They were the NBA’s surprise team in November. The Indiana Pacers were scoring and winning with All-Star Paul George leading the way. Small ball was working more often than not with a spread offense continually creating open shots.
But as quickly as 11 wins in 13 November games vaulted the Pacers into the conversation for one of the Eastern Conference’s higher seeds, December delivered a more numbing reality.
Suddenly, the 3-point shots weren’t falling. At one point, the Pacers were second in the league at hitting those long-range shots. Then they went 11 games in which they made just 30 percent from beyond the arc. When those shots finally started falling again on Thursday night, the Pacers didn’t defend in losing at home to an Eastern Conference opponent for the first time.
A 120-116 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks might not seem like cause for alarm. It was the back end of a back-to-back, after losing a tough two-point game in overtime at Chicago whereas the Bucks were in town with a day of rest.
There are always bad losses in an 82-game grind. The Bucks (13-21) certainly caught the Pacers (18-14) at the right time, as Indiana finished the month 7-9 with losses in five of seven games.
But it’s not the way the Pacers wanted to conclude the calendar year in what started out as a promising season. And it’s not like this campaign can’t be significantly more positive than a year ago. This team is unquestionably stronger, when George played just six games due to a broken leg and the Pacers finished the 2014 calendar year at 12-21.
That squad regrouped after a lousy January to go 21-12 in the last three months, missing out on the playoffs by a tiebreaker. So far, there isn’t much question a roster overhauled in the offseason with the likes of shooting guard Monta Ellis, center Jordan Hill and rookie forward Myles Turner should return to the postseason.
“Treading water, hanging in there,” head coach Frank Vogel said of December. “We knew it was going to be one of our more difficult months schedule-wise with the amount of rest and all that and we had some injuries we had to battle through.
“Disappointing finish, but we hung in there. We’re doing OK. January gets even tougher, in terms of the schedule and the amount of road games we have, so we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got to buckle down and start the new year strong.”
After Saturday night’s home game against the Detroit Pistons at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers hit the road for nine of 11 games through Jan. 23.
The good news is George snapped out of his recent shooting funk with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting. He was aggressive and drew fouls, too, making 10-of-11 at the line. When George is scoring, the Pacers can compete with any team. He entered Saturday with a 24.3-point average, well ahead of his previous season best, ranking seventh in the league.
Indiana just needs more consistency from others. Ellis has gradually bumped his scoring average to 13.1 points, scoring 19.8 points in the past five games. Forward C.J. Miles is averaging 14.7 points, although bothered at times by a sore back which kept him out of the lineup for two recent games.
“We’re going to be fine,” said Miles, in his 11th season and second with the Pacers. “Speaking for me, I’ve been through everything. I’ve seen every type of team, every type of wave in season.
“I know how long a season is. I know how it goes. We got guys that are going to get in shooting slumps. We’ve got guys that will be playing extremely well, all together. You’re going to have two guys playing extremely well at some points. There are going to be times where you feel like you’re playing decent but you can’t put it together. Then, you know, things start to click at the right time.”
The Pacers still sound confidence, despite the recent slide in the standings. Miles is still encouraged because he sees this team playing the right way. It’s certainly not like last year, when Miles pressed early and struggled because he tried to take on the role of a leading scorer because it’s what the team needed.
“Looking at the big picture, I look at it like we’re going to be able to pull this together,” he said. “There’s too much talent, too many guys willing to do what we need to do to win games. You can see it.”
George expressed frustration in how the Pacers have started some games, especially at home. The Bucks led by nine after the first quarter and shot 61 percent through three quarters before Indiana rallied to make it close.
“Coming home and coming out and having starts the way we’re having on our floor, it’s unacceptable,” George said. “We’ve got to up it up, some way.”
A new calendar year started with a promising bounce-back performance. The Pacers defeated the Pistons 94-82.
“We can’t use playing last night as an excuse for being sluggish,” point guard George Hill said of the Bucks loss. “We have to protect our home court at all times.”
The Pacers improved to 12-5 at home. A challenging stretch of road tests awaits.
“We’ve just got to be accountable for the way we’re starting these games out,” George said.
The Pacers led 24-20 after the first quarter Saturday night. Then George finished strong, scoring 21 of his game-high 32 points in the final quarter.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.