Are the Indiana Pacers Still Legit Championship Contenders?

Source: JMR Photography / Flickr

Source: JMR Photography / Flickr

While they endure their worst stretch of the season thus far, the Indiana Pacers sound as if they’ve lost their way. The prohibitive favorites at the start of the 2013-2014 NBA season, Indiana has lost its defensive mojo while its best player struggled in back-to-back blowouts in Charlotte (by 22 points) and Houston (by 26 points).  Houston’s thumping on March 7 prompted a team meeting, after which center Roy Hibbert said the team “hadn’t talked about” the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference “in a while.”

Meanwhile, David West was talking about the team getting its “mojo” back. Teams are averaging over 100 points per game against the Pacers in their last 10 contests heading into March 9. So the defensive dominance is gone while the pressure is mounting to hold off Miami’s push to take the top spot in the East. The Pacers consider Miami’s home-court advantage the secret to their downfall last season. Here’s why Indiana is going through such an ugly patch, and what it may mean for their NBA Finals run.

Target practice on the Pacers

Being the surprise “breakout” team in the NBA only works for so long. When the Pacers blasted out of the gate at the start of the season, all eyes were on a machine that appeared to reach to its full potential overnight. Several months later, there are no more sneak-attacks when the Pacers rolled into town. Teams are gunning for them the way they gun for Miami or Oklahoma City. In fact, Pacer coach Frank Vogel thinks it’s a key element of the team’s current slump.

“Our guys can talk about being the hunted but it’s a different thing to feel it,” Vogel told reporters after Indiana fell to the Rockets March 7. “These teams are coming at us with great force and we’re going to have to rise to the challenge.” The same can be said for the attention headed in the direction of early MVP favorite Paul George.

The Paul George slide 

At the start of the season, NBA analysts and fans were discussing the merits of Paul George, the Most Valuable Player of the first 20 games. To say George’s stock has dipped lately is an understatement. In five March games, George is shooting under 36 percent from the field and averaging 18 points a game. George’s low point of the season came March 5 when he went 0-9 from the field in a 109-87 drubbing at the hands of the Charlotte Bobcats.

His averages in rebounds, assists, and steals have been consistent with his production all season, so the effort has certainly been there. Did George temporarily lose his shooting touch or are teams focusing defensive efforts on shutting him down? The Bobcats smothered George in their March 5 beatdown on the Pacers, so it appears the target on Indiana’s back may be on the early MVP as well.

Bad chemistry or bad play?

Another aspect to consider with the Pacers is the trade-deadline deal made for Evan Turner. As Miami learned in the first year of the Big Three era, good chemistry doesn’t come overnight. Trading Danny Granger for Turner at such a late point in the season is bound to upset the flow of an Indiana team that had established its identity. Sure, they needed more depth at the guard position, but didn’t the same team dominate in November?

Every NBA team is gunning for Indiana at this point. The Rockets admittedly were paying back the Pacers March 7 for a defeat earlier in the season. But the marathon is only heading into its final stretch. If Indiana loses its top playoff spot and — much more importantly — its confidence on the defensive end, few would consider the Pacers favorites to head to the NBA Finals.

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