Before the All-Star break, it was assumed that the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers would be meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals. We even discussed, on one of our Spreecast sessions, that the Pacers had one of the easier schedules in the league after the All-Star break. It seemed like they would be cruising to the number one seed and homecourt advantage over, possibly, the entire league.
Instead, the Pacers are just 13-13 against their opponents since the All-Star break ended. They’ve turned it down a bit on defense and their offense has fallen flat. The Miami Heat have captured a full game on the Pacers with just four games left on the schedule. Oh, and by the way, two of those games are against the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Their game against the Heat will be crucial in the battle for first, but it’s looking more and more like Indiana will continue to lose ground on Miami.
Their low point had to be against the Atlanta Hawks where they allowed them to shoot a scorching 56% from the field and allowed 107 points. That’s not something that you’d expect from the league’s best defense.
But the fact of the matter is that, since the All-Star break, the Pacers haven’t been the same team that we once knew. And the way the NBA has been traditionally, playoff teams normally catch fire once the All-Star break passes. You never want to stumble in the playoffs, but that’s what it looks like will happen with the Pacers this season.
The biggest change for the Pacers since the All-Star break has been there defense. They were performing on historical levels before the break–they had a 93.6 defensive rating mark that was clearly the best in the league. Their offense was a bit closer to average, but their brilliant defense led them to victories more often than not. After the All-Star break, though, the Pacers defensive mark dropped from that 93.6 level down to 101.9. While that is still a solid figure, it isn’t what was keeping the Pacers afloat throughout the year.
In fact, that mark is the seventh best in the league since the All-Star break. The Pacers went from being one of the best defensive teams of all time to just one of the top defensive teams this season. When elite defense is your calling card such a significant drop can hurt. But that isn’t the Pacers’ biggest problem by any means.
Their offense has been absolutely atrocious since the All-Star break. Their offensive rating has dropped from 102.2 all the way down to 99.1. That’s a mark that paints the Pacers as the second worst offense in the league since the All-Star break. The only offense worse is that of the lowly Philadelphia 76ers–in other words, that isn’t where you want to be as a title contender.
When contending for titles, you can get by with a close to the middle defense and a great offense. But if you can’t score in the NBA, you aren’t going to have any hope for winning a title. But the Pacers have never operated like an average NBA offense. They aren’t a team that chucks a lot of threes or one that relies on heavy guard penetration and finishing at the rim. They’re a team that focuses on the midrange area and operating through their big men.
Here’s a look at their shot distribution throughout the season:
They’re taking an equal amount of shots from the middle of the floor and the rim. The only area that they don’t focus on is beyond the arch. They’ve been an average shooting team from that area with a 35% clip from deep–but they just don’t take enough. That was something that concerned me before the All-Star break. The best offenses in the NBA today take three point shots; the Pacers just don’t. With the way their defense was playing, it wasn’t a necessary thing to have. But now that they’ve taken a huge step back on defense, they really need their offense to be slightly above average to win games.
They haven’t been shooting too much worse after the All-Star break, but their midrange game has dropped off and so have their percentages at the rim. That small dropoff was enough to tilt their offense the wrong way and their defense hasn’t been there to pick up the pieces.
Here’s a look at their shot chart after the All-Star break:
And here are there marks before the All-Star break:
As you can see, their pre All-Star mark at the rim is about 4% higher than their post All-STar mark. And they’re shooting about 2% worse from the midrange area–an area that they take a high amount of shots in. So that means that they’ve fallen in the two areas that acted as the adhesive for their average offense.
Now that we’ve established what the problem is, should we really be worried about them? That depends on what your expectation for them was. If you expected them to have a shot at making the NBA finals, the answer is no. You shouldn’t be worried about them. They can still beat the Miami Heat because they can dictate size to them. It’d be a long shot without homecourt, but the Pacers can still do it.
Getting to the Eastern Conference Finals shouldn’t be as much of a problem. Like we established about the Pacers earlier, if you can’t score points in the NBA it will be hard to advance in the Finals. But that doesn’t only apply to the Pacers–that applies to the rest of the Eastern Conference as well. And the conference is still a dreadful one–their path will be against largely inept offensive teams.
If the playoffs started today, only three teams in the Eastern Conference would have a stake in the top 15 in terms of offensive efficiency. Those teams are the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets. Out of those teams, only the Miami Heat and the Toronto Raptors have an offense in the top 10–he Heat rank first in the league and the Raptors rank 10th. The Pacers wouldn’t have to play either of those two teams in the first round, so what they really need to worry about is playing whoever comes in the second.
Even still, if their defense returns to playoff form, they’ll be able to take care of any borderline top 10 offense easily. The rest of the teams in the East are below 15th in the league in offense. That means a ton for a team that can’t score as well–it levels out their playing field on that end of the floor. But if the Pacers stick to their guns defensively, that gives them an edge against most of the conference.
What they really need to worry about is playing Miami. They must not be as offensively inept as they have been since the All-Star break. It won’t work against a team like the Heat that can put up great offensive numbers in an instant. Luckily for them, they’re still a very good team at protecting the paint. The restricted area is apart of the Heat’s lifeblood in this case, so as long as Hibbert is a stable force they’ll have a shot.
Now, what I worry about to a lesser extent with the Pacers is their psyche right now. Being this bad after the All-Star break can be demoralizing–especially to a team with expectations like the ones that they have. Players have been calling each other out for being selfish and the media has covered the Pacers more in their sorrows than they did during their successes.
By now, this is an experienced team. They’ve had tons of success in the playoffs during the past two seasons and have plenty of postseason experience on their roster. This isn’t what you want to see from a championship contender with just four games left in the season. The mood in their locker room just seems like a downtrodden one and who could really blame them for feeling that way? They’re playing terribly.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t recover from this. With a series win in the playoffs against whoever they play against between the Bobcats, Wizards, Hawks or Knicks, they’ll have a chance to get their groove back against a playoff team. That’s something that the Pacers really need to see at this point in order for them to be prepared to face the Heat–that’s the ultimate goal for them here.
So, as far as my worries for the Pacers go, I can’t say that I have many. The East is still a bad conference and their team can still turn things around just as easily as they blew up in their faces. Experienced teams know how to get through lulls like this. This is far more than a blip at this point, and it’s turned into a legitimate problem, but problems are made for solving. The Pacers are a great organization and they should be able to figure things out before it becomes too late.
Statistical support was given by NBA.com’s stats database.