Pacers struggle through injuries, defensive lapses
Pacers president Larry Bird focused his offseason on adding inexpensive, defensive-minded players to complement a potent offense in hopes of returning to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
The overhaul hasn't led to better production, one of the key reasons Indiana has been a disappointment the first half of the season. The Pacers have a 14-26 record after 40 games, five games behind Chicago for what would be final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Injuries to several players, including 2009 All-Star Danny Granger, have depleted the lineup and robbed the team of continuity. Worse yet, some players have questioned their teammates' desire to give their all.
``Defense is a mindset, and sometimes we lack that mindset,'' Granger said.
Jeff Foster, who has spent his entire 10-year career with the Pacers, took it a step further.
``I just think that we're a really weak-minded team defensively,'' he said. ``We look to get out and try to score and get back and get to our spots and try to get a basket before we concentrate on staying in front of our man or coming over and helping our teammates every single time.''
Last month, new arrival Dahntay Jones said there were chemistry issues on the team, adding that ``certain people are not fighting as hard as others.'' He said things are improving, but injuries don't excuse the poor play.
``It's just the hand that we've been dealt,'' Jones said. ``You just have to work through it and make the most of it and try to win games in the process.''
In September, the Pacers gave coach Jim O'Brien an extension through next season, despite back-to-back 36-46 seasons that left them out of the playoffs. The team still buys into O'Brien's up-tempo philosophy and doesn't blame him for its failures.
``We've shown what we can do at times,'' Granger said. ``We've just got to stick to the plan.''
The Pacers gained a reputation as one of the league's most exciting teams last season, finishing fifth in the NBA in scoring. They also finished 26th in scoring defense and this year are still just 25th despite adding Jones, forward Solomon Jones and guards Luther Head and guard Earl Watson.
The injuries didn't help. Granger missed a month with a heel injury. Mike Dunleavy, second on the team in points per game the past two seasons, missed nearly as long while recovering from knee surgery. Starters Troy Murphy and Foster have missed time with back problems. Rookie Tyler Hansbrough missed several recent games with an inner ear infection.
Those missing pieces have caused Indiana's offensive production to fall. The Pacers are 17th in scoring, despite their up-tempo philosophy. The Pacers lost their final eight games of 2009.
There are moments when it appears Bird's master plan is working. The Pacers beat Orlando earlier this month, and the Pacers came from 23 points down to beat Toronto on Jan. 11 and from 24 points down to beat Phoenix on Jan. 13. They've won three of their past four games.
But the injuries have forced O'Brien to constantly tinker with the lineup. T.J. Ford, who started 25 games at point guard this season and split time with Jarrett Jack as a starter last year, has been sent to the bench indefinitely while Watson and rookie A.J. Price log the minutes.
``We're doing a lot of searching,'' Ford said. ``Trying to incorporate this style of play is definitely difficult. It's a challenge. It's a challenge that we continue to fight and try to make it work.''
Granger's return could jump-start the team. He has averaged 23.3 points in six games since he came back, and the Pacers are 3-3 after going 5-11 while he was out.
``That's our leading scorer,'' Dahntay Jones said. ``It's great to have him on the floor. Our offense is kind of structured around what he does. He's always a great weapon to have out there.''
Though the season hasn't started as planned, the Pacers still have a chance to reach their primary goal.
``Our goal at the beginning of the season was to make the playoffs,'' Foster said. ``We still have an opportunity to do that. If we start winning games and playing together, that's a distinct possibility.''