The Absolutely True-Diary of the Part-Time Pacers

Frank Vogel's opinion of the last two months.

Frank Vogel’s opinion of the last two months.

Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry made headlines in early April, because he told the truth about his team.

“We’re not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that’s not our goal. We’re trying to build something that’s good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so.”

With six games left in the regular season, the Hawks were in 3rd gear on the playoff freeway and were about to get off at the next exit, hoping to allow the Knicks to take on the #1 seed Pacers. The Hawks started the season 16-13 with center Al Horford, then slowly watched their season collapse around them. Injuries to Gustavo Ayon, then February health issues for Pero Antic and a two-week February/March absence of the brilliant Paul Millsapp, and the Hawks were forced to play the tiniest lineup in the NBA, losing 10 of 12 games. Now that Hawks are healthy. Mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy.

Welcome to the bliss that comes with zero expectations. The 2006-07 Golden State Warriors know the feeling. The Memphis Grizzlies love the role. “But these Atlanta Hawks won 38 games!” you might say. “Injuries,” might be the response.

Instead of mentioning Jeff Teague’s penetrating masterpieces, and the rapid ball-movement of Atlanta, the narrative is unavoidably about the epic disintegration of the once mighty Indiana Pacers, who have fallen off of the NBA cliff since March 1. Let’s go back to the above quote by GM Danny Ferry.

“We’re not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that’s not our goal. We’re trying to build something that’s good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so.”

Before the Pacers’ wagon-wheels fell of their ever-lightning bandwagon, back on March 12, Bird told the Indianapolis Star 

“A lot of times, we don’t take the fight to them [the opponent],” Bird told the Star. “A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We’ve got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we’re playing against. We can’t have the mindset it’s just another game; it’s a very important game. All of them are.”

Consider the fact that the Pacers won 49 games last year, but advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, due to the fact that they play in the Eastern Conference (beating a Carmelo-heavy Knicks team wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire), and have the ability to play great individual and team defense. Think about the idea that they have been talking about home court advantage and the importance of the #1 seed, so that they get home court in what they hoped was an eventual rematch of last year’s East Finals with the Miami Heat. The talk of the standings back in November and December. Expectations went from non-existent to paralyzing in the course of a few months.

“Yeah, but that’s all psychological mumb0-jumbo,” you might claim.

When the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and ESPN The Magazine’s baseball preview issue makes a genuine attempt to quantify chemistry, it’s time for that old rhetoric to die. Chemistry not only matters, it can break teams and elevate them. Expectations create internal pressure. Larry Bird wanted 82 games to matter. Gregg Popovich knows 82 games matter only in that they create the right path to the real season, which starts in mid-April.

If every regular season game is equally important (hint: they aren’t–schedule losses, injuries, and unavoidable lulls will take place in any non-robotic endeavor, such as the NBA regular season), none of the games are important.

On the other hand, if teams don’t practice the right habits of mind, and habits of physical execution on the court to prepare themselves for the every-possession-counts level of intensity that comes with the playoffs, they usually won’t be able to “turn it on.”

Back to the car/freeway analogy, the regular season is about gradually gaining speed, not revving the engine in the on ramp and peeling out into the left lane immediately. It’s about ending on a high note, and being healthy for the playoffs. The Spurs, Heat, Clippers and Blazers were able to manage this and look at how their playoffs have started. (The Spurs will be fine).

In terms of this specific series, the Pacers not only ended the season on a horrendous note, with a nose-diving offense, they found themselves in the worst first round match-up possible.

  • Atlanta (without Horford and with Antic as their center) are an extreme 3-point shooting team that makes no attempt to post-up.
  • The clearly physically exhausted Hibbert shouldn’t even be on the court with Antic, as he can’t get out to the arc.
  • Bird calling out Vogel and the Pacers publicly made little sense to me. Vogel not having control of the team seems inevitable when Hibbert and George had issues with each other.
  • It’s likely that the expectations and sudden exposure that came with them created an ego-issue for Hibbert, when he saw George getting MVP consideration in January.
  • It seems like Hibbert has a noticeable chip on his shoulder, while George’s star has risen so quickly he was beginning to believe the MVP hype.
  • The Hibbert/George divide was widened by the insane Lance Stephenson, who everyone seems to get annoyed by.
  • Trading away Danny Granger, one of their few long-range shooters, further damaged their spacing issues. (That’s on Bird, not Vogel). Evan Turner has never been able to shoot consistently from more than 15 feet.
  • C.J. Watson’s ability to create offense and distribute was missing for most of March and April, as he dealt with injuries.
  • The whole offense has just self-destructed. Nobody trusts each other and their defense isn’t creating the turnovers against the smart passing of Atlanta that leads to easy transition baskets.

With all that having been said:

The Pacers won Game 4 on Saturday. The state of Indiana can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Instead of facing a Game 5 that would likely be filled with boos and utter devastation, they have regained home court advantage with a Saturday win.

A spectacular disintegration is the narrative the Pacers have been hearing. Combine great expectations, a thin margin for error to begin with, and the endless talk of their demise, and the Pacers have been victimized by all of the above. Offense is often about trust. Saturday’s game resulted in 22 assists to only 10 turnovers, the Pacers lowest total of the four games in this series.

Another possible factor: The formerly just-happy-to-be-here Hawks found themselves facing actual pressure…real expectations.

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One thought on “The Absolutely True-Diary of the Part-Time Pacers

  1. […] Grizzlies, the Pacers became a formidable foe. I wrote more in-depth about the Pacers season here. Simply put, they were never the team that people thought they were. They are a very good team with […]

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