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Pacers Want to Get Back to Where They Started

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

February 19, 2014 | 12:10 a.m.

Long after the Pacers had finished off the first game of the rest of their season on Tuesday, LeBron James served notice that Miami isn't going to go away.

James scored 42 points to lead the visiting Heat past Dallas, the same team that had dealt the Pacers a stiff uppercut before the All-Star break. So, the Pacers' lead in the Eastern Conference remains at 2 ½ games despite their 108-98 win over Atlanta at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a game they treated as a grand re-opening to their season.

The Pacers began the season with records of 9-0 and 16-1. That pace wasn't going to continue, but the way they finished the pre-break couldn't continue, either, if they were going to escape Miami's pursuit. The Heat are on record as not caring nearly as much about the East's No. 1 seed as the Pacers do, focused more on keeping their veterans healthy for the playoffs. Still, they wouldn't mind taking it from the Pacers, who view it as a virtual necessity for their championship ambition.

To remain in front, the Pacers need to take advantage of their current run of sub-par opponents. Atlanta was the first of seven consecutive games against losing teams, a few of which have taken the habit to extremes. Tonight's opponent, Minnesota, is the best of the remaining group. After that, the Pacers face Milwaukee (10-43), the Lakers (18-35), Milwaukee again, Boston (19-35) and Utah (19-33).

The Pacers' overall post-break schedule seems favorable, in fact, except for one detail: 17 of the games are on the road, and 13 at home. Which makes the current stretch of “easy” games all the more crucial.

Not that they're declaring any game to be easy.

“It's still going to be a grind for us,” said Paul George, who hit his first six shots to score 14 points in the first period (when the Pacers' scored 35) and finished with 26. “There's still some things we need to overcome.”

What they need to overcome most is their self-destructive tendencies on offense. The Pacers rank first in the NBA on defense, in both points allowed and field goal percentage permitted, but 20th in scoring. Their defense will keep them in nearly every game, but they'll need more offense to beat the winning teams and advance in the playoffs. Remember, they only scored 76 points in their Game 7 loss in Miami last season.

They have two ways to do that, one of the being more balance to the offense. Coach Frank Vogel talked before the game about getting back to the basics that enabled that season-opening sprint out of the blocks.

“The open man was the guy who took the shot every single time down the court, and that's what we have to have now,” he said. “There's no need for anybody to carry a bigger load than they need to. They need to attack and find the open man. If they do that, the offense should improve.”

In other words, George needs to not get carried away with showing off his improved ability to create his own shot. He's an All-Star starter, and full of admirable ambition, declaring after Tuesday's game that “at some point I want to be the top dog in this league.” Problem is, he's taken 305 more field goal attempts than any of his teammates while his field goal percentage (.438) is worst among the starters. Something is awry there.

Vogel in particular wants more shots for his 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, who ranks fourth in field goal attempts among the starters, ahead of only George Hill. Hibbert averaged just seven attempts in the four games before the break. Getting him more shots was a topic of discussion in Tuesday morning's video session.

Hibbert got off nine shots in just 25 minutes against the Hawks, a baby step in the right direction. George took 18 shots, percentage points above his average for the season, and still seven more than anyone else. Half of those, however, came in the first quarter when he hit six. He hit eight overall. The other starters combined to hit 19-of-34 shots, a collective argument for more opportunities.

George, who hit just 33 percent of his shots in the 10 games before the break, says he's being defended more aggressively this season. That's no doubt true, but Vogel has a solution for that.

“Be a facilitator,” he said. “It's not a situation where you have Michael Jordan and a bunch of guys who can't score. If he's drawing double-teams, that helps our offense. Maybe his numbers come down, but maybe our team numbers go up.”

The other path to better offense lies with avoiding the potholes of turnovers. The Pacers rank 20th in that category, too, meaning their giving away too many shot attempts. They had 14 on Tuesday, 1.3 below their average.

“We've got to take care of the basketball,” David West said. “Trusting the pass, but ultimately trusting the shot. We have to shoot shots within the flow of the offense. It's good to make extra passes, but sometimes it's not the right play to make. Sometimes the right play to make is to shoot the basketball (when rebounders are in position).

“It's just a matter of tightening up the screws and knowing where we want to go with the ball.”

Because Miami knows where it's ball will be going, and LeBron is on the loose.

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