The Indiana Pacers have made progress this season, one could say significant progress from this time a year ago. One area where they are struggling this season, however, is coming out on top in close games. Indiana hasn’t won a game decided by three points or less since early November…that’s over two months and 29 games ago. In that same span, they have lost four such games – three of those coming in the last two weeks. One benchmark of good NBA teams is typically a good record in close games.
The theory here is that there are a lot of closely contested battles in professional basketball, and those teams with the most experience, heart and will to win tend to make plays in “crunch time” and find a way to win these nail-biters. The Pacers are not doing this so far in 2015-16, and it has been a particular thorn in their side recently. Indiana lost a game at home to Sacramento on December 23 (108-106) after leading very late.
A week later, Chicago continued the trend, holding the Pacers off 102-100 at the United Center…and earlier this week, the Pacers blew yet another late advantage, eventually falling to the Miami Heat 103-100. The specific reasons for these failures have varied. One game it was failing to make an offensive play as time expired. In another, it was failing to get a defensive stop as time expired…and poor fourth quarter free throw shooting was the culprit in yet another of these close defeats.
The thing that ties all this together is mental toughness, which is why true upper-tier teams come up with that key rebound, make that key steal or hit that game-winning shot more often than not. The Pacers still have a chance to get there, but their recent failure in these situations just further proves that despite heading in the right direction, Indiana is not displaying the qualities of a contending team at this juncture. It should be mentioned that coaching plays a role in this as well.
The Pacers have relied heavily on forward Paul George in these end-of-game situations, and that approach has been too predictable. A bit more creativity from head coach Frank Vogel would give his club a better chance to make plays late in games…”give Paul the ball and everybody else get out of the way” is not the work of a master strategist. Another interesting area of strength/weakness for the Blue and Gold has been the amount of rest between games.
On two or three days rest, the team has a .778 winning percentage so far this year. However, when they have to play back-to-back games, they’ve only won at a .286 clip after not having time off between contests. With the Pacers going to a more uptempo offense this season, those results are predictable…it takes a lot of energy to play fast on offense and also defend well on the other end of the court, so Indiana is finding it tough to keep up the pace if they haven’t had time to recover between games.
To a degree, players can try to push through that fatigue, but the Pacers have a deep roster, so a coaching adjustment should help. When Indiana has a back-to-back coming up, coach Vogel would be wise to use his bench more liberally in the first of those ballgames – the winning percentage in the second of those contests would likely increase. NBA basketball is a game of constant adjustments, both within games and during the course of a long 82-game season.
For the Indiana Pacers to move up a notch (or two) in the Eastern Conference, improvement in the areas discussed here – late-game strategy, execution and desire, as well as more adept management of players’ minutes – would go a long way toward that goal.