Six weeks ago, when the Indiana Pacers were at TD Garden and turned on their superiority in the fourth quarter to edge the Celtics, matters seemed in order. The Pacers were cruising toward the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their newly acquired players were gaining comfort. The veterans were resting and the team maintained its swagger.
Since then, the Pacers are 9-13 after Friday’s loss to the Miami Heat. The Pacers are not only questionable to reach the East finals but to win a first-round series. Players are sniping at each other. Roy Hibbert is exhausted. Paul George has been dogged by off-the-court issues with social media, and Lance Stephenson has not carried the same mental approach since being left off the All-Star team.
The Pacers are a mess, and the question is whether coach Frank Vogel and team president Larry Bird can help them regain confidence and cohesiveness because they disappeared with an awful March.
One ploy from Vogel was to bench his starters for Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks, and the reserves put together an admirable effort for a 104-102 win. There is not much time for the Indiana brass to solve these issues, which appear more complex than just fatigue and chemistry.
“Hopefully, they’re more refreshed mentally and have fresher legs because we were playing poor basketball for a while,” Vogel told reporters in Miami. “I think in both ways it was a positive night for us. Emotionally for our team to just have a feel-good moment like that, to have our bench guys have an opportunity to play extended minutes and get a rhythm is as much part of the plan as resting the starters. It was a good togetherness kind of night. It was really about refreshing their minds, refreshing their legs.”
There was a theory that Vogel feared his starters wouldn’t be able to recover from a loss to the league’s worst team, so he benched them to avoid potential embarrassment. It’s stunning how far the Pacers have tumbled. They began the season 25-5. The players who endured a Game 7 loss at Miami in the Eastern Conference finals last year discussed openly the pain of that defeat and how they targeted the Heat for a rematch in May. While the Heat remained mostly silent about the simmering rivalry, the Pacers chattered about beating the Heat. While the Heat realize that running out of breath is possible during an 82-game season, the Pacers now require ventilators.
“Every team has their ups and downs, but we always regroup,” Hibbert said. “The way we started off the season and the middle of the season gave us such a good cushion that obviously we want to play better, but no other team is catching up for the second seed so we control our own destiny.”
The Pacers are fortunate that they will at least claim the No. 2 seed, but with their mental instability the odds are against them having the fortitude to win a Game 7 in Miami, if they reach that point. After a crushing 107-88 loss to the Atlanta Hawks last Sunday, the players were left to explain why a losing team came to Bankers Life Fieldhouse and raced to a 45-15 lead.
Vogel benched Hibbert because the coach said he lacked energy. The rest of the starters had nothing left to offer and the Pacers were handed their most embarrassing loss of the season. Three nights later, Vogel iced the starters against Milwaukee, allowing players such as Chris Copeland and Luis Scola to shine.
It may have camouflaged the dysfunction. In a March 31 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, a 26-point defeat in what was billed as a potential NBA Finals showdown, George Hill and Stephenson began yapping at each other and had to be separated. Stephenson’s antics also got him ejected in a March 26 win over the Heat.
Stephenson always has been considered volatile but calmed his act as his game improved. His behavior will be closely monitored in the coming weeks as he is a restricted free agent this summer. George, who has dealt with embarrassing off-the-court rumors about his personal life, is shooting just 39.7 percent from the field since the All-Star break.
The Pacers hope to find a salve in the final days of the regular season and return to form in the playoffs. That may be wishful thinking for a group that has never enjoyed prolonged success. The Heat have avoided those chemistry issues.
“Our mind-set is preparing for the first round and playing better basketball,” Hibbert said. “The playoffs are great. You don’t have back-to-backs. You don’t have to travel from city to city. Most of the time our practices are shorter and limited. The intensity does go up but other things tone down a little bit. There’s nothing like playing in the playoffs.”
