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Pacers Still at a Loss

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 1, 2014 | 12:30 a.m.

The sight would have been unimaginable just a couple of months ago. The Pacers looked shaken and disheveled, unable to compete on their home court, booed by their fan base for the first time in recent memory, while president Larry Bird watched with his chin in the palm of his left hand.

And then in the postgame locker room, as much confusion as optimism.

“We're probably the most downtrodden 50-plus win team in the history of the game,” David West said after a 103-77 loss to San Antonio at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Pacers are 52-23, but reeling with six losses in the previous eight games with just seven remaining before the playoffs. Never in franchise history has a team dealt with such a dichotomy of circumstance. They had held or shared the top spot in the Eastern Conference all season, but now stand percentage points behind Miami, which has not made nearly as big a deal out of getting it. They have been widely regarded as a title contender most of the season, but recently have not even resembled an average team most nights.

The Spurs “embarrassed” the Pacers on Monday. That was George Hill's word, and the word of some of his teammates. It's probably misleading to point to the Pacers' 111-100 victory in San Antonio on Dec. 7 as an indication of how far the Pacers have fallen because the Spurs were then coming off a canceled game in Mexico that coach Gregg Popovich called a “debacle.”

Still. The Pacers aren't nearly what they were the second half of last season or the first half of this season, and a trip through the postgame locker room reveals little insight.

“We've been in a downward spiral and we've been splintering a little bit,” Roy Hibbert said as he worked on a button his shirt sleeve. “I don't know. I can't even get this button on, to tell you the truth.”

Added George Hill: “If you don't have all 15 on the same page, it makes it tough. We have to figure how we can get all 15 back on the same page and turn this ship around.”

The primary problem is clearly on offense, where the Pacers have failed to reach 80 points in five of their six previous games, and only scored 84 in the exception. For awhile, they had stopped sharing the ball as freely as early in the season, which led to Hibbert's complaint about some of his teammates being “selfish dudes” following the loss at Washington last Friday. They shared it better in the loss at Cleveland on Sunday, and tried again on Monday. Three players – George, Hibbert and Lance Stephenson – attempted 13 field goals, and some of the team's 16 turnovers were the result of over-passing.

They didn't shoot well enough to take advantage of the extra passing, though, hitting just 38 percent of their field goal attempts. They were playing their third game in four nights, and facing a team that has mastered the art of help defense. But their own inability to get clean looks was at the core of their troubles. Lately, they've had to play beat the clock on far too many possessions, firing up a shot for the sake of getting up a shot before the 24-second clock buzzer sounds.

Perhaps it's structure. Coach Frank Vogel talked before the game about the impact of the loss of assistants Jim Boylen and Brian Shaw, who set up the system that worked so much better last season. The Pacers don't move nearly as much as other teams. But some of it has to be lack of execution as well.

“We're not catching the ball where we want to catch the ball, we're not screening, we're not getting open from screens,” said George, who hit 5-of-13 shots. “You play against any defense without setting a screen … you look at (the Spurs), they were hitting us all night. It's tough. Especially for me, coming off screens and the whole defense is there. I don't have an advantage because we're not screening. Teams are locked in on me and what we do. We're not screening to get guys open.”

George tried to make something happen by driving to the basket, which drew praise from Hibbert. The result was a game-high five assists, but also a game-high five turnovers.

“I'm always going to play the game the right way,” he said, quietly but firmly. “If I take a shot, I'm shooting on three people. That's not the player I'm going to be. So I'm going to play the right way every time. If the help comes, I'm going to move the ball and find the open man.”

Are they being too selfish? Or too unselfish? Lance Stephenson thinks it's time to stop thinking so much about it.

“We have to take the shots that we normally take,” he said. “We have to stop worrying about messing up or getting a turnover and just play hard. Now we're over-sharing it because we worry about (not) sharing the ball.”

The Pacers have had enough players-only meetings and sit-downs with coaches and video sessions to last a season. Hibbert mentioned upper management participation, too, and joked – we assume, anyway – about needing a group therapy session with team psychologist Dr. Chris Carr “to air out some of our grievances.”

West, the acknowledged leader of the team remains at a loss for answers. Or, if he has them, he doesn't want to air them publicly.

“We just have to go back to the drawing board, try to figure it out,” he said, stroking his goatee. “Just start from scratch, man, that's the way I feel. We've got to figure it out. The season is closing in on us.

“We barely recognize ourselves when we watch the film from months ago. We're at the bottom. We've got to figure a way to climb out of this thing and put a better effort on the floor.”

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