The Indiana Pacers have surprised many this season.
They’re not yet the “surprise team in the NBA,” as head coach Frank Vogel predicted during a September golf outing, but say this for the Blue & Gold, they’ve put themselves in position to open a few more eyebrows down the stretch.
Bottom line, to make the playoffs will require a few more surprises. The schedule gets tougher with nine of the remaining 16 games against teams with winning records.
They get the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and Washington Wizards at home. None of those will be easy. In fact, it will probably require the Pacers’ best effort. After watching the Pacers getting taken apart 117-98 at home by the Toronto Raptors Monday night, it would be understandable for some to fear the worst.
Pacers fans, however, have hung in there with this resilient bunch after most in the media wrote this team off as a lost cause before the new year. Heck, those dismissals started in October.
Then Vogel’s team got healthy, well, as healthy as it could be while still missing two-time All-Star Paul George, and February arrived. Despite losing their last two at home, the Pacers are 13-4 since Feb. 4.
A 109-103 overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks six days ago had Bankers Life Fieldhouse as loud as its been since last season, when the Pacers had the Eastern Conference’s best record. Fans reacted to every high and low. They were into it.
“I think our fans are rallying around this team this year,” Vogel said after the win. “They’ve always been behind us, but it was kind of a struggle early on, the thought that maybe it was a down year. I think they’re starting to realize we’ve got a chance to do something special, to be the surprise team the second half of the season.”
The Pacers entered tonight’s game at Chicago tied with Boston and Miami for the seventh spot. Five teams are separated by 2 1/2 games vying for the final two playoff spots. It’s a logjam, and Indiana hurt itself with a home loss Saturday night to the Celtics.
This team is still flawed in many ways. Not trying to be overly critical, just realistic. The Raptors had lost 10 of 12 but came in and shot lights out. Kyle Lowry did whatever he wanted, showing that while the Pacers are No. 3 in defense they still have trouble stopping the league’s best point guards.
That’s going to continue to be a problem, especially against teams that share the ball well and utilize the pick-and-roll. As much as point guard George Hill has pulled this team together — they’re 15-5 with him in the starting lineup — the Pacers have been relying on him and reserve point guard Rodney Stuckey to carry them. Stuckey and the bench, with a big boost from Luis Scola, have saved the starters on many nights.
Sticking with the guards, though, Hill has averaged 18 points per game in the last seven starts and 15.6 points in the past 17 games. Since Feb. 8, Stuckey has averaged 18.8 points.
If the Pacers are going to make the playoffs, they need scoring help from the other guys. Center Roy Hibbert continues to be an enigma — he’s averaged 7.9 points in the last 13 games. Before scoring 17 points Monday night, he had averaged just four points the previous four games. That’s not getting it done.
Not that it’s all on him. C.J. Miles is streaky. In his last 14 games, he’s averaged 11.9 points but has made more shots than he’s missed in just three games. He misfired on six-of-seven 3-point attempts against the Raptors, many of them open looks. He practically shot his team out of the game in the third quarter with continual misfires.
Forward David West’s production has also tailed off. In the last dozen games, he’s averaged just 9.3 points per game. He’s failed to hit double digits in half of those games.
That the Pacers have still won, including a seven-game winning streak, has been nothing short of a surprise. They’ve been getting it done with scoring balance and defense. Hill leads the team with a 14.9-point scoring average in just 27 games played. Stuckey is averaging 13.2, Miles 12.5, West 12.2 and Hibbert 10.6. The bench also gets a fairly steady boost from C.J. Watson’s 9.7 points per game and Scola’s 9.2.
To make the playoffs, the Pacers will need to beat playoff-caliber teams, as it should be. They probably can’t count on the guards to carry the load the rest of the way.
If they’re going to be a surprise team, others must step up and do more.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.