Ewing’s T-shirt use
had a practical reason
The NBA has become rather liberal with uniforms, allowing teams to wear road uniforms at home, home uniforms on the road, and a series of alternate uniforms. The Lakers have worn black. The Knicks have worn orange. The Blazers wear “Rip City” on their second home jersey.
The league also has forced fans to endure the T-shirt jersey, which dates to the beginning of the league. Yet there is one man who is responsible for one T-shirt look, a pioneer in the category of uniform fashion, and that is Charlotte Bobcats assistant coach Patrick Ewing.
When he began at Georgetown in 1981, Ewing said he was cold as he traveled to play in multipurpose Northeast arenas. A team trainer suggested that he wear a color-coordinated T-shirt under his uniform. So for the next four years, Ewing, one of college basketball’s most popular and talented players, wore a T-shirt, sparking a trend that spread to colleges and high schools.
“I wasn’t the originator, I was just the one who made it popular,” Ewing said with a smile. “There’s a lot of people who have done it before me but the difference is in my era, that’s when TV really got big. We were always on TV. The reason why I wore it was we started playing in these big arenas and it was always cold, especially when you have the ice down [for hockey games]. I was always complaining I was cold. I started wearing one and it became a fashion statement.”
Ewing tried to bring his trend to the NBA in 1985. He asked to wear a T-shirt under his Knicks jersey but the league denied his request. Times have changed. Now players are allowed to wear undergarments for almost any reason. Chris Paul of the Clippers has worn a spandex T-shirt under his jersey to protect his separated right shoulder. Brandan Wright of the Mavericks wears a black undergarment for a similar reason.
“The funny thing is when I got to the league they told me I couldn’t do it and now they let everybody do it,” Ewing said. “It’s crazy and times have changed. And the women [T-shirt] jerseys that guys wear now, it’s changed.”
Oakley believes James is a cut above the rest
In this column last week, former NBA enforcer Charles Oakley had some pointed things to say about the current state of the league. One person he does admire, however, is four-time MVP LeBron James, who is unquestionably the best player of his generation.
Asked about the Heat’s dominance the past three years, Oakley said, “It ain’t no different than when the Bulls were doing it [in the 1990s]. They won six of eight years. The thing with Miami is, you’ve got LeBron James. The guy might have one of the best IQs ever to play basketball for what he does on the court, how he makes players better, his decision-making. He shows up to play every night. He doesn’t complain. He receives a lot of criticism. He makes everybody on the team better.
“He can go to Philadelphia and win 55 games next year. He could go to Sacramento and win 55 games. He can go to Milwaukee and win 55 games. What other player in the league can do that? He’ll just walk in there and win 55 games with what he brings to the table. The thing with Miami, when they lose, he gets the blame.”
Oakley said Miami remains the favorite to win the East.
“Miami is going to win games, not because they have a great coach, it’s because of LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, and [Chris] Bosh,” Oakley said. “Bosh is the wild card because he can surprise sometimes with the things he can do. He’s athletic, probably the best midrange jumper in the game. He can block a shot here and there and get 10 boards. When you’ve got that and a guy like LeBron and Wade, it’s icing on the cake.”
Carter-Williams, 76ers eye better times ahead
Michael Carter-Williams is likely to win the Rookie of the Year award. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he just endured a tumultuous season playing with a team that recently lost 26 games in a row and has been widely accused of tanking the season for a high draft pick. The Philadelphia 76ers are running out an NBADL team around Carter-Williams and Thaddeus Young, and the Hamilton native has persevered through the misery.
Carter-Williams has turned in a better-than-expected season, offering hope for an organization that is rebuilding from rubble.
“We’ve lost a lot this year, I think it’s been a little different,” he said. “I’ll never get used to losing a game. It always frustrates me when we lose, but at the same time you’ve got to turn the page pretty quick.”
Philadelphia coach BrettBrown said he wants his point guard to relax and decompress when the season concludes Wednesday.
