Are Indiana Pacers in Relapse?


Well, so much for the newfound optimism under Frank Vogel.

After starting 9-3 under the interim coach, the Indiana Pacers have lost seven of their last eight games, including five straight in which the team never realistically threatened for the win. Three of those defeats came by 17 or more points.

The most recent loss, a 101-75 thrashing Wednesday at the hands of the Minnesota Timberwolves (who at the time owned the worst record in the Western Conference), was arguably Indiana’s worst effort all season. Forward Danny Granger finished 2-of-19 with 10 points, and center Roy Hibbert didn’t score at all.

By Drew Allen

FOX Sports Indiana broadcaster Chris Denari — a self-described “glass half-full” optimist — called the loss the poorest performance he had seen from the Pacers all year. Such a statement would include the portion of the schedule under former coach Jim O’Brien, who was fired Jan. 30.

What happened after such a great start to Vogel’s tenure at the helm?

A number of things, a couple of them pretty obvious:

  • Tougher stretch of schedule. This is about as obvious as it gets. Pacers president Larry Bird made the coaching change at the most opportune time. Indiana’s opponents during Vogel’s 9-3 opening run are a combined 236-405. Only two of those 10 opponents (Miami and Portland) currently own playoff positions. By contrast, the Pacers’ foes during their 1-7 slump are 264-228. While only three of those eight teams (Dallas, Oklahoma City and Philadelphia) maintain playoff spots, three of the other squads (Utah, Phoenix and Houston) have at least .500 records and would beat out the Pacers for that final seed if they were in the East. But let’s not just blame the schedule.
  • Lack of defensive intensity. Stop me if you’ve heard that before. The Pacers’ last eight opponents have shot no worse than 42.7 percent from the field. Two teams, Dallas and Philadelphia, have shot better than 51 percent against Indiana’s defense. Foes have generally shot well from 3-point range during this latest stretch, averaging in the mid-30 percent area. But hey, it’s got to be encouraging to see the Pacers keep Utah from hitting a three, right? Not when they only attempt six such shots; big men Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap alone combined for 53 points in the paint during the Feb. 25 matchup at Conseco Fieldhouse.
  • Starters not showing. There is no excuse for the way most of Indiana’s starting five fared against Minnesota. Only forward Tyler Hansbrough, who started after backing up Josh McRoberts for most of the season, showed on the court any desire to win and get the Pacers back to the playoffs. Hansbrough led the team Wednesday with 21 points and 10 rebounds. I’m really wondering whether Granger can be the franchise player Indiana needs after such a dismal showing from the field. Beyond his own struggles, he didn’t elevate (and hasn’t elevated) the play of his teammates. Hibbert and point guard Darren Collison combined for three points (Collison had all three). We’ve known about guard Brandon Rush’s inconsistency for a long time, and it was present again against the Timberwolves: Rush had just six points on 3-of-7 shooting. Perhaps the loss of guard Mike Dunleavy to injury has had an immeasurable effect on this young team, but really, is it too hard to replace him with seemingly plenty of talent in Rush and rookie Paul George?  

Fortunately for the Pacers, their current slump hasn’t dropped them from the eight-spot in the Eastern Conference. Indiana has benefitted from ninth-place Charlotte’s struggles; the Bobcats have lost six straight, including a beatdown by 40 points at Denver on March 2. Charlotte’s poor play (and the season head-to-head advantage) has allowed the Pacers to maintain essentially a two-game lead for the final playoff position in the East.

However, the Pacers don’t look like a playoff team right now, and they won’t be one if they continue to perform so poorly.

Division rival Milwaukee — a playoff team a year ago — appears ready to take over ninth place from the Bobcats at any moment. The Bucks have already beaten the Pacers twice with one game to play, so only they can own a head-to-head tiebreak. With stud point guard Brandon Jennings and a healthy Andrew Bogut down low, Milwaukee certainly has the firepower to push its way into the postseason.

As for Vogel and the Pacers, efforts like these can’t continue going forward, or else it will be Jim O’Brien all over again — inexcusable losses, blowout defeats, on the outside looking in come April and a late lottery selection in the NBA draft.

And if that’s the case, Vogel will have no chance of retaining his position on a full-time basis.

Vogel and his team have a terrific opportunity to reverse the franchise’s mindset at 7 p.m. today against the Toronto Raptors, and they had better do so because the next four games are at New York, home against New York, at Boston and home against Chicago.

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