Loss to Knicks huge warning sign

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.

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