Just when you thought the team was taking a step in the right direction, and then THIS. A 107-88 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at home, an embarrassing defeat where the lead ballooned to 30+ — in the first half, the lowest scoring half in franchise history (23 points!!!). A game where the supposedly best defense in the NBA (they’re actually second in points allowed now, behind the Bulls) allowed the opponent to shoot 56%. A game where Roy Hibbert, who has been publicly complaining about everyone but himself, missed all 5 shots, scored zip, collected no rebounds, and was benched for the rest of the game after playing 9 minutes.
Zach Lowe was right. The Pacers are no longer a title contender. They haven’t been for a while. If this were a mini-slump or even an extended one there would be cause for optimism. They would be hope that the Pacers can turn this around in the playoffs. But everything we’ve seen from them is screaming, “This season is over!”
With the team in complete disarray, would anyone even be surprised if the Pacers not only lost the first round to the 7th seed (be it Washington or Charlotte), but got swept or got spanked 4-1? I wouldn’t be. It’s been one step forward and three-steps back since before the All-Star break, and now the Pacers don’t have anywhere to step back to.
I’ve never seen a team — any team — regress as much as the Pacers have throughout the course of a season without any major injuries to core players. They’ve gone from media darlings to laughing stock over the course of the last 3 months. Embarrassing doesn’t quite capture the feeling.
At this point, a team psychologist, as some have suggested, isn’t going to help. They need Max von Sydow to cast whatever demon is in the locker room. There are problems everywhere. A coach that should have noticed the team was on a downward slide way back in early February but failed to hold them accountable. A star player whose troubles off the court (strippergate, getting reportedly catfished) have damaged his play on the court almost beyond repair. A 7-2 All-Star center who can’t even average 5 rebounds a game for a month but has the energy to point fingers at everyone else. A power forward whose game is declining along with his authority in the locker room. A point guard who plays within the broken system but lacks passion. A shooting guard who has bought into his own hype ahead of what he believes will be a fat new contract. A bench that flat out stinks.
It’s easy to trace the team’s troubles back to two transactions: the signing of Andrew Bynum and trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. Bynum was signed on Feb. 1, when the Pacers were 36-10 and would win their next 3 games. The Granger trade was on Feb. 20, after the All-Star break, when the Pacers were 41-13. They are 12-12 since.
But the slippage came earlier. There were signs when the Pacers were blown out in Phoenix by 24 points on Jan. 22. They were supposed to get revenge back home on Jan. 30, but they lost that one too in convincing fashion. The amber light flashed when they lost by one point to Orlando on Feb. 9 in a lackluster game, then “disappointed” Larry Bird by laying an egg at home against Dallas in the final game before the All-Star break.
Between Feb. 22 and March 2 the Pacers reeled off 5-straight victories, but it was deceiving because they barely managed to beat a bunch of cellar dwellers. During that stretch they beat the Bucks twice along with victories over the Lakers, the Celtics and Utah. Then came the 4-game losing streak against quality teams. The losses hurt, but it was the way they were losing the games that should set off alarm bells. They barely held on for another winning-streak over the next 4 games, but it included 2 wins over Philly, a home win over Boston and a come-from-behind OT win in Detroit on March 15, incidentally the last time they’ve won on the road.
The Pacers have been a 3-8 team since March 19, and only 2 of the losses have been in single figures. The wheels had been coming off for a long time but the team kept thinking things would work themselves out. Now it’s too late. You can’t blame Bynum, who played in just 2 games before being shelved indefinitely again. You can’t blame the Granger-Turner trade (neither guy has been a consistent contributor).
At this point, you blame the entire organization. Players who the Pacers couldn’t wait to get rid of are flourishing around the league. Darren Collison is killing it in LA. DJ Augustin has revived the Bulls’ season. Gerald Green and to a lesser extent Miles Plumlee have been phenomenal. If you go further back, even Mike Dunleavy Jr isn’t doing too badly in Chicago.
There are now only 4 games left in the season: Milwaukee, Miami, OKC and Orlando, with only the Thunder game being at home. They should win against the Bucks — they must — but barring a miraculous turnaround I sense blowouts against the Heat and Thunder, with the Magic game being a toss-up. Usually a 54-55 win season would be considered a success, but given the goals the Pacers have set themselves it will leave a bitter taste heading into the playoffs.