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Pacers Hitting Cold Spots, But Wins Are Piling Up

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 8, 2014 | 12:22 a.m.

They're dealing with the most depressing part of the season, when days are short and the end isn't in sight and inspiration is as difficult to find as the warmth of the sun. Their offense is bogged down, and shots aren't falling. Their leading scorer is slumping. And Tuesday, they struggled to put away even a losing team that had been traveling all day.

Whatever might be ailing the Pacers, though, qualifies as a first-world problem – something along the lines of the snow on your satellite dish ruining your television reception, a bad internet connection making it difficult to surf the web on your iPad or a cell phone call dropping out. Because through what seems like a troublesome stretch of games, they've merely won eight of their last nine and maintained the best record in the NBA, 28-6.

What else can a team want? Well, perhaps hot water flowing from their showers.

“Pacers hot, showers not! That's the headline right there!” Roy Hibbert shouted as reporters spread themselves through the locker room following the 86-79 win over Toronto at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But that's merely another mild annoyance, really, one they'll have forgotten by the time they've dug into a shrimp cocktail on the charter flight that will take them to their five-star hotel in Atlanta for another game on Wednesday.

This latest victory, which ran their homecourt record to 17-1 and was witnessed by 16,147 brave souls who defied the freezing temperatures and iced-caked streets, was chippy, choppy and chirpy. It offered plenty of topics for the Complaint Department. They've hit just 26-of-96 three-pointers over the past five games (27 percent). They're still too turnover prone (21st in the league). And, their leading scorer, Paul George, has lost the mojo that had earned him recognition as an MVP candidate.

George scored just 11 points, his second-lowest total of the season, and hit just 4-of-12 shots. He's hit 28-of-79 shots (35 percent) over the past five games, and hasn't scored 30 or more since Dec. 8. He blames double-teaming defenses, the byproduct of his hot start to the season, and his next great challenge.

“I'm a red flag on a team's scouting report now, and they're guarding me differently,” he said.

“I'm seeing a lot of double teams now. On the pick-and-roll, they're trying to trap me and get the ball out of my hands. Even on post-ups, I'm seeing a man coming over to help.”

So what's a budding superstar to do? Stay on the move, for one thing, to avoid the double-teams. And work your way out of it, for another.

“Just stay in the gym,” he said. “Just playing so many minutes and finding time to rest and finding time to making sure I'm staying in the gym … it's a tough transition for me to learn to play at the elite level all year long. This is just the first stage. Over my career, nights like these will be limited and I'll move on.”

Coach Frank Vogel shrugged off George's recent struggles as typical of what players go through over portions of the 82-game schedule. Not just George, but everyone. He had talked with his players before the game about the Dog Days, when a team has played a college season and still has 18 more before the All-Star break, which marks the beginning of the stretch run toward the playoffs, when days grow longer and temperatures become sensible.

“Don't even think about settling,” he wrote on the board in the locker room beforehand.

His team might have struggled in some areas, but it didn't settle. Although the Raptors had flown in from Miami earlier in the day and had what coach Dwane Casey called “sea legs,” the Pacers' defense had something to do with their 37 percent field goal percentage. The Pacers also grabbed 11 offensive rebounds against the team ranked seventh in the league in preventing them and outscored Toronto 15-4 on second-chance points.

Vogel has X-ray vision when it comes to finding positives, and he has no difficulty locating them amid what feels like a slump. In fact, he seemed a bit put-off by the persistent line of negative questioning that permeated his post-game media session.

“Just one of those points of the season,” he said.

Lance Stephenson, meanwhile, doesn't even acknowledge negatives. The team's difficulty in getting out of Cleveland, where they won on Sunday but had to wait until late Monday afternoon to leave their hotel, was a great bonding opportunity, he said. The players watched television together, played cards, played video games, and he even took a turn playing the piano – badly – in the hotel lobby, just for laughs.

In his world, everything is warm and fuzzy, and it showed in his play against the Raptors: 13 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and three turnovers. He was the most active Pacer, barking at teammates and referees alike, and he remains the most enthusiastic and optimistic.

“We've got a goal, and our goal is to have homecourt advantage, so I take no games off,” he said. “I'm bringing it every night. We're the big dogs and everyone wants to play their best against us, so we can't have no days off. That's why I try to be that guy, to get us going.”

The Pacers have hit some slick spots in their schedule, and aren't humming along as smoothly as earlier in the season. But they're still winning, and their record remains the richest in the league. In the grand scheme of things, for now at least, their “issues” warrant about as much worry as slow-moving traffic following a snowstorm in January, or cold showers.

They're still moving forward, and warmer days are coming.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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