18 games.

I don’t really know what to take away here. Indiana has largely been playing bad no matter what since the break, but the slower play against Houston, Dallas, and Memphis didn’t seem to help matters at all. It also sort of flies in the face of the idea that Indiana just isn’t working the shot clock long enough and instead settling for early-in-the-clock jumpers.

In fact, the Pacers haven’t been shooting more jumpers at all, no matter the clock situation. Here is a breakdown of their shot distribution by court region before and after the All-Star break.

Pre-All-Star Break

preAS

Post-All-Star Break

postAS

As we can see, since the All-Star Game, Indiana has taken 36.6% of its field-goal attempts from inside the paint compared to 22.2% from 3-point range. Before the All-Star Game, it was 35.6% from the paint vs. 23.9% from deep.

Ultimately, while there is some significance in the distribution difference, these numbers are still pretty close. Moreover, where the Pacers are shooting from hasn’t affected their overall offensive potency.

Before the All-Star break, Indiana scored 102.2 points per 100 possessions; since they are at 102.0 points per 100. This YouTube quote from My Cousin Vinny that I so love isn’t completely accurate but these offensive numbers are …

OK. Nearly identical.

Don’t get me wrong: A number is just a number and it can’t account for the what my eye test will admit is an increasing listlessness that has crept into the Pacers’ offense, particularly as Paul George’s ability to create good looks for himself has fallen off a cliff and Roy Hibbert has continued his battle against struggle ball.

But if Indiana is scoring at the same rate it was before the break, why are they now seemingly unable to beat quality opponents? And why are they struggling to win against even the dregs of the league?

It’s the defense stupid.

Just look at that number above in Schuhman’s chart: 105.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. For an offensively challenged team that needs to be dominant on the other end to beat good teams, it should be no surprise that the Pacers can’t beat high-level competition by simply playing ordinary defense.

This is a team that built it’s impressive 40-12 record before the All-Star game on the strength of a defense that was, at the time, surrendering just 93.6 points per 100. Historic stuff. Since then, against all opponents, it has been a very-good-but-not-unheard-of 100.8 points per 100. And as noted, against the five best teams the Pacers have faced since the break, they are allowing a straight-up-bad 105.3 per 100.

If the defensive slide were coming against bad to mediocre teams (the Bostons, Philadelphias and Milwaukees that Indiana has beaten unimpressively in the past few weeks) then it might be easy to write this lack of defense off as simply the result of a team taking some nights off in an overly long 82-game season. Or if the number was inflated because Indiana got itself wrapped up in a few shootouts against the Warriors or Rockets, then maybe we could let it slide.

But neither of those explain this. This is the Pacers not even being able to dial it up against the better teams in the league — even while they are forcing those teams to play slow basketball. And that is infinitely more troubling.

The saving grace here could be when some of losses in question came.

The loss to the Wolves was on a back-to-back in just the Pacers’ second game after the break, so maybe they were still on mental vacation. The loss to the Grizzlies, too, was on a back-to-back. And the loss to the Rockets was just one of those games in which everything went wrong.

Perhaps.

Maybe.

Ya think?

Nah, that is just devil’s advocate talk. I don’t really buy any of it.

The simple fact is that Indiana hasn’t played even decent defense against the good teams it has played over the past six weeks — and, really, the problems go back further than that.

The Pacers can squabble about shot selection and whether the offense should go through the post rather than remaining in the hands of perimeter players, as Roy Hibbert so blisteringly argued last week.

But the problem is defensive.

The dominant Pacers we watched destroy all comers in November, December and much of January were a defensive juggernaut.

These guys we’re watching now? Eh. They’re OK, I guess.

Tags: Indiana Pacers Popular

  • Ian

    You probably can’t put this down to one player, but the statistics show pretty clearly that without Evan Turner on the floor, the Pacers are close to their first half selves in defense, and when he is on the floor, they are worse than Philly or Utah. And he certainly looks bad most of the time, getting repeatedly lost and leaving his man open for a 3.

    I imagine a big part of this is losing CJ. He’s a very good defensive point guard and not only are we missing him but it’s resulting in Turner often having to guard small, quick guards which he’s totally incapable of doing (he seems ok against larger guards, like his famous rejection of OJ Mayo).