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One of the great Magic Johnson's pet phrases was the concept of great players playing great in "winning time", which is what he referenced as the crucial times in games when the result is decided. By the numbers, our Pacers have been very competitive, and even in some cases outstanding, at many times during this young season, but during the Johnson's "Winning time", we have been sorely lacking.
Let me first acknowledge what most of us readily can see I think, which is that the Pacers are playing with hunger, desire, pride, and hard work. Their attitude is refreshing, their spirit is endearing, and their improvement is evident. Where hopelessness and malaise once lingered among our franchise, now a clear direction and plan now permeates thru the atmosphere of Pacer nation.
But, basketball like in life, is a bottom line business. The cold hard truth is that while we are playing better, and while we now all feel like this is a team we feel like we can get behind, this is still a flawed team with a alarming tendency to just get beat.....and we all know that losing is a contagious disease that is endangering our season by threatening to continue to rip our hearts out with all of these defeats snatched from the jaws of victory. This thread is going to be about what needs to happen so we can cash in our quality of play with a quality result. As Bill Parcells so eloquently puts it, "you are what your record says you are, period." ANd that makes us one of the bottom tier teams in the East as I type this today.
So, what needs to happen to make us more successful at "winning time"?
Here are some things I want to discuss and propose:
1. THE LACK OF A PREMIER INDIVIDUAL DEFENDER TO MAKE THE ABSOLUTE CRUCIAL STOP.
We have no one who is a clear above average defender as an individual at any position, particularly on the perimeter.
While it is clear that our overall team defense is much improved, and that the defensive statisticla metrics bear that out, I still have no confidence in our team to make the opponent do anything offensively that it doesnt want to do with the game on the line in the 4th quarter. When a team really focuses, it can get high quality shots from its very best players whenever it wants at the end of the game. This clearly is a problem.
In other words, our improved team defense, along with extreme effort and good coaching, has gotten us good enough to be IN most games with a chance to win, but our lack of talent and athleticism with the game on the line defensively is still an issue we can't get over most of the time.
Dallas scored at will last night in the last few minutes, scoring I believe on 7 straight possessions. Regardless of how well our defense may have played up til that point, we couldnt stop them when it counted.
SOLUTION: We still need to acquire this player, as he currently isnt on our roster. In reality, we need 2 of these type guys, one on the perimeter and one inside. Our problems in this regard aren't coaching, they arent effort, and they arent scheme....it is just a lack of talent and ability and skill. Having Daniels play instead of Dunleavy helps our defense somewhat, but when Marquis Daniels is your best defender you have problems. And inside, we have no consistent physical force who can play physical defense one on one with the game on the line, nor do we have an enforcer who can in the very least punish people who drive against us.
A perimeter defender is likely one you will not be able to draft, although early on I can tell you that I really like Louisville's Earl Clark. In reality however, the players we need to fit these roles likely are already in the league, and one of the things we should do as fans when we watch the rest of the season is to try and identify them.
Basically, we need the next generation of Derrick McKey and Dale Davis....a great perimeter defender, and an enforcer and screen setter. Until we get these type players we need to all calm down on the coaching staff, because without these type of players who can win you close games defensively, it is very difficult to come out on top no matter what you do.
2. WE NEED TO ADJUST OUR PACE OF PLAY TO PLAY SLIGHTLY SLOWER IN THE LAST 6 MINUTES, AND STILL BE ABLE TO BE SUCCESSFUL OFFENSIVELY.
This is always an extremely difficult task for a coaching staff, because no matter what you do you are open to criticism. If you push the tempo and take quick shots from the perimeter, and that style gets you the lead....if you change your methods with the lead and go on to lose, the message boards will go nuts complaining.
When you get the lead with 6 minutes to go, you need to not be conservative exactly, but you do need to be more careful and selective. The fewer possessions there are with you having the lead, it obviously is harder for the opponent to catch up.
Having said that, you can't get tentative and timid...you still want your team to have the relentless killer mentality. So how do you do accomplish all of this as a coach?
This is where, as a staff, it is vital that you get your team to execute set, designed plays to get your best players shots that YOU want them to take. By calling more set plays in the last 6 minutes, you control the tempo better, should limit turnovers, and should be able to get higher quality shots from your better players.
Think of this like a football winning axiom I believe in, which is this: "You throw the ball to score, you run the ball to win." You can get ahead by being a high flying, high scoring team, but in the 4th quarter you need to be able to physically impose your will on someone by force of your strength and personality....and in football, you do that by running the ball down someone's throat.
In basketball, you do that by executing in the half court set plays, and by making shots up against the shot clock, not by jacking up jump shots after 8 seconds of possession.
SOLUTION: The Pacers need to slow the game some in the last 8 minutes of the game, and you can do that by running set plays and executing. The Pacers staff needs to be willing to take more control of the game in the 4th quarter to help hide their lack of talent and their inexperience.
3. THE PACERS NEED TO DEVELOP A "SIGNATURE" SET PLAY THEY CAN SCORE ON WHEN THE GAME IS ON THE LINE, OR AT CRUCIAL POINTS IN THE GAME.
This goes along with the above statement. If I am going to call for O'Brien to help our offense by calling more set plays late in games (or late in quarters), then we need a particular set play that you know will work, and that your team has confidence it can execute time after time, against multiple opponents.
This was one of my pet peeves with Coach Carlisle while he was here, and is one I have with many coaches. They try to impress people by having a NYC phone book sized playbook. You don't need that in general, and the Pacers in particularly don't need it, as thru most of the game their offense percolates right along. The Pacers player movement, ball movement, motion, and pace of play makes them reasonably efficient for the first 40-42 minutes of games. It 's when the opponet really clamps down defensively that we bog down...and when that happens, this group of players needs help from the staff. It is this staffs responsibility to come up with a particular play they have confidence in. But what should it be?
In the Brown era, our set play favored by Coach Brown was what he called "3 down", which was just a simple "single/double" screen situation for Reggie to come off the baseline for a jump shot.
In the Bird era, if it wasnt the above play, it was Mark Jackson backing down his man into the low post.
No matter what we pick, it needs to be successful, easy, and we need to commit to it.
SOLUTION: For this team, it isnt as easy to scheme out the best option. You don't really want TJ in a flat high ball screen I don't think, because the oppoent would guard that I think by just staying home and making him finish the play personally. You can't just clear out a side of Granger, as he can't really create off the dribble in a reliable way, and he can't see the floor with a solid enough handle to create an easy chance for someone else. And we have no post player who demands a double team, so that option is out for us too.
I think for us I guess I'd go with the single/double screen action for Granger, with Rush popping to the other side, like Jalen Rose did back in the day. I also would experiment with some 1-4 high stuff, like the Jazz do, to see what I could design for Granger to score out of that set that might give more options.
Maybe if I can make the party in December, we can all try and draw some stuff up that makes sense for us.
So in summary, what do we have?
1. We need a couple of players who can defend as individuals better in crucial times, so our team defensive scheme isnt so challenged all the time.
2. Our coaches need to moderate our pace slightly. and slow the game down by calling more successful, set plays in the last 8 minutes so we can maximize our chances, have less turnovers, and protect our defense.
3. We need a signature set play that almost always works for us to get crucial, backbreakingly important baskets in big spots.
Lets see how we develop in these three areas for a while, and talk about it as the season goes along. We knew we werent a championship team all along, so let us not let a few tough losses get us down. This team has character, and character will respond to adversity....but we need to improve in the areas above to maximize the wins we need to make the playoffs, which is the franchise's stated goal.