The Pacers have lost six of eight to drop to 18-12, ceding that “feel-good threat to Miami and Chicago” status to Philadelphia and falling to a point where New York, Boston and Milwaukee can see them without squinting. Injuries and the schedule are both culprits here, but the collapse of Indiana’s formerly top-shelf defense and the shaky play of its bench are both worrisome trends to monitor.
The Pacers are without George Hill, their best bench player and key insurance for Darren Collison, and Jeff Foster returned from injury only a week ago. They also just finished a stretch of seven games in 10 days that contained one segment of four games in five nights and a separate back-to-back-to-back that ended Thursday night, with a much-needed win over Deron Williams and the Deron Williams Players.
This Indiana team was always going to win by relying on solid defense to lift a mediocre offense, while hoping internal improvements to that offense might help it win more — and against better teams — later. The offense has remained inconsistent, even as Danny Granger has done the inevitable and rediscovered his jumper. This is a post-heavy team without an elite creator, and it can look very slow on the wrong night.
The Pacers have been neck-and-neck with the Lakers all season in terms of devoting the greatest share of its possessions to post-up plays (per Synergy Sports), and Collison, despite flashes and generally solid play, just hasn’t made a leap as a penetrator or creator. Hill and Paul George can both run the pick-and-roll, but they often do so tentatively, dribbling sideways instead of into the teeth of a defense.
The offense doesn’t seem likely to improve dramatically, especially with Tyler Hansbrough struggling and Lance Stephenson mostly looking out control. But the Pacers will not be able to win much at all with a bad defense, and their defense has been bad over this losing stretch. In their five losses before Thursday’s win, the Pacers allowed a points-per-possession number that would have ranked 25th or worse overall, per Hoopdata. They have been fouling like crazy and allowing more offensive rebounds than usual: They’re down to 20th in defensive rebounding rate, and that just won’t do.
The “glass-half-full” view would be that these things — fouling and poor rebounding — are exactly what we’d expect from a tired team. The “half-empty” view would be that Indiana has proven to be vulnerable on pick-and-roll plays.
Collison too often looks like a man with no plan, sometimes going way under screens, sometimes going over them, but generally ending up out of ideal of position. The Collison/Roy Hibbert duo is especially shaky, since Hibbert doesn’t have the quickness to jump out and cut off ball-handlers. The Pacers make up for this by rotating very well on the back line, and Hibbert’s length allows him to challenge shots even when he at first appears out of the play.
The Pacers’ true defensive ability is far above what they’ve shown in the last two weeks. But they cannot afford even a minor slippage when it counts.