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Pacers' Defense Showing Wear

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 5, 2014 , 12:05 a.m.

The frayed threads of their game were easier to ignore amid the “ugly” wins. They had won five in a row and six-of-seven since the All-Star break, which was supposed to mark the beginning of a stretch run.

The Pacers' 98-96 loss to Golden State on Tuesday, just their fourth of the season at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, doesn't mean they're unraveling. But there's certainly a need for some patchwork on a team that has gone 13-7 since it defeated the Warriors in Oakland on Jan. 20.

It starts with the defense, which had been the foundation of their early success. They held their first nine opponents to 91 points or less, an average of 83.7. They still lead the NBA, allowing 91.3 on average, but they've allowed 96.4 points over the past 20. Two of those games went overtime and the difficulty of the schedule has been greater, but still, a sense of urgency has been lacking. After losing five of the last 12 games before the All-Star break, the Pacers planned to come out with renewed vigor afterward. But the change hasn't been as dramatic as anticipated.

Leave it to David West to explain it best.

“Mentally, we’ve got to be way tougher than we are, because it’s time,” he said after leading the Pacers' scoring for the second straight game with 27 points. “It’s just time. It’s not just something that you can just a week before the playoffs say, 'OK,' … You’ve got to work your way into it. As a group, it’s time. We’ve got a tough 3-game trip coming up, and it’s just time.”

Tuesday's loss showed the best and worst of the Pacers. They coasted a bit through the first half, as they tend to do, falling behind by six points at halftime. They got within three after the third quarter, but fell behind by 12 midway through the fourth. West sparked the comeback, hitting a 15-footer to cut the lead to 10 and then getting a steal and breakaway dunk that made it a six-point game. Their 12-0 run tied the game, and they forced a second one later, but they fell short when Klay Thompson hit a turnaround jumper with 0.6 seconds left and Paul George's desperation 3-point attempt missed.

The game wasn't lost at the end, obviously, but in the first 43 minutes, when the Pacers played like the team that had gotten away with less than its best in wins over Utah, Boston, Milwaukee (twice) and the Lakers.

The defense has been erratic, for a variety of reasons. Some games, transition defense is weak. Other games, they foul too much. This time they failed to guard the 3-point line, something they have excelled at most of the season but not lately. Golden State hit 10-of-20 3-point shots. Utah hit 6-of-14 on Sunday. Milwaukee hit 12-of-24 last Thursday. Some were well-guarded, but not all.

“Too much space,” West said. “We've got to be more combative. We've got to take guys' personal space and impose our will.”

The fact the Pacers did that in the final few minutes, when they were making their desperate comeback attempt, shows they're still capable. But it also exposed the lack of intensity earlier in the game. George looked on the bright side of the difference.

“That's the defense we've been used to playing,” he said. “Just climbing in and shutting teams down. We got away from that, so it's good to see we can get back to that – and that's how we have to start games out.”

The Pacers check the standings like everyone else. They know Miami has been within two games of their Eastern Conference lead and quest for the coveted No. 1 seed for awhile now. The Heat had not yet lost to Houston when the Pacers were discussing this loss, but the point is the same. They can feel the Heat on their back, and they know efforts such as Tuesday's – or in so many other games over the past six weeks – won't hold them off.

“That's a goal we're fighting for, and it's still within reach,” West said. “We knew it wasn't going to be easy. Coming out and playing the way we played early, we had to do that. We had to get ahead of the race, so to speak. It's still a goal of ours.

“We're going to compete down to the last game of the season like we know they are. We just have to show ourselves responsible enough to handle it.” Starting on defense.

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