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Making Sense of the Pacers' Last Week

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 10, 2014 , 8:50 p.m.

The Pacers have quite a dilemma on their hands, it seems. They have the Eastern Conference's best record, but aren't playing anything like the team that built that record. Their losing streak reached four with Sunday's defeat in Dallas, their longest skid since March of 2012, and while they at least showed some signs of life in that game, they still found ways to lose.

They're not alone in their doldrums. Miami, its only competition for the top seed in the conference, is working on its own three-game losing streak, and Oklahoma City has lost five of its last eight, including a loss to the lowly Lakers on Sunday. Still, the Pacers aren't just getting beat, they've been dominated in stretches. They lost by 12 at Dallas after trailing by 17 in the first half. They lost by 26 at Houston. They lost by 22 at Charlotte, an improved team and a likely playoff team, but still a team with a losing record. And they lost by two on their home court to Golden State, after trailing by 13.

The symptoms of their malaise were evident before the losses. Even amid the five-game win streak they showed the signs of slippage that led to their four-game losing streak. And yet, they still stand atop the Eastern Conference, 1 ½ games ahead of Miami, and just ½ game back of San Antonio for the best record in all the NBA.

It's just a weird scenario. The Pacers have just become only the fourth team in NBA history to lose two consecutive games by margins of 20 or more points after entering the first of those games at least 30 games above the .500 mark. How do you explain that?

Here's a reason or 10:

1. It's in their nature. For such a good team, they have a strange knack for checking out on occasion, don't they? Last season, once their playoff seed had been determined, they lost five of their final six games, three on their home court and all by at least eight points. Even in the playoffs, they lost by 21 and 11 at Atlanta, by 26 and 10 at New York and by 18, 11 and 23 at Miami. Every team has bad losses. The Pacers seem capable of more than their share of them, an indication of lingering immaturity or simply lack of mental toughness. And yet ... Roy Hibbert shooting a jumper

2. It happens. Fans of all the contending teams have had things to worry about lately. Only the legendary teams can avoid soft spots in the 82-game NBA schedule. And, yes, championship teams have slumps, too. The Pacers' 1970 ABA title team had such dominant talent that it avoided them pretty well, although it did lose five out of six late in the season. The first three of those losses were by 14, 26 and 16 points. If there had been such a thing as social media then, many fans would have been predicting a first-round exit. The '72 championship team only won 47 games in an 84-game schedule, and the '73 team lost 10-of-14 through one stretch. Imagine the twitter conversation while all that was going on. But still …

3. The defense is slipping. The Pacers built their league-best record on their league-best defense, one that allowed about 90 points per game most of the season. It seemed on its way to becoming an historic defense, one of the best in NBA history. It covered the perimeter and the basket with equal ferocity, and, as they liked to say, it traveled. Home or away, it got them through the bad shooting nights. Lately, though, it's been left behind, even at home, allowing 101 points per game over the last 10. It's been particularly soft on the perimeter, but on the other hand …

4. Opponents have been hot. Hey, let's face it, you're not going to keep teams from getting off shots. And lately, Pacers opponents have been a little freakish with their accuracy. Dallas hit 8-of-20 three-pointers. Houston hit 13-of-20. Charlotte hit 9-of-18. Golden State hit 10-of-20. Those teams wouldn't shoot that well in an empty gym a lot of nights. Utah, the last team they beat, hit 12-of-24. Even Milwaukee, one of the NBA's worst teams, shot well from the three-point line against the Pacers. But that's no excuse for such glaring …

5. Inconsistency. While softer defense is the primary reason for the slide, it doesn't stand alone. Nobody has played consistently well lately, whether as a unit or individually. Paul George has scored well most games, other than the clunker of an 0-of-9 shooting effort at Charlotte, but has been more prone to turnovers and seems more distracted by the officiating. He doesn't believe he gets the calls that “stars” are supposed to get, and sometimes it seems he doesn't, but that doesn't excuse some of his brain fades. Roy Hibbert has been an even greater mystery. His scoring comes and goes, as it will for a low-volume shooter, but it's difficult to explain the lack of rebounding. He's had just one double-figure rebounding game in the last 12, and has averaged just four rebounds in 31 minutes per game over the past six. He averages 8 rebounds in victories and 5.5 in defeats, one of the more telling individual stats on the team. But All-Stars George and Hibbert aren't alone in their inconsistency. There's also … Evan Turner driving to the basket

6. Evan Turner. The key acquisition in the deadline day deal that discarded Danny Granger, Turner remains an uncertainty in the minds of most Pacers fans. Little wonder, given his erratic scoring. In eight games with the Pacers, he's scored 13, 8, 7, 8, 0, 22, 5 and 2. That averages out to 8.1 points per game on 44 percent shooting. Granger was averaging 8.3 points on 36 percent shooting. Turner is younger, healthier and a better shot creator than Granger, so the potential remains for that trade to be a major coup. Time will tell. But has he affected …

7. Chemistry? Some fans have attempted to connect Turner's acquisition with the Pacers' slide, but the stats don't really bear that out. They won their first four games after the trade and he's hardly been the only one to struggle in the losses. He had 22 at Charlotte, for example. He tends to dominate the ball because he's an effective shot creator, but appears to have been better in that regard lately. Does he fit into the locker room chemistry? Is he as well-liked as Granger? You'd have to be on the team to know the answer to that, and most likely opinions within the group would vary. But there's no solid evidence that Turner is any sort of cancer, and Granger looked more like a veteran trying to revive his career than the leader of a team that essentially had passed him by. But if it's not Turner, is it Andrew Bynum? Again, you'd have to be on the team to know if the signing of Bynum has caused any problems within the locker room. It's hard to imagine why. He hasn't done anything to draw attention to himself, and appears to have adapted well to his new surroundings. Backup center Ian Mahinmi has generally played better since Bynum's arrival, and Hibbert shouldn't feel threatened by Bynum – unless he continues to play poorly. But if it's not chemistry, could it be ...

8. Too much fame? Fans and occasionally players have complained about lack of national media attention going back to last season. Well, the Pacers have been smothered with it lately, in all possible forms of media. George made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live – and promptly went into a shooting slump coincidentally or not. He's also been featured in an ESPN The Magazine cover story. Hibbert was the subject of a major story in Sports Illustrated that featured his defensive prowess. The entire starting five posed for a funky GQ photo shoot. ESPN rolled in a few months ago to interview the starters and Vogel en masse. Success creates obstacles. It can soften mindsets, and the attention it brings can become distractions. But let's not forget … CJ Watson

9. Injuries. We're conditioned not to use injuries as an excuse, but often they're the primary reason when a good team struggles. George injured his back on March 2, and it seems to have affected his shooting. George Hill missed two games with a shoulder injury. His backup at point guard, C.J. Watson, has missed the last three games with a right elbow sprain. Backup forward Luis Scola has been playing with a bothersome right elbow that has affected his shooting. For all we know other players are dealing with performance-impairing conditions. No need to send flowers, but it matters. Oh, and one more thing …

10. They're hunted. The Pacers have been good for awhile now, but they've only been elite for this season. Opponents now see them as a measuring stick, the way the Pacers once viewed games against Miami or San Antonio. Combine that with the fact their recent opponents are in the throes of their own playoff races and the fact the Pacers have a cushy place among the top two spots in the East, and it adds up to a slippery slope for them. Any time now, it seems they'll have plenty of motivation to regain the traction they had earlier in the season.

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