Not surprisingly, the Indiana Pacers lost their final two games of the season, the last one being a 94-72 drubbing at the hands of the Magic in Orlando. With the losses, the Pacers finish their season 37-45 and will kick off the 2011 NBA Playoffs against the top seeded and the 62-win Chicago Bulls.
This latest loss drove another reminder into my mind that in all probability the Pacers will be swept and be swept badly. If they find their missing mojo they might be able to get a game, two if the Bulls somehow implode, but an upset in the first round is just not going to happen whichever way I look at it.
Tonight, the Pacers were horrendous, missing shots left, right and center. Danny Granger and Jeff Foster sat out to heal nagging injuries and coach Frank Vogel gave minutes to guys like Solomon Jones (who reminded exactly why he hasn't played at all) as well as TJ Ford and James Posey.
I can be a huge Danny Granger basher at times, but tonight's game reminds me why he is still the team's best player. The rest of the guys simply couldn't hit a shot, finishing the first half with just 29 points and 30.7% for the entire game. Bricks, airballs, turnovers, giving up wide open threes and drives -- you name it and this team did it. Roy Hibbert vs Dwight Howard was a no contest -- Hibbert had 5 fouls in 10 minutes, didn't score and missed all 4 shots.
Not exactly a confidence booster going in against likely MVP Derrick Rose and a team that won 25 games more than the Pacers.
The Indiana Pacers have continued to surprise me this late in the season. I did not expect them to beat the Atlanta Hawks, a team the Pacers match up poorly with, but they came through with a 114-102 victory to raise their win total to 37 with two games to play. It felt like things were finally clicking again -- not like they were at the start of the season where they felt they could walk into any building an win, but it was a more 'realistic' clicking: good enough to beat good teams in a funk or on even when they are playing average.
Tonight the Pacers went up against the New York Knicks, a team they beat back-to-back earlier this year thanks to an offensive explosion by Tyler Hansbrough (29 and 30). The Knicks were also without Amare Stoudemire, which meant the Pacers could focus all their defense on Carmelo Anthony (and Chauncey Billups if he was feeling it).
The end result? A horrible 110-109 loss in the final regular season game at Conseco Fieldhouse. It's a loss that spells trouble for the Pacers. They were up by 9 points heading in the fourth quarter thanks to a three pointer by AJ Price at the buzzer, and that lead was extended to 11 when Mike Dunleavy hit the first shot of the quarter. Then the team went cold -- something we've seen countless times this season, to the point where they would turn the ball over on three or four consecutive possessions without even trying to get a shot off. Other times they would hold the ball and circle around for about the first 20 seconds, and with just a ticks left on the shot clock, throw up an awful shot that doesn't even come close.
The Pacers were outscored 23-13 in the fourth quarter by a Knicks team not known for its defense. That speaks volumes about the Pacers' mentality down the stretch. They seem to freeze, not know what to do, get reluctant to shoot, and pretty much fall apart.
This is not a problem that can be fixed before the playoffs. The main problem as I see it is youth and inexperience, and the desperate lack of a genuine go-to guy that can create his own shot.
Frank Vogel has coached in something like 37 games in his entire NBA career (even though he hasn't done too badly). The only veterans on the team with true playoff experience are Jeff Foster and Dahntay Jones, but both are more defensively minded players.
Secondly, Darren Collison is a second year point guard that's a double-edged sword -- he is capable of being a go-to guy because of his ability to create his own shot and his blinding speed, but he's also extremely turnover prone (as we saw tonight with some abysmal decisions down the stretch that allowed the Knicks to come all the way back) and is too short to pose a challenge to shot blockers at the rim. He's also a sub-par defender (though I admit he has improved throughout the season) which is always a worry against bigger point guards who can just shoot over him with ease.
Thirdly, while Roy Hibbert played well tonight (19 points, 10 boards, 4 assists), he can't get himself the ball when it counts. Defenders put that bit of extra muscle into him and he can't touch the ball down low. Even when he does, he's getting double teamed, which means he'll end up throwing up low percentage shots or throwing rushed passes that get stolen. I don't like to use the word 'stiff', but whenever Hibbert gets trapped down low and loses the ball (yet again) without managing to draw a foul, that's the first word that comes to mind.
