Other than Skip Bayless refusing to call Chris Paul a “superstar,” the most ridiculous thing to happen so far during the NBA playoffs was Atlanta’s dismantling of the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of their first round series. It’s not really even surprising based on Indiana’s play over the last two months, but it’s just ridiculous. How could the top-seed in the East lose to a team who finished with only 37 wins.
Atlanta isn’t a bad team. They have a lot of good players, and they showed up in game one, but let’s not forget the Hawks lost 45 games this season. Atlanta has a ton of weaknesses. They’re not better than the Pacers, but they played much better on Saturday.
Atlanta has players who pose some problems for Indiana, particularly Jeff Teague. The Pacers struggle against productive point guards in the pick-and-roll. David West and Roy Hibbert aren’t as comfortable against point guards who can come right at them and score like Teague has the ability to do. Teague was the difference on Saturday and will have to play that good or better if Atlanta really wants to steal this series.
As much as Game 1 was about Atlanta playing well, it was mostly about the Pacers not being able to get out of their own way. I know it’s cliché, but the Pacers are their own worst enemy.
You can see it on their faces and in their eyes. They have no confidence in themselves or in each other. When they make a good play, get a steal, or make a shot, it’s almost like a feeling of relief rather than excitement.
Offensively, the Pacers have been doomed before they even get into an offensive set. It’s not like Atlanta is running some tricky defense or anything. They’re packing the paint and making the Pacers shoot jumpers. The Pacers don’t do themselves any favors by walking the ball up the court or standing around gawking at each other after Indiana scores. Then, once they get the ball up the court, Hill, Stephenson, George, or Turner hold the ball for about 15 seconds before starting any kind of offense. Everything after that is just force, force, force offensively. I lost track of all the times Geroge, Stephenson, or Turner took on double teams and triple teams and turned it over or missed the shot. It’s just bad basketball.
The Pacers need to find that trust level between each other again and get some ball movement going. Spread the Hawks out, swing it around the top, and then drive. I guarantee the lanes will be much more open. Right now, the Pacers are basically the New York Knicks with Navy and Gold uniforms instead of Blue and Orange. Somewhere in the last two months, Indiana lost its identity and forgot how to play basketball.
Where did this all go so wrong? Is this the result of becoming “too good” too quickly? Did the Pacers start to believe the hype?
A lot of people, including me, thought the Pacers had a great shot of making the NBA Finals. Miami is a year older. Indiana came so close last year, and their core group of players seemed like they had such good chemistry. You have to wonder if the Pacers started to think they were a lot better than they actually were. Like a child star actor, actress, or musician, it seems the Pacers were too young and inexperienced to handle the expectations, attention, and fame. The Indiana Pacers are basically the Justin Bieber of the NBA right now.
You also have to wonder about the moves to upgrade the roster during the season. How important was Danny Granger to this team? Could Andrew Bynum really be a cancer in the locker room?
To me, those are valid questions, but the Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner acquisitions sent a message to the team from the front office: “We don’t think you’re good enough to win the title with this group of guys.”
I think that’s the most important aspect in all of this, and most people have overlooked it. The organization tried to make a move to make the team better, but in doing so, the team saw it as a slight, a slap in the face, and their already fragile confidence started to dwindle. It’s the only reasonable explanation for how far the Pacers have plummeted since the beginning of the season.
And yet, here we are, going into Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs.
I don’t know how many times a favored team lost the first game of a series, was subsequently crushed by the media, and then went on to win the series. It seems like Miami has at least a couple of those slip-ups every playoffs. Indiana is not out of it yet, but they’re as close as a team could be to being in panic mode without actually being in panic mode. Sure, they’re desperate for some confidence, but there’s no need for panic just yet, unlike a lot of people like to believe. There’s obviously some deep, deep problems in Indiana’s locker room, but other teams have had similar problems and eventually figured it out. Luckily for Indiana, there is still time.
Heading into Game 2 on Tuesday night, the Pacers have to find a way to put it all together and be effective as a cohesive unit.
That’s going to start on the defensive end. Hibbert and West have to be better at protecting the rim. Atlanta has three-point shooters all over the court, so Hibbert and West have to leave the paint to be able to contest shooters, but they also have to be able to help contest shots at the rim. It’s a tough matchup for the Pacers, but maybe Coach Vogel has to go into the bench and bring out guys like Rasual Butler, Chris Copeland, or LaVoy Allen, longer, athletic guys who can play both outside and inside, if need be.
The Pacers also need to use their defense to force turnovers and get out in transition. Because they’re not a good offensive team, Indiana needs to utilize the transition game to get some easy buckets. The ball has to get out of the net and up the court, then if George wants to hold it at the top, that’s fine, but at least you got it up the court and had an opportunity to get an easy basket.
Most importantly, the Pacers can’t force their offense. George and Stephenson shooting contested heat-check 3s and long 2s are not going to cut it. Taking on double and triple teams on the drive isn’t going to win the game. Atlanta isn’t that good of a defensive team. Indiana just needs to be patient. Under this much scrutiny and pressure, being patient is very difficult but it is what Indiana needs to do.
Game 2 on Tuesday is the most important game of the season for the Pacers. They talked about all those regular season games against Miami and how they were must-win games. Now, their backs are truly against the wall, and Game 2 is a must-win for the Pacers. Losing Tuesday and giving Atlanta a two-game lead in the series would all but eliminate Indiana from the playoffs. It’d be nearly impossible to win four out of five games with three home games left for Atlanta, if the Pacers were to lose Game 2.
Finally, there is some “real” adversity in Pacer-land and this NBA season. Let’s see how the Pacers respond.