Since the beginning of February, the Indiana Pacers have looked like someone else. For the first time all season, the team looked like a real NBA basketball team, thriving behind George Hill and Rodney Stuckey, each going through a nearly career-best stretch, and seemingly energized at the possibility of a Paul George comeback in mid-March; George specifically mentioned last Saturday’s game against the Celtics as a potential target date.
As we now know, George spent that game sporting a suit-coat on the sideline, and the Pacers lost by four points at home to a team they’re directly competing with for one of the East’s final playoff spots.
According to this good bit of reporting by Candance Buckner of the Indy Star, George didn’t play by a long shot, and at least one teammate thinks George is a long way from returning. Buckner also writes that she herself has noticed a “hitch” on George’s long-range shot––not exactly a glowing report for a guy who, at least on the surface, had been hoping to be ready by now as recently as the All-Star break.
The erasure of a George comeback for the time being seems to have also erased the strong play Indiana had been enjoying during a run when the team posted the league’s best record in February and started off March on a seven-game win streak. After their flailing 89-point effort in their loss to Boston, the Pacers have taken a couple of double-digit losses to the Raptors and Bulls, the exact two teams everyone was saying could be most susceptible to a potential Indiana upset in the first round of the playoffs.
That idea suddenly seems ludicrous, as each team simply took control of the Pacers during the fourth quarter of their respective games, leaving Indiana simply hoping it can cling to a playoff berth at all. The Pacers are now tied with Boston for the eighth and final spot, but after losing to the Celtics last weekend, would lose in any tiebreaker situation if the season ended today.
There are a couple reasons for Indiana’s deflated play recently, the most important of which suggests their play might not be too deflated at all, simply that their opponents’ had been. During their recent surge, the Pacers picked up two wins apiece against the Knicks and 76ers, plus victories against other Eastern Conference royalty such as the Pistons, Magic and sputtering Bucks. Their wins against the Cavs, Warriors and Pelicans each came in games where LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis, respectively, didn’t play. To say that the Pacers’ schedule has worked heavily in their favor would almost be an understatement.
That’s the breaks in the NBA, though, and Indiana had to weather its roughest stretches early in the season without guys like Hill or David West. Benefiting now is the other end of the deal. Eventually, though, you have to win games against tough teams, and the Pacers have looked especially slow and uncompetitive in their three-straight losses to such opponents.
Indiana has looked tired during those games, which is unusual for a Frank Vogel team, and really the other huge contributing factor for this team’s recent play. The Pacers, especially without George, are a below-average offensive team, which makes consistency on defense all the more crucial to keeping this team in games on a nightly basis.
That defense was nowhere to be seen against Toronto or Chicago, who regularly beat Indiana with simple off-ball cuts and screen-work for 117 and 103 points, respectively. The Pacers made amateur mistakes, like losing three-point shooters in transition and failing to properly track off-ball players in the halfcourt, mistakes uncharacteristic of even this team’s worst stretches during last year’s collapse. Obviously, the Pacers don’t have the same kind of defense they did last season, but this team is still fourth in the league in defensive efficiency, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and Roy Hibbert remains one of the league’s best rim protectors. There has simply been a distinct lack of energy around this team recently.
Given how important George is to this team, and how his potential return has hovered over this entire season, it seems fair to wonder how much PG13’s nixed return has to do with this team’s recent slump. Without George, this team is a nice, scrappy underdog; with (a healthy) George, this team has proven capable of actually scraping together some playoff wins. The Pacers are a team full of veterans who know this, so it doesn’t feel like too much of a leap to say that George’s delayed comeback might have affected their mentality, especially when guys like West have talked about it in the past.
Regardless of the reason for the Pacers’ recent slump, it’s fair to say that without George, they shouldn’t be too threatening in round one, mostly because they can’t score. Solomon Hill can’t shoot and neither can Hibbert, while C.J. Miles has looked even more in slow-motion than normal lately. Even West can’t seem to brutishly post guys up the same way this season. As one of the team’s few legit scoring options, George Hill has done an admirable job of getting his and setting up others so far, but that’s not enough to get past the first round of the playoffs.
So, Indiana will continue to wait for George to come back, trying not to let a playoff spot slip away in the meantime.