“Everybody goes through this,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said last week after San Antonio manhandled Indiana, 103-77, on the Pacers’ home court. “I’m not worried about them. They’ll still make it to the Eastern Conference finals and they’ll still play Miami.”
Parker is somewhat right. From time to time, every championship contender has a stretch during a season where they look ordinary. Addled. Even awful at times.
Last month, the Miami Heat lost three in a row and seven of 11, including a home contest to Denver and a visit to New Orleans after which Chris Bosh plainly said, “We suck.”
The Oklahoma City Thunder welcomed back Russell Westbrook as they came out of the All-Star break and immediately lost three straight and five of eight, including a home loss to Cleveland and a road setback to the L.A. Lakers. The Houston Rockets were a pedestrian 8-8 in December, losing at home and on the road to Sacramento, at Utah and being blasted at Oklahoma City and Indiana.
Even the Spurs, who have been the model of consistency for a generation, had a stretch starting in late January where they lost three in a row and five of nine. It included a loss to Detroit and unimpressive narrow wins over Sacramento, New Orleans and Charlotte.
But those teams snapped out of their funks much quicker than the Pacers, who have been relatively reeling for almost two months and are showing no signs of finding a solution. And with the playoffs less than two weeks away, that is a major issue.
On Feb. 7, Indiana outlasted Portland in a home overtime win to improve to 39-10. When Miami lost the next day, the league-leading Pacers held a four-game lead in the loss column over the Heat and a two-game cushion over the Thunder. They are just 14-15 since and have dropped four slots into a tie for fifth (in the loss column) with the Rockets.
Recently, it has been even worse. Indiana has lost eight of 11, scoring 100 points just once and averaging 83.7 points. There have been road losses to New York, Washington and Cleveland and Sunday’s abominable home loss to Atlanta in which coach Frank Vogel benched his entire starting five in the first quarter and All-Star center Roy Hibbert for the entire second half.
The extended slump has local media suggesting that Pacers president Larry Bird – the architect of this squad who coached the franchise to its only Finals appearance 14 years ago – might just replace Vogel on the bench. Less than a week ago, that was an April Fool’s joke.
Keep in mind, however, that Bird – as the architect – signed Andrew Bynum as a free agent and swapped Danny Granger for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen, tinkering with a chemistry that was among the best in the league in a quest for more firepower on offense, where the Pacers struggle at times.
Bynum has become the same dead end that he was in Philadelphia and Indiana, Allen has played a grand total of 56 minutes since his arrival and Turner has not matched Granger’s limited production, let alone anything near the career-best output he was providing in Philadelphia.
Upon returning from injury this season – and willingly accepting a bench role due to the emergence of wings Paul George and Lance Stephenson – Granger averaged 8.3 points and shot just 36 percent in 29 games. Since his arrival in Indiana, Turner is averaging 6.6 points on 39 percent shooting in 23 games.
Over the last dozen games, Turner has been even worse, averaging a measly 4.0 points on 30 percent (21-of-70) from the field. He has not reached double figures once and has two donuts.
And there’s no need to delve into analytics or advanced metrics, either. Granger primarily stood in the corner as a floor stretcher; Turner relies on ball-stopping isolation. Granger was a respected veteran voice in the locker room; Turner is a young, cocky new voice among a close-knit group.
Given where the Pacers were at the time and where they wanted to be, the trade had to be made. And Turner – or Vogel, or Bird – shouldn’t be the lone fall guy for Indiana’s issues. There are plenty of candidates.
George’s shooting percentage has dropped every month. Hibbert has looked tired and ineffectual. Luis Scola has scored more than 11 points once since Christmas. Donald Sloan has not been a capable replacement for injured backup point guard C.J. Watson.
But most important, the Pacers have shown that their mental toughness is nowhere near their physical toughness.
If it was, Hibbert wouldn’t be calling out teammates in the media as “selfish dudes.” Vogel wouldn’t be telling his players to “shut up.” Stephenson and George Hill wouldn’t be having a heated argument broken up by teammates. And Bird wouldn’t be openly criticizing his coach’s style as “too positive.”
With a visit to Miami and a nationally televised home game vs. Oklahoma City this weekend, Indiana will be under a microscope. Everyone will be watching for the telltale signs of a team in turmoil – bad body language, bickering, selfish play, quick hooks from the coach and finger-pointing.
So it doesn’t matter if Tony Parker believes the Pacers can get “through this.”
The Pacers have to believe it.
TRIVIA: Who has the highest career free-throw percentage without ever leading the league? Answer below.