The trend among fans and certain corners of the media world is to say the Pacers are struggling because they simply aren't playing hard enough, or don't care enough.
That's a blanket, off-base analysis of a revamped team that is more likely than not of making the playoffs heading into its final five games. The more accurate assessment is that they tend to grow soft in the lap of luxury. Big leads dwindle under the burden of a relaxed defense and/or an unfocused offense, especially when paired with impressive shot-making from the opponent.
They held a 14-point lead in the second quarter and an 11-point lead in the third quarter at Brooklyn on March 26, but lost.
They held a 16-point lead in the third quarter against Houston the following day, fell behind by five, but came back to win.
They held an 18-point lead in the third quarter at Philadelphia on Saturday, fell behind by five in the fourth quarter, but came back to win.
They held an 18-point lead in the third quarter at New York the following day, fell behind by two late in the game, but came back to win.
Trying isn't the problem. Caring isn't the problem. Dealing with success is the problem.
The root of the problem is difficult to pinpoint.
"I'm not really sure," Paul George said. "Whatever it is, we go up big and we relax. We're relaxed at that moment and let a couple possessions get away from us. It always seems teams always capitalize big when we go into that non-attacking (mode). They always find ways to get back into games."
Against the 76ers, the Pacers took a pair of 18-point leads in the third quarter, the final one on George Hill's shot in the lane with 7:55 left. What followed was more complicated than a simple loss of emotion or execution. It was a combination of several factors, including some uncanny shot-making from Philadelphia.
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The Pacers' next possessions consisted of (1) Hill's missed three-pointer in the left corner, a good shot within the offense, (2) Lavoy Allen's leaning perimeter shot after the halfcourt offense had stalled, (3), Ian Mahinmi losing control of a pass near the sideline, a play on which he might have been fouled and complained loudly enough to be called for a technical foul, (4), Monta Ellis missing a jumper after dribbling off a screen, (5) Mahinmi missing an awkward flip shot in the lane, (6) George being called for a questionable offensive foul, (7) George missing a forced step-back jumper after the offense floundered, (8) Solomon Hill hitting a reverse layup, (9) George missing a quick three-point attempt, (10) George throwing the ball over Ty Lawson's head out of bounds, (11) Myles Turner missing a fading jump-hook in the lane (12) Solomon Hill missing a pull-up jumper in the lane, (13) Solomon Hill traveling, (14) Turner missing a well-defender jumper and (15) Lawson traveling.
All of that allowed the 76ers to lead by three entering the fourth quarter and build that advantage to five in the fourth, forcing the Pacers to scramble from behind.
It was a similar story against the Knicks the next day. The Pacers took a 68-50 lead on Mahinmi's rebound basket with 5:50 left in the third period, prompting television play-by-play voice Chris Denari to point out the similarity to the previous night's game.
On cue, Sasha Vujacic hit a three-pointer for the Knicks, beginning their comeback. The Pacers followed with a succession of missed shots – some of them good ones, some of them not – and turnovers, allowing New York to get back in the game.
"I hate to say it, but I can write this script every night," Denari said.
How do the Pacers flip the script? Coach Frank Vogel had no magic wands at practice on Tuesday. His only choice is to keep coaching the group he's got, keep searching for the right combinations. Allen, who started the games over the weekend, will start against Cleveland on Wednesday as well. That move doesn't seem to have a great impact on the starting unit, but sending Myles Turner to the second unit with Lawson, Miles, Rodney Stuckey and Solomon Hill seems to help that group.
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Lawson's speed and playmaking ability have added another gear to that group's offense, thus softening Turner's disappointment over being dropped from the starting five.
"Of course I want to be out there starting for the Indiana Pacers, but I'm still playing with the Indiana Pacers, so I can't complain about anything," Turner said Tuesday. "I'm able to come in with the second unit and play pretty much the same minutes. From a pride standpoint a little bit, but at the same time when you're playing with a team like this you have to put your pride aside."
The overriding issue regarding blown leads seems more psychological. Every team has a personality, and this Pacers team is a relaxed group by nature, particularly compared to the teams of two and three seasons ago that reached the Eastern Conference finals. It misses David West's maturity and leadership and Lance Stephenson's raw and relentless energy.
"This is a pretty laid-back group," George said. "One of the more laid-back groups I've been part of.
"Lance brought an edge to this team, D West brought an edge to this team. Danny (Granger) brought an edge to this team, too. We don't have enough guys that bring that edge to this team."
George did his part over the weekend despite playing on a sore ankle. He hit consecutive 3-pointers against the 76ers, with 1:21 left and with 1:02 left, to wrap up that victory, then hit a step-back 19-foot jumper with 23 seconds left to give the Pacers a two-point lead.
"I bring an edge regardless," he said. "It's really how I made it to this league, playing with that edge and having that chip. But again, we don't have enough guys who bring that edge right now."
Vogel acknowledges the differences between this team and those that reached the conference finals, but doesn't seem nostalgic for them. He sees advantages in this group, such as being more solid at the shooting guard position, more versatile at center, more versatile with the bench rotations, and having superior depth.
It just happens to be a team in transition, he believes, a first-year group amid a front office rebuilding effort.
"It's just a very, very different team," he said. "I'm OK with it being different."