Most importantly, Danny Granger has not developed into the go-to guy the Pacers need him to be. Yes, he hit that game winner against New York the last time the two teams met, but can you honestly tell me you are not mildly surprised whenever he does get a big shot to go down? Tonight's game really contrasted the difference between a guy like Carmelo Anthony (who had 34 points and spearheaded the Knicks comeback despite playing with five fouls in the fourth) and Granger (who had 20 points but shot 7-21 and only had three points on 1-8 shooting in the fourth).
The last two plays just about summed it up. Melo isolated Granger and hit a tough jumper right in his face to give New York the lead with about five seconds to go. On the final play, Granger took Melo off the dribble and got his shot blocked. That's Danny Granger -- a terrific if somewhat erratic shooter who is more likely to miss than hit when it counts.
That's why if this Pacers team wants to win a game against an elite team like Chicago, they'll need either some luck and/or a big lead. Right now, I'm not confident they'll have either. That said, the type of stuff this team needs can only come from more experience, and these playoffs are the perfect learning opportunity.
It's been a long time coming, but for the first time in five years, the Indiana Pacers are headed to the playoffs.
Most considered it a foregone conclusion heading into these last few games, with the Milwaukee Bucks too far behind and the Charlotte Bobcats too banged up and too challenged to depleted to hang with the Pacers -- but as we have seen all year, with this Pacers squad, you just never know.
Thankfully, last night, with a comprehensive 136-112 beatdown of the hapless Washington Wizards (which featured the first good start to a game that I can remember), coupled with an overtime Bobcats loss to the Orlando Magic, the Pacers are in. They can lose the final three games of the season and finish 36-46 (which is highly likely considering they play Atlanta, New York and @Orlando), and they will still make the playoffs.
Interestingly, 36-46 is the record the Pacers finished with in 2008 and 2009 and yet they just missed the playoffs in those years. Some might want to rain on the parade and say that the Pacers made it not because they deserved it, but only because the East is so weak at the moment. Whatever. What non-fans don't realize is how long Pacers fans have waited for a return to the playoffs.
Sure, it's just as the eighth seed, and let's be honest here -- the Pacers will be lucky to even take one game off Chicago (or Boston) -- but I'll gladly take that over missing the playoffs for yet another year. This is a new squad, not the legendary teams with Reggie Miller and Rik Smits and Jalen Rose and Mark Jackson and the Davises that made the Conference Finals just about every year. This team is learning and on the upswing, and these playoffs are just the beginning.
I'm awfully excited. Chances are the Pacers will look like a bunch of deer in the headlights in the first few games, probably get blown out. The Washington game aside, this season they've shown an inability to get off to a good start, something they can't afford against the top seed. But what we also know is that when these Pacers are on their game, they can beat any team in the NBA.
These last three games will be interesting still. It will be nice to see the Pacers build some momentum and confidence leading in the playoffs and not rest on their laurels knowing that they've already made it. It will reveal a lot about this team and what kind of performance they might have in the playoffs.
As I write this post now, the Pacers are down 25 to the New Orleans Hornets. But even with another brutal loss, the Pacers have just about locked up a trip to the postseason where they can be swept by either the Bulls, Celtics or Heat.
That's because a couple of days ago they overcame the Milwaukee Bucks, 89-88, when Drew Gooden missed a three pointer at the buzzer. With that win, the Bucks were just about eliminated from contention and, coupled with a Bobcats loss to the Magic, the Pacers moved to 2 games ahead of their only rival for the 8th spot in the East.
Oh, and the Bobcats seem to have run out of steam -- they just lost to the Wizards today (in Charlotte, no less), so even if the Pacers lose (which they probably will) they remain 2 games ahead.
What is frightening is that their last win against the Bucks might be the last victory for the Pacers this season. I think they'll beat Washington, but if they don't, they could very well lose to the Hawks, New York and Orlando in their last 3 games -- AND still make the playoffs and get swept. Even if they beat the Wizards (and provided they make the playoffs), that's still a potential 7-game losing streak coming our way. With the likely lockout approaching, it might be a very long time before the Pacers get another win.
