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Pacers scrapping to keep playoff dream alive

Derrick Rose and the Bulls got a much-needed win against Indiana on Tuesday night, keeping their faint playoff hopes alive. AP Photo/Michael Conroy
AP Photo/Michael Conroy

INDIANAPOLIS — Fighting and clawing for their playoff lives as April has arrived, the Indiana Pacers have slipped against meager competition. When any regular season reaches the final stretch — in this case, the last two weeks — of the schedule, every win becomes increasingly important.

By the same token so does every loss.

After holding the Houston Rockets to just 7-of-33 (21.2%) from 3-point range on Sunday, Indiana followed up their tough defensive performance with two consecutive losses vs. Chicago and Orlando.

It happened to be the third time this season that James Harden and the Rockets attempted over 30 outside shots and connected on less than 25% of them. Paul George and the Pacers’ healthy wings were impressive in that particular showing, despite sending Harden to the line 11 times — right above his season average of foul attempts per game. But, that comes with the task of defending one of the generation’s best scorers.

Spirits were high following the win over Houston. The Pacers had every viable reason to believe that their schedule would benefit their chances of reaching the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference.

After all, they were hosting Chicago with Fred Hoiberg’s unit on the second game of a back-to-back. Plus, the Bulls have been a Windy City catastrophe this season, especially after the All-Star break.

The vibe seemed to be that Indiana didn’t need to hammer its foot on the throttle to take care of business vs. Chicago. That’s exactly why they found themselves disappointed after a two-point loss, allowing Nikola Mirotic to set Bankers Life Fieldhouse aflame with seven triples and a double-double.

It wasn’t even the breakdown against a division rival that stung the most this week, however.

With only one day to recuperate and figure out how to get more production from the role players to alleviate some of the burden off George, the Pacers experienced their worst shellacking of the regular season on Thursday.

When the Magic come to town, there are always a few groups of fans that still admire Victor Oladipo from his time at Indiana University. Nevertheless, the main focus for everyone turned into playoff desperation, since Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons leapfrogged Indiana for the 7th seed.

Halfway through the year, the feeling was that the Eastern Conference playoff race wouldn’t feature the Pacers begging for wins in April. They were in a respectable position to fall within the 4-7 range, depending on how well their outside shooters kept clicking after the All-Star break.

They were surviving with a shrewd,  overwhelming defense, as Vogel marginally improved the defensive rating from 103.1 last year (7th) to 102.9 this season (3rd).  And that in spite of dramatic roster changes.

Roy Hibbert, veteran commander David West and the quick-learning Luis Scola were no longer there. Those that have criticized Scola’s defensive traits and his on-off court realities in the past were sometimes justified in their arguments.

But, Vogel revealed something early last season that many would struggle to believe. He often used game film of Scola’s defensive stance, effort, and tactics when trying to mentor younger players. There was no denying the Pacers’ frontcourt toughness and attention to detail with their defensive schemes.

The Hibbert trade last summer was expected to hurt the interior defense. In the NBA last season, there were 37 centers who defended at least 10 field goal attempts per game. Of those, Hibbert was second in “defensive field goal percentage,” only letting players shoot 41.4% against him in the paint.

Only Anthony Davis, who was a defensive alien for New Orleans under Monty Williams, was better with an absurd 39.8% by his opponents.

March 12, 2016 - Dallas, TX, USA - The Indiana Pacers' Ian Mahinmi (28) and the Dallas Mavericks' Zaza Pachulia (27) battle for a loose ball during the first half on Saturday, March 12, 2016, at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Pacers won, 112-105 (Photo by Brandon Wade/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

March 12, 2016 – Dallas, TX, USA – The Indiana Pacers’ Ian Mahinmi (28) and the Dallas Mavericks’ Zaza Pachulia (27) battle for a loose ball during the first half on Saturday, March 12, 2016, at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Pacers won, 112-105 (Photo by Brandon Wade/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

In field goal differential — which is essentially the percentage players “normally” shoot subtracted by what they shot versus a specific player — Hibbert’s defense resulted in a -5.9% difference last year. It was also second behind Anthony Davis’ -6.2%.

The Pacers are now without one of the league’s best rim protectors but still find ways to be a nightmare for the majority of NBA offenses to game-plan against.

It says a lot about what the absence of George can mean to a franchise. It says a lot about Vogel’s knowledge of how to make adjustments to conform to an eccentric roster. It also says a great deal about how much Ian Mahinmi’s rim protection was under-appreciated through the years.

Even if they’ve been stellar throughout the whole season on the defensive side, there were zero excuses for a 20-point loss (at home) to the 32-43 Magic. Not only did Orlando shoot over 53% and turn over the Pacers 19 times, but Nikola Vucevic was practically unstoppable off the bench by shooting 12-of-15 from the floor.

“It was one of the most disappointing nights of the year, absolutely,” Vogel said after Friday’s practice.

Although currently 23-15 on their home floor, Indiana hasn’t proven to be one of the stronger home units. Their +3.2 net rating in Bankers Life Fieldhouse is 14th in the league.

