The Pacers are 7-5, which hardly qualifies as disastrous. Other NBA teams expected to be better than them are off to worse starts, and it's a reversal of last season's 5-7 stumble out of the gate that led to a 48-win season.
Still, nobody left Bankers Life Fieldhouse following Wednesday's 100-94 loss to Philadelphia feeling particularly upbeat after watching a second consecutive homecourt defeat, one caused by familiar offensive issues that never seem to stay solved for long.
"Defensively, we're there," Thaddeus Young said.
"But offensively, we have to figure it out."
Young spoke those last five words slowly, punctuating each one for emphasis. Figuring it out will begin with establishing a halfcourt flow that creates open shots. That will require ball movement, regardless of whether the defense is switching on screens. And that will require a certain structure by the coaches and a certain willingness by the players to accomplish.
They've had it at times, but not consistently and not lately. The telltale indication is Victor Oladipo's stat line. After scoring 28 points on 21 field goal attempts in Monday's loss to Houston, he had 36 points on a career-high 30 shots against the Sixers. Dating back to the start of last season, the Pacers are a .500 team in the games in which he's attempted 20 or more shots. They are 24-3 when he shoots 15 or less.
He's done so in three games so far this season, and those three happen to be among the Pacers' most impressive performances – the 28-point victory over Memphis in the season-opener, the 20-point victory at San Antonio, and the 12-point victory at Cleveland.
Coach Nate McMillan's goal, designed to encourage ball movement, is to accumulate at least 25 assists each game. They had 29 against Memphis, 34 against San Antonio, and 28 against Cleveland. But they had 17 against Houston and 19 against Philadelphia.
The Pacers are the NBA's only team with just one player who averages 10 or more field goal attempts. That would be Oladipo, who averages 19.5, more than twice that of any of his teammates. Against the SIxers he had as many as the rest of the starters combined, although Domantas Sabonis played starter minutes (31:45) and scored 16 points by hitting 7-of-14 shots.
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It's a dilemma, because Oladipo is clearly their best player and the likeliest one to get to the basket for a layup or assist on a layup. It's only logical that the ball be in his hands the most. And when his teammates aren't getting it done, he's not the type to stand back and watch the game get away from them.
That's precisely what happened on Wednesday, when the Pacers' offensive possessions opened with Young missing an 18-footer, Young committing a turnover, Myles Turner missing a postup shot over Robert Covington, Young traveling on a drive to the basket and Turner missing a driving layup.
Oladipo interrupted by hitting a 20-footer, but that was followed by Young losing the ball on a drive to the basket, Darren Collison missing an 18-footer, a shot clock violation and Collison's pass to Turner getting picked off.
No wonder, then, Oladipo went into superhero mode. His steal and layup gave the Pacers four points with 7 ½ minutes left in the quarter and he had scored 15 by the end of it on 6-of-9 shooting. He had 24 at halftime, by which time the Pacers had turned their 15-point first quarter deficit into a five-point lead and then settled for a tie.
"Just trying to be aggressive, man," Oladipo said afterward. "I just had to be more assertive today because we were struggling to score."
Oladipo's 3-pointer with 3:47 remaining in the third quarter gave the Pacers a 66-65 lead, but the game got away from them soon thereafter. He had to force a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock on their next possession. The Sixers led by seven at the end of the period and were up 17 points 4 1/2 minutes into the fourth.
McMillan said his players didn't adjust well to Philadelphia's switching defense and became stagnant. That led to shots out of the flow of the offense, which contributed to a poor shooting percentage - 39 percent. And that poor shooting only motivated Oladipo to take matters into his own hands, but he hit just one of his final eight shots after his go-ahead basket in the third period.
Why the recent struggle to mount a passable offense?
"I don't know," Oladipo said. "I couldn't tell you. Couldn't tell you. I think the ball was decently moving today, we just didn't hit any shots. You can move the ball all you want, but if the ball doesn't go through the net it's not going to count. Then it looks like you're not moving the ball."
Cory Joseph, who played well off the bench with nine points, four rebounds, four assists, and two steals, was equally perplexed.
"I can't really put a finger on it," he said. "I just know that we have to play a little faster, try to get downhill, and that will create easier opportunities for us to score."
Joseph added another thought that at least bodes well for correcting the issues.
"I don't think there's a selfish soul in this locker room," he said.
It comes down to execution and finding the fine line between letting Oladipo take advantage of his athleticism and skills and achieving balance. The stats make it obvious which formula works best. When he takes 15 shots or fewer, the Pacers are nearly unbeatable. But his teammates have to make it worth his while to give up the ball.
"We have to figure out how to adjust to each and every team switching on us," Young said. "We just have to continue to play, continue to move the basketball whether they're switching or not. That's what other teams do to us. When we switch they just continue to move the basketball and figure out a way to score.
"If we can figure it out offensively, that's going to be the key for us this season."
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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