The weird thing is, the Pacers have talent. No one will argue that a core of Granger, Hibbert, Collison, George and Hansbrough (and if you want, Rush) is a bad young nucleus to have. Well, maybe some, but that's a pretty talented young team that has plenty of room to grow. It just seems to me that something is desperately missing from this squad. These days they seem to always get into a hole in the first quarter, without fail. Every bloody time. They can't defend anybody and rely on their erratic offensive game to win games, which is a gamble night in night out. They turn the ball over far too often and don't get to the 50-50 rebounds and loose balls. They miss far too many foul shots. Make a list of things a team shouldn't do and chances are the Pacers will tick all the boxes.
Granger is the team's best player but he doesn't have the leadership, heart or passion a franchise player needs. Every game there are moments where I see him not playing with effort, getting blown by on D, getting outmuscled and outrebounded by smaller players and throwing up bad shots. I'm sure he cares, but his facial expression and body language suggests he doesn't care enough.
Hibbert plays with passion but he doesn't know how to channel it. And no matter how much he improves I don't think he'll ever be an elite center in the league unless he knows how to control his mind and his emotions in a positive way. And he's still too slow and falls all the time.
I love the speed and tenacity Collison brings to the team but he can't guard anyone. He is flat out hopeless against the pick and roll and every team I watch exploits that weakness against him. I wonder if he'll ever be able to improve.
Paul George and Tyler Hansbrough -- now those I like. But they are still both unknown and risky prospects with weaknesses. But at least they give Pacers fans some hope going forward.
Almost on cue, the Indiana Pacers went out there and surprised me the last couple of games. They earned their first win against a tough Boston Celtics team, 107-100, and then held on to beat the Pistons 111-101.
But despite the stellar showing, they remain only one game ahead of the gutsy Charlotte Bobcats at 34-42 with 6 games remaining in the season.
Note that the Pacers have already overtaken their horrific win total from last season (32), which was their worst in over 20 years. Now, if the Pacers win just 3 out of their last 6 games, they will finish the season at 37-45, which will be their best record since 2005-2006 (when they won 41 games and last made the playoffs).
That's right. Despite all the supposed improvements and progress this team has been making (or so we've been told) over the last 3 or 4 seasons, the Pacers have not had much to show in the standings at all. Which is pretty sad, really.
But if this team can make the playoffs, which I think they will (see below), then at least that will give the fans something to get a little excited about. Sure, they'll most likely get swept in the first round, but the experience will be invaluable as the team heads into the offseason with plenty of cap space.
Okay. With the Pacers winning against Detroit today to end a March where they went 8-10 (not bad if you factor in the 6-game losing streak from games 2-7), they remain just one game ahead of Charlotte, who also won in a close one against the Cavs.
The Pacers' final 6 opponents are: Milwaukee, @New Orleans, Washington, Atlanta, New York, @Orlando.
The Bobcat's final 8 opponents are: @Orlando, Washington, @Cleveland, Orlando, @Miami, Detroit, @New Jersey, Atlanta.
You can pretty much forget about Milwaukee because they're too far behind.
With this Pacers team, you never know, but realistically the only win they SHOULD definitely get is Washington at home. The one against Milwaukee is a bit of a worry because they don't match up well against that team, but the Bucks have been struggling.
To be honest, those are the only two games I see the Pacers winning for certain. That would be the worst case scenario though, and the Pacers will finish 36-46.
Now with the Bobcats, they might very well win the games against Washington, Cleveland, Detroit and New Jersey, four teams with nothing to play for. If they do, they will also finish 36-46, but the Pacers will have the tiebreaker because they won the head-to-head for the season.
But if the Bobcats can just get one more, or if the Pacers just one less, then the playoff drought will continue. It shouldn't be like this, with the Bobcats having traded away Gerald Wallace and nursing a bunch of injuries to key players. Nevertheless, it'll be a very interesting end to the season.