by Mark Montieth | firstname.lastname@example.org
March 27, 2013 | Updated: 10:25 AM
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Learning how to win on the road takes time. The Pacers, however, are running out of time to absorb the lessons they need to learn to make something special of this season.
Wednesday's game in Houston is the first stop on a four-game road trip that extends to Dallas on Thursday, Phoenix on Saturday and Los Angeles to play the Clippers on Monday. It will be good experience for a young Pacers' team, especially if it doesn't turn out to be a bad experience that deepens their doubts.
“This trip right here will make or break us as far as getting us prepared to play on the road,” Paul George said. “If we can come out 3-1 or at least 2-2, we'll see where we're at. This could be pivotal to where we stay in the standings.”
Make or break might be a bit of an exaggeration, but pivotal is not. The Pacers are third in the Eastern Conference standings, percentage points behind New York. They're 29-8 at home but just 15-19 in road games. The good part of that record is that they have gone 14-13 on the road since starting 1-6 while growing accustomed to playing without Danny Granger. The bad part is that they have only defeated three teams that currently have a winning record, only two of which had a winning record when the game was played.
The Lakers, now one game over .500, were one game under after the Pacers beat them in November. Chicago had the misfortune of falling on the schedule immediately after George went scoreless at Golden State and was looking for someone on which to take out his frustrations. He scored 34 in that game, easily his best road performance of the season. The Pacers' other worthy victim was Memphis, a one-point win on the first stop on a four-game road trip in January that ended with three losses.
These games matter not only because of the Pacers' desire to finish second in the Eastern Conference, but because they're obviously going to have to play some road games against winning teams in the playoffs. Home court advantage is nice and all, but teams don't last long in the postseason without occasionally winning away from it.
After this trip, the Pacers will have just three road games left in the regular season – at Washington, New York and Boston. This is the final excursion of the season that will consist of more than two games.
“This is a good test to see where we're at,” Gerald Green said.
Green volunteers responsibility for one of the road losses, at Minnesota, when he lost his man and gave up a game-winning layup off an inbound pass. He's not alone, though. Most of his teammates have found ways to contribute to losses at various points.
The Pacers average 7.2 fewer points on the road than at home and shoot just .322 from the three-point line, compared to .385 at home. They struggle for the same reasons most teams do. The home team's players have the crowd, and often the referees, on their side, and the luxuries of familiar surroundings and a game-day routine of their choosing. Road teams also are more likely to play back-to-back games, as the Pacers will this week against Houston and Dallas.
Overcoming all that requires more confidence, poise and discipline than most young players possess. It's no coincidence that the Pacers' best road performer is their oldest player, 32-year-old David West. He averages 18.2 points on the road and 16.5 at home, and also shoots better on the road (.514). He is, in fact, the third-leading scorer among NBA power forwards on the road.
Tyler Hansbrough is the only other rotation player to average more points and shoot better on the road than at home, and Roy Hibbert is essentially a wash. The younger you go on the roster, however, the more homesick players tend to be.
The 22-year-old starters, George and Lance Stephenson, suffer the most. Stephenson, whose entire demeanor is more confident and aggressive in home games, averages 10 points at Bankers Life Fieldhouse while hitting .463 from the field, .365 from three-point range and .636 from the foul line. But he averages just 6.5 points and shoots worse in all three areas on the road, the drop-off most dramatic at the three-point line where he shoots just .273.
George averages 19.8 points at home while shooting .453 from the field, .432 from three-point range and .826 from the foul line. His road averages: 15.9 points, .394 from the field, .306 from three-point range and .806 from the foul line.
He blames the difficulty in following his strict pregame routine on the road. He began arriving early and putting up hundreds of shots after his scoreless outing at Golden State, but that's more difficult to do in other arenas, where there's no guarantee of a place to shoot.
“It's hard to prepare the way I prepare at home, getting up shots the way I do here, and getting a lift in,” he said. “Some of that factors in (to the way I play).”
Attitude matters, too. The Pacers' least intimidated road warriors were Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson, who teamed in the back-court throughout Larry Bird's three-year coaching reign. They were cocky veterans who had been around long enough to have seen everything, and thrived on shutting up home fans. Miller, remember, broke out a Superman T-shirt during pregame warmups at Milwaukee in a first-round playoff series in 2000, and backed it up in the games. He bought it while wandering through a shopping mall in Milwaukee with Jackson.
Both played better, statistically, on the road than at home during their first two seasons under Bird, when the honeymoon was happiest. Miller's improvement was most dramatic in the 1999 lockout-shortened season, when he averaged 17.2 points at home and 19.6 on the road. His shooting percentages were better in all categories on the road. (He also had higher scoring averages on the road in two of his four seasons under Larry Brown.)
Jackson, meanwhile, averaged about one more point on the road in those seasons, and had better assist-to-turnover ratios.
“When you become a real pro, the environment shouldn't bother you that much,” team president Donnie Walsh said. “But that takes time.”
The Pacers will fall short of coach Frank Vogel's goal of finishing with a .500 road record unless they accomplish the unlikely feat of winning six of their remaining seven games. Winning on this trip will be made more difficult as he tries to work formerly injured players back into the lineup. Danny Granger, West, Stephenson and George Hill all missed Monday's win over Atlanta, but all will return during the trip – perhaps tonight. Granger's return will be the most problematic as he tries to overcome the knee injury that has allowed him to play in just five games this season.
At a time when teams prefer to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, the Pacers are practically in need of a training camp to establish chemistry. And road wins demand chemistry.
Vogel may have to settle for improvement that could carry over into the playoffs. He'll emphasize that they eat and sleep well on the trip and hope they can bring energy to each game. He can't inject the Miller-Jackson brand of experience and arrogance, however.
Games like these are something young players simply have to experience. Until they gain more experience.
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