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Pacers Need to Pick Up Energy on Defense

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The Indiana Pacers’ defense has gone missing recently. In light of the team’s offensive-oriented transition this season, Indiana expected to struggle on defense, but following the team’s 0-3 start, things appeared to be jelling on both ends of the floor while the Pacers won 12 of their next 14 games.

Even as the points have continued to pour in, Indiana has run into some serious defensive issues during the last five games, in which the team went 1-4. During that stretch, the Pacers have struggled in virtually every area of their team defense and have the defensive rating to show for it: an abysmal 108.2 mark that’s among the NBA’s bottom five for that stretch. Each of the Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors and Detroit Pistons confounded Indiana’s defense in different ways at different times during their games, and each handed the Pacers a thorough defeat.

There have been many specific issues with the team’s defense during its recent rough stretch, but the two main underlying problems have been Indiana’s lack of familiarity with its new scheme and its general effort level on defense.

Frank Vogel has turned things up on defense for Indiana this year, relying far more on active hands and fluid rotations than his past teams have on that end. Old Pacer squads played everyone straight up and funneled guys to Roy Hibbert at the rim; this year’s Pacers are more apt to try to take it from you before you get there.

That style requires a lot of energy, activity and communication from everyone on defense, however, and that type of approach was foreign to most of Indiana’s roster before this season. It’s not surprising that the Pacers have run into another rough stretch on defense, given their lack of familiarity with the system. The problem is that their recent struggles to execute have both been caused by and resulted in sagging energy levels, a kind of chicken/egg situation that’ll only make situations worse before they get better. High energy is a cliche on defense, but it’s a necessity, especially when your defense relies on speed and turnovers like the Pacers’ does.

That’s been at the root of Indiana’s issues, and as a result, their defense has been a mess. The Pacers have been bad in transition, in the half court, on the glass –– you name it, they’ve screwed it up recently.

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

David Blair/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Lackadaisical rotations have been a huge issue in the half court. Initial rotations are spotty, while secondary or weak-side rotations have been virtually nonexistent. While their hands and steal rate have remained active, the Pacers haven’t been playing effectively as a unit.

Both Portland and Utah crushed Indiana on the offensive glass, largely thanks to imprecise rotations that left guys out of position to grab necessary defensive rebounds. Against the smaller Warriors and Pistons, the Pacers made a couple of their first earnest attempts at switching, and it went terribly.

Indiana has also been bad in its transition defense, failing to match up efficiently and often not getting back at all, which makes it easy for teams to match the Pacers in an area where they should dominate. Their only victory in their last five game against the slow, traditionally half-court-oriented Miami Heat, and the last time Indiana beat a team that really spreads the floor effectively was Nov. 11 against the Boston Celtics.

Injuries in both their back and frontcourts haven’t made it any easier for this group. Without rookie center Myles Turner –– out with a fractured thumb –– or a fourth guard –– Chase Budinger, kinda –– the Pacers effectively have only three true guards and big men apiece to work with: George Hill, Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey in the backcourt, with Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen in the frontcourt. That’s made things difficult at the point of attack, where only Hill, Mahinmi and Allen are competent defenders in the pick-and-roll. Guys like Trey Burke and Reggie Jackson caused serious problems for Indiana’s rotation-challenged defense with their penetration, especially when Mahinmi left the game.

As was recently discussed on this site, the Pacers’ roster is currently maxed out at 15, so a move for another big or guard would require jettisoning a current member of the roster. For the moment, the only option for this team is to buckle down on defense and get serious.

It’d help if Paul George started the cause, as the team’s leader has put together some less-than-stellar performances on that end recently, getting lit up by Klay Thompson then appearing uninterested in Detroit, where Marcus Morris worked him over, and George picked up yet another technical foul out of frustration. He’s also been one of the primary culprits of failing to get back on defense, too often because he’s attempting to coerce a referee.

George isn’t alone, though, and other than the manic Mahinmi, virtually everyone on the team could stand to step up their energy level, especially with Indiana staring down another difficult stretch of games in the next couple weeks. Stuff like defensive rebounding and transition defense are team-related issues.

Since there doesn’t presently appear to be any help on the way –– aside from Turner’s eventual return –– the Pacers can only look to themselves for help. Acclimating to this defensive overhaul is going to take all season, so it’s important to keep high energy and a level head. Indiana’s defensive issues are more about execution than talent.

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