“After the season for two weeks I want him to take a deep breath, be proud of his accomplishments, reflect on what he’s just gone through,” said Brown. “People that don’t understand for a college kid to come in and play 82 games and 48 minutes and four or five games a week, and travel to Los Angeles and back to Boston and guard Chris Paul and have to be posted up by big people when you switch [on defense] — it’s just a different world than he’s been used to at Syracuse. I want him to take a deep breath and get some rest.
“After that, we’re going to talk about trying to get him stronger and talking about the evolution of his perimeter game.”
Carter-Williams is shooting just 40.1 percent from the field and 25.6 percent from the 3-point line. According to NBA.com, Williams is shooting just 46.89 percent at the rim, 35.9 percent from shots in the free throw line area, 26.4 percent from beyond the free throw line but in front of the 3-point line, and 28 percent on elbow jumpers.
When asked if he liked Carter-Williams’s shooting form, Brown said, “No, not entirely. I think the basics of his extension on his followthrough and his preparation prior to receiving it were the two things we focused on.”
Fatigue has become an issue and Brown would like to see Carter-Williams become stronger with a summer regimen.
“He has been fatigued quicker in games, moreso than I’ve seen,” the coach said. “His ability to finish in the paint. His ability at times to keep his man in front of him. I see it more from the defensive side.”
The 76ers are in a similar situation as the Celtics, spending this season in development mode with a new coach. General manager Sam Hinkie tore down the roster and signed a slew of players to 10-day contracts, ripping the team of its core players.
“We knew we were going to take hits,” Brown said. “You could forecast what was going to happen. You could forecast it even further when you traded those three senior players [EvanTurner, Lavoy Allen, and Spencer Hawes] and you let Danny Granger do his thing [negotiate a buyout]. We have mapped this out in relation to trying to make it a development year, so we’ve been there from the get-go. We’ll end up there. If the players understand you’re trying to help them and the coaching staff is truly with them, it’s a lot easier to get through the losing streak and make sure we end the season with our head high.”
Despite desire to play, Noel to be shut downThe 76ers are expected to shut down promising center Nerlens Noel, who is 14 months removed from a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and is eager to make his debut. The Malden native’s next court appearance likely will be for the 76ers’ summer league entry, along with Michael Carter-Williams and this year’s lottery pick.
“Nerlens, as I have learned, is just beyond competitive,” said coach Brett Brown. “It’s the single thing that I have fallen in love with the most. His athleticism is quite incredible. He wants to play, but as we’ve said from Day One, there’s so many layers that he has to get through in order to put him in a position where we feel responsible that he can perform and not be at risk.”
Brown defended management’s conservate approach. Observers have accused the 76ers of holding back Noel to prevent the team from winning more.
“To go through this duration that we’ve all gone through and be anything less than responsible and smart would just be shameful,” Brown said. “Nerlens is simply not ready and that’s the lay of the land right now.”
The Celtics and Magic could tie for the third-worst record in the league. According to an NBA spokesman, if the teams are tied at season’s end, the NBA will split the number of lottery chances for the third-worst and fourth-worst records, which is 275. A coin flip will determine which team receives 138 chances (or lottery balls) and which gets (137). Essentially, if the Celtics and Magic are tied for the third-worst record, each team would have about the same chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick . . . Draft prospect Dante Exum received his first major endorsement, signing a contract with Panini America trading card and sports merchandise company. Exum, perhaps the biggest mystery of the draft, is a 6-foot-6-inch point guard from Australia who is likely a top-five draft pick . . . ESPN did a nice job on its “30 for 3o” series on the Bad Boys, which detailed the Detroit Pistons’ rise to back-to-back championship in 1989 and ’90, and their swift decline. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the feature was the still simmering beef between Mark Aguirre and Adrian Dantley. Dantley, who acknowledged a dispute with Isiah Thomas, was dealt in February 1989 to Dallas for Aguirre, Thomas’s buddy from their Chicago childhood days. Aguirre remarked that there was no question he was a better player than Dantley.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.