INDIANAPOLIS – I'm not an NBA analyst, nor do I play one on TV, but I'm confident in the truth and simplicity of this statement: The Indiana Pacers are not playoff ready.
With a chance to clinch the No.3 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers lost 117-109 to the Brooklyn Nets on Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The 117 points allowed marked a season worst for the Pacers, as did the 69 allowed in the first half.
For the fourth game in a row, three of which have been losses, the Pacers dug at least a 20-point hole.
Again, if I can be obvious: They're not sharp.
“There's concern,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously, you want to be playing better this time of year. Losses are motivating. It's not always the worst thing.”
That's true. Losses can be motivating, and late-season slides sometimes flip the other way once the playoffs start.
But after the Pacers came so close to knocking off the eventual champion Miami Heat in the second round last season, the expectations are higher this time around. The Pacers won their division. They still have a two-game lead for the No.3 seed in the East.
It won't be good enough, nor satisfying in any way, to simply win one playoff series or even two.
Yet the way the Pacers have been playing of late, winning a playoff game can't be considered a lock.
“As a group, we're very concerned,” forward David West said. “We're not showing the ability to play complete games. We're at the time of the year where we should be gearing up and sort of focusing on some tweaks as the year comes to a close.”
Defense is a huge concern. Point guard George Hill has been fighting injury and he has been having a rough time guarding some of the best playmakers in the league. Brooklyn's Deron Williams scored 25 first-half points and pushed it to 30 – helping the Nets to a 24-point lead – with Hill trying to guard him.
The Pacers switched to Paul George on Williams and that slowed Williams down. The Pacers even turned the game around, taking a 101-99 lead on Lance Stephenson's three-pointer with 4:57 left.
But the Pacers couldn't close. Joe Johnson and the ancient Jerry Stackhouse had big threes – and the Pacers had big misses by George and Hibbert – to regain control.
The Pacers (49-30) finish the regular season at New York, at Boston and back home against Philadelphia.
While the Pacers want to hold off the Nets for the No.3 seed, it's more crucial for them to start playing strong basketball from start to finish rather than digging big holes that require monumental comebacks. That works against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not so much against good teams, let alone some of the great ones that await in a playoff run.
The Pacers offense seems fine. All five starters finished in double figures scoring against the Nets. West had 26, George 21. They shot 50 percent from the field.
But they had trouble with all sizes on defense: Williams finished with 33, Johnson 24 and big man Brook Lopez 24. Stackhouse scored 13 at an age (38) when he should be in the analysts booth.
“We haven't been able to rely on our defense as we were in the early going in the season,” West said.
Vogel maintains an even-keel demeanor. He's analytical. He's willing to try some different combinations and approaches to snap the Pacers out of a late-season funk.
But he's a little worried, and should be. The Pacers are not playing like a legitimate contender at the moment.
Vogel points to the Pacers' comeback stretches – which were fairly dominating – as a starting point.
“Clearly, we have to start games with a better sense of urgency than we have the last few games,” Vogel said. “To win in the playoffs, you have to start with the sense of urgency we had in the fourth quarter for all four quarters.”
If the standings remain the way they are now, the Pacers would open the playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks. They split four regular-season games.
But beating the Hawks or any first-round opponent is only a short-term goal. The Pacers want to be the team that challenges the Heat in the East. They entered the season with that goal. They played through the season with that goal.
Vogel said before the Nets game that he likes how “complete” his team is. When playing well, they're strong offensively, solid on defense, good at forcing turnovers and they play together and unselfishly.
The late-season slide is worrisome for some other reasons. Danny Granger is out after knee surgery. So that's one veteran down. Stephenson is playing a main role for the first time. George is “The Man” for the first time.
Yes, the Pacers have playoff experience. No, it's not extensive.
“No question (last year) was a big step for our franchise,” Vogel said. “But talking in comparison to Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett and teams like that, they're much further along in playoff experience.”
Vogel remains optimistic.
“Teams that are 'struggling' down the stretch don't always struggle in the playoffs,” Vogel said. “Sometimes teams that are red hot get full of themselves and struggle.”
The playoffs are coming, ready or not. Today, the Pacers are not.