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Ups and Downs for Pacers After 20 Games

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

December 7, 2012

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The NBA season is one-fourth of the way over for the Pacers, and this much we know:

They are exactly average, with their 10-10 record. They are too often soft, to borrow Larry Bird's description. And they have too many underachievers negating the efforts of a few standouts.

Their 92-89 loss to Denver at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday was a tidy capsule of their season, good and bad.

David West was exceptionally efficient with 18 points and 11 rebounds. George Hill was solid with 15 points, 10 assists and one turnover. Paul George strung together his third consecutive strong performance with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists. Lance Stephenson provided all he was asked to do with 12 points.

But, the Pacers are not who we thought they were. And, they let the Nuggets off the hook with some familiar faults. By now it's obvious that unless Roy Hibbert finds an offensive game and the bench finds some consistency, they are destined to remain glaringly average at least until Danny Granger returns. He's thought to be on schedule to rejoin the team around the first of February, but realistically it's too soon to predict.

So 10-10 it is. And for now that's looking like a sneak preview of 20-20.

“We've lost some games we shouldn't have lost,” said West, the team's straightest shooter on the court and in the locker room. “We had a chance to get things moving in the right direction. This is a setback for us. We just didn't complete the job tonight.”

Defensively, most of all. This was supposed to be a battle of wills in the paint. Denver, also 10-10, led the league in points scored within the foul lane, while the Pacers had allowed the fewest points. Denver, however, outscored the Pacers 54-28, getting into the heart of the Pacers defense as if invited. That was especially true for backup point guard Andre Miller, who was born during the Ford Administration, when gasoline could be bought for less than 60 cents a gallon. He scored 15 points, including eight during a 10-0 run that took Denver from a three-point deficit with 3 ½ minutes left to a seven-point lead with a minute remaining. He assisted on the lone basket he didn't score, getting a dunk for Javale McGee.

Miller is 36 years old, and wasn't regarded as eye-blinking quick when he was 26. For him to get in the lane so easily requires some negligent defense, which the Pacers provided. The fact the Pacers got stops on their final two defensive possessions, when they were truly desperate, only confirmed their earlier lapses. On one, Hill forced Miller into an awkward miss in the lane. On the other, Hill blocked Ty Lawson's three-pointer. But Lance Stephenson hit just 1-of-2 foul shots with 29.9 seconds left and Hill missed a leaning three-pointer at the buzzer that might or might not have drawn a foul, but definitely didn't draw a foul call.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel had a timeout remaining but didn't call it after West rebounded Lawson's missed three-pointer with 7.8 seconds left. That's a decision guaranteed to draw second-guessing, but a good one. Open shots are usually easier to get amid scrambles in transition, although Hill didn't get the desired look this time.

Which brings up the issue of poise. The Pacers have won their share of close games this season, but didn't have it Friday. They hit just 7-of-21 shots in the fourth quarter, committed four turnovers and hit 3-of-5 foul shots. Denver hit 9-of-18 shots, all four foul shots and committed just one turnover.

“We had this game,” West said. “Just turnovers – not just the number of them (19), but when we turned the ball over. They capitalized on them.”

The bench that was supposed to be a strength for the Pacers has not emerged. Not consistently enough, anyway. Tyler Hansbrough and Gerald Green failed to score in 26 combined minutes and D.J. Augustin scored one point in 10 minutes. Augustin, brought in to be the “pure point guard” that Darren Collison wasn't, has been a disappointment in all ways. He's averaging 3.2 points on 25 percent shooting, with 48 assists and 28 turnovers. His defense has been no better than his offense.

The bench wouldn't matter as much, though, if Hibbert mattered more offensively. While he has defended and rebounded reasonably well, he's averaging just 9.8 points on 38 percent shooting and continually inventing ways to miss shots within five feet. Last season he averaged 12.8 points on 50 percent shooting. He reportedly has worked diligently on his body in past off-seasons. Next summer, he should consider working on developing a scoring weapon around the basket. A hook shot, a jump-hook, anything that will bring consistency and draw fouls, rather than the awkward flips and tosses he's been attempting.

How many more wins would the Pacers have if Hibbert hadn't improved at all from last season, but also hadn't regressed? How long will it take for him to merely get back to his norm of the past four seasons? What will inspire him to do so?

Coach?

“Just got to keep working,” Vogel said. “He's a good player; he doesn't want to shoot 3-for-10. Just got to keep working.”

Harder, apparently.

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