Pacers Grinding Through the Dog Days of NBA Winter
February 2, 2014 | 12:35 a.m.
The Dog Days of an NBA season.
This is the time of year when practices get longer, games become more of a grind, and teams begin to see each other a second or third or – in the case of the Nets and Pacers on Saturday night – a fourth time.
These days are even more challenging for the Pacers than your average NBA club, since they’ve made it clear that their number one priority this season is to win home court throughout the playoffs by clinching the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
And for Indiana, that means playing every game as if it will be the one that makes the difference between clinching the one-seed or finishing behind Miami atop the standings.
With a torrid 32-7 start to the season, the Pacers made things look easy. Along the way they beat the aforementioned Heat, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers (twice), the Golden State Warriors, and the Houston Rockets, just to name a few challengers.
They opened their home schedule by winning 21 of their first 22 contests at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, burying several opponents so thoroughly that it made them look downright frail in the process (see: Dec. 20 vs. the Rockets, Jan. 14 vs. the Kings and Jan. 16 against the Knicks).
But Indiana, a team that looked nearly unbeatable for the first two and a half months of the season, has hit some bumps in the road as of late. The Pacers are 4-3 over their last seven games, getting blown out by the Suns on Jan. 22 and dropping games against the Nuggets in Denver and the Suns again at home on Thursday.
Over that span the Pacers’ usually impenetrable defense suddenly became vulnerable to attack.
The Suns shot 54 percent in their 124-100 rout of the Pacers in the Southwest, and 53 percent in the first half against Indiana at the Fieldhouse Thursday before the NBA’s top defense buckled down and rediscovered its form. The Nuggets shot 48 percent and dropped 109 on Indiana in their win over the Pacers on Jan. 25.
Another area of concern has been the struggles of Paul George as of late. In the loss to Denver, he scored 18 points but was just 6-of-18 from the floor. In the home loss to the Suns, George was 5-of-17 from the field and scored 12. Against the Nets Saturday, he posted 20 points but only connected on seven of 19 field goal attempts.
George affirmed that it’s grit-and-grind time for himself and the Pacers.
“It is [the dog days],” George said of this season within the season. “It’s that middle break, going into the All-Star weekend coming up. It’s a grind-mode right now. We’ve just got to grind it out until then.”
When every game matters, even for a team whose magic number to clinch a playoff spot is already only 19 just over halfway through the season, it’s no small feat to maintain the level of focus required to reach the intended goal of finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Especially since the two-time defending champs are chasing you from behind.
So how do the Pacers do it?
If you ask that question around the locker room, the answer is pretty uniform: the prize at the end is just too good to let slip away because of a midseason lull.
“Knowing that every game means something, that every game can cost us in the long run if we don’t take advantage of it is how we keep that focus,” said George Hill. “Today was not a pretty win and we know that. But we tried to find a way to win and we did that.”
That the Pacers did in their 97-96 nail-biter against the Nets Saturday night at the Fieldhouse. Indiana committed 24 turnovers that led to 36 of Brooklyn’s 96 points, and at many times throughout the contest the Pacers were out of sync on offense. But their mainstay – the league-leading defense that is the squad’s cornerstone and calling card – returned and order was, in many ways, restored following their uncharacteristic lapses against the Suns and Nuggets.
While the symptoms of the dog days can certainly be seen with this group, it is still able to continue grinding out victories as it plugs away toward its goal. Indiana came tantalizingly close to tasting the prize last season, and nobody can underestimate the fuel that creates for the Pacers now, even in an ugly Feb. 1 game against the Nets.
“This season is all about the long-haul,” George added. “We all understand what the prize is at the end of the year. And we understand what our goal was to start with this year. So that’s all the motivation we need.”
“The games are getting tougher,” said David West, the veteran who provides an unbreakable tether of work ethic for this team. “Obviously, you start playing these teams over and over and over again. They’re more prepared for you the next time. … It’s professional sports. It’s hard, but you can’t complain about it. Practices are harder, dragging at times. But guys build each other up and we’re just continuing to grow in that.”
Lance Stephenson – who seemingly never runs out of energy on the court – said the keys for getting through the dog days are patience and rest.
“I think it’s just resting,” he said. “You can’t do the stuff that you were doing earlier in the season now. You’ve just got to rest a little bit and have patience. We’ve got to win at the same time, and bring it every game. We’re getting the best from every team and different opponents are bringing their best, so we’ve got to bring our best.”
Stephenson clarified the rest comment, though. He was talking about the team as a whole, not necessarily himself. His legs are fresh.
“I’m young, man,” Stephenson said with a smile. “I can run all day. I feel good, but other guys on our team probably feel tired sometimes so I just try to be that energy guy when people are down.”
The Pacers are confident that they’ll navigate the sometimes treacherous waters along their ride toward the postseason, particularly at this midway point in the campaign.
The Dog Days are here, but the Pacers plan to get through them with tunnel vision.
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