These kind of sights hadn't been seen around these parts in a long time.
Dribblers getting to the basket untouched, as if they were diseased. Simple pick-and-rolls leading to layups, as if they were unsolvable brainteasers. Second-chance points raining down like rocks in a landslide. Jump shooters so wide-open they could have been in a witness protection program.
The Pacers were probably the NBA's best defensive team two and three seasons ago, and were one of the best last season despite the loss of their best defender, Paul George. So, to see them give up 106 points to Toronto in their season-opener and then 112 points to Memphis in their home opener – and 131 points in the second halves combined – is a shock to the senses. Sun rising in the West, and all that.
It's somewhat understandable, given the influx of seven new players and the emphasis on a drastically overhauled offense, but it's quickly becoming the first order of business.
"We're so caught up with the new offense – the spacing, where we need to be – that we've been forgetting about defense," center Ian Mahinmi said. "It showed big-time the last two games. I ain't going to lie to you, it has to be a priority now."
It has to be, because Memphis scored 39 points in the fourth quarter in its 112-103 victory over the Pacers on Thursday, ending their streak of five home-opening victories. 39 points on 15-of-20 shooting, including 4-of-5 three-pointers. 39 points that wiped out the Pacers' hard-earned two-point lead entering the period, coming after they had fallen behind by 15 in the first quarter.
Roy Hibbert, David West and Lance Stephenson are long gone from the teams that reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and '14, but the Pacers didn't expect to turn into a Welcome Wagon. They still have capable defenders, and in fact are quicker and more agile than in the past, so they believe they should be able to defend well. Coach Frank Vogel maintains it as a priority, but all the time required to break in a new offense has proven to be a distraction, either strategically or psychologically.
"We're still trying to figure it out one way or another," said Paul George, a first-team all-defensive team selection two seasons ago. "The lineups haven't been consistent, so we're still trying to work through things. It's an adjustment, it's a process. We've just got to figure it out one way or another."
"The guys that have been here, we're not used to being in this position. Right now it's frustrating."
George appears as frustrated as anyone, especially on offense. He's hit just 9-of-32 shots so far, and has been called for a technical foul in each game for arguing the lack of foul calls. That comes as a surprise given his level of play in preseason games, and his new role as team leader.
Monta Ellis, the other presumed top scoring threat, has hit just 6-of-23 shots, leaving the Pacers unarmed too often offensively.
All of this gives Vogel reason for optimism. If his team can remain competitive with likely playoff teams despite these glaring flaws, he figures things have to get better. George isn't going to continue shooting 28 percent for the season, and Ellis isn't going to continue to shoot 26 percent, and the defense isn't going to always give up 46 points in the paint, as it did at Toronto, or 48 points, as it did to the Grizzlies.
"We've got a good team," Vogel said almost immediately when he met with the media after a delayed entrance on Thursday. "I'm confident in who we are and who we can be. We have a lot of new faces to our system and we're learning each other. There's going to be some bumps in the road. We anticipated that."
There's precedence for this sort of early struggle. Larry Brown's first Pacers team (1993-94) started 1-6 and reached the conference finals. Larry Bird's first team (1997-98) started 2-5 and reached the conference finals. Vogel's 2012-13 team started 10-11 and reached the conference finals – and the only change that group was working through was bringing Lance Stephenson into the starting lineup.
This one has a new offense, seven new players and four different starters than last season. A sputtering start seems almost a given, although it doesn't necessarily explain George and Ellis shooting so poorly.
That can only be explained, if at all, by raging unfamiliarity. Not knowing where teammates are going to be, not getting the ball at the right time in the right place, simply not feeling comfortable. But not everyone is feeling that. C.J. Miles came off the bench and scored 18 points in less than 21 minutes, and hit 4-of-6 three-pointers. He had started at Toronto but came off the bench on Thursday as Vogel went with a bigger lineup (starting Jordan Hill) to match up with the Grizzlies.
Miles, though, said he can sense the hesitation in everyone's game, at both ends. And the uncertainty has led to a lack of communication on defense, once a strength.
"Sometimes you get away from communication when you yourself aren't sure where you're supposed to be," Miles said.
The Pacers could stand less communication toward the referees, however questionable some of their work might be. George and George Hill, the two returning starters from those conference finalists, have each been called for a technical foul in each game.
Hill chalked it up to being competitive and emotional, but those technical free throws are costly in close games – and the Pacers were within two points with 2 ½ minutes left on Thursday, and were within similar striking distance in Toronto.
"We've got to do a better job of … leaving the refs alone," Mahinmi said. "It's more Frank Vogel's job. He has to be the one getting the techs. But it's early in the season and there's a lot of emotion going on and we're trying to win."
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