Considering two teams relatively close to them in the standings (Charlotte and Boston) have built net ratings of +5.6 and +6.7 while hosting respectively, it doesn’t speak well to the Pacers ability to win comfortably in their own house.

Indiana Pacers guard George Hill (3) looks to pass around Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 31, 2016.

Indiana Pacers guard George Hill (3) looks to pass around Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 31, 2016. (Associated Press)

Also at home, the Pacers haven’t shared the ball or worked to get easier shots as much as Vogel would like. Their assist ratio at home is only 15.7, meaning they average less than 16 assists per 100 of their own possessions. Combine that with Indiana’s pace indicating two fewer possessions higher at home … and you start to see a real issue.

Vogel and superstar George weren’t thrilled with how easy it was for Orlando to penetrate inside and find easy offense. That was the most embarrassing part of the loss, other than losing by 20 to a non-playoff team.

Orlando scored 56 points in the paint on Thursday, outscoring Indiana by 12. It’s precisely why this game had a weird outcome, because rarely in today’s modernized style of play do you see a team win a game with only five made 3-pointers.

In fact, it was only the 40th game of this season in which a team won a game without making over five triples and shooting over 20 free throws.  Taking into account that there are 1,230 total games in a normal NBA schedule, that’s only 3.3% of the games played. So, despite 40 being a rather large number itself, it’s still an unusual winning combination.

When that occurs, everything can be pointed toward your paint protection.

“It was very easy for them to score on us,” George said. “We take pride in our defense, and to give up 50 to 60 points in the paint is unacceptable. We’ll get a better understanding of it and a better feel for one another. But, I think, for the most part, our miscommunication is one guy trying to do something (defensively) to change the game, and we get burned on it.”

George wasn’t referring to anyone specific, but instead trying to articulate that this roster has a lot of ambitious risk-takers. It can be a great thing to have at times, especially when you’re lucky enough to have those risks pay off. But for a learning squad that doesn’t have much of a veteran leadership outside of George, defensive gambles don’t always pay off. Most of the time, it’s more important to stay solid in your schemes, crisp on rotations, and force teams to burn the shot clock.

On the season, the Pacers haven’t been accustomed to giving up a large portion of paint points–41 points allowed per game inside of 10 feet. For Orlando to lift them 15 points over their season average, it has to be disheartening to fall apart against an (athletic and respected) lottery team.

Nobody can realistically expect Indiana to have the championship-level discipline and patience at this juncture since the roster has altered so much over the last two summers. In addition to free agency and cap flexibility taking a toll, the average age of this current group is only 26.2 — headlined by a 19-year-old rookie center that’s still trying to grasp how hard it is to defend athletic, grown men.

“We’re not broken,” George said. “This is the team’s first year together. We’re going to have our bumps and bruises. We’re going to have to grow and learn how to guide this ship as we go. But, we’re all together, and that’s the best thing about this situation.”

Indiana went 8-7 for the month of March. In those 15 games, they only had an effective field goal percentage of 48.6% (24th overall), and an offensive rating of 101.3 (also 24th). Whenever you’re barely ahead of teams such as Philadelphia, the Lakers, New York, New Orleans, and Washington from an offensive perspective, you know it’s time to worry about your playoff chances.

Despite the lackluster and inefficient offense in recent games, Vogel still maintains his stance on what the team needs to improve on down the stretch. To no surprise, it’s the defensive principles, which doesn’t seem to be the primary problem.

“There’s a lot of areas where, you know, we’re just not getting the job done,” Vogel said. We had a defensive-minded practice today and worked on a lot of that stuff. I feel like guys aren’t happy with where we’re at. Everyone came in (to practice) ready to work. The attitude was good.”

As the season comes to an abrupt conclusion — it has really flown by in a hurry — the Pacers must finish their April schedule with expected wins. With a game at Philadelphia, two games against New York, and one against both Brooklyn and Milwaukee, there is no reason 43 wins shouldn’t be in the cards for them.

Which, just so happens to be what I expected of them before the season got underway:

Based off this season’s standings as we stand here today, Indiana’s final seven opponents have a combined record of 224-302 (.426). It’s slightly better than what I projected their opponents would be in September, and that’s because the Eastern Conference has resurrected itself. Competitive balance is becoming a thing that exists.

As of now, Indiana sits one full game ahead of Chicago (9th) and three full games ahead of Washington (10th). The Wizards are likely out of the hunt, but we’ve seen crazier things transpire in this league.

In order to claim at least the No. 8 seed and get a date with LeBron James in the first round, the Pacers probably need to go 3-4 at a minimum to finish the season  Chicago is battling against a remaining schedule of 245-279 (.468), so things are slightly tougher on their end. Although, one of those games does include a matchup with the Pelicans sans Anthony Davis.

This is the perfect test for George, a player who has already demonstrated his abilities as a two-way force that requires respect. Now, we’re about to find out how much his leadership qualities have grown over the years.

“Fans, media, they can say whatever they want,” George said. “I’m going to give this team everything I got.”

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