The Pacers are falling apart

Rob Carr

Indiana has fallen into a funk down the season's stretch run.

The Indiana Pacers are slumping at the worst time. They've lost three games in a row and five of their last six. Losing to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday wasn't disappointing in itself -- the Spurs have the best record in the league and came into the game on a 17-game winning streak -- but the way it happened is reason for continued concern. The Spurs held the Pacers to 15 points in the first quarter, and outscored them 34-18 in the fourth. The offense was stagnant. The bench was ineffective. It wasn't much different than recent losses to the Grizzlies, Bulls, Cavaliers and Wizards, except the Spurs put up way more points.

Indiana head coach Frank Vogel took an unusually long time to meet the media after the game, and players sounded much like they have for a while.

"We've had plenty of players-only meetings,'' Pacers center Roy Hibbert told reporters. "We've had plenty of sit-downs with the team and coaches, some with upper management listening in. Maybe we should all go to group therapy and have an airing of grievances.''

Hibbert frustratedly said there were "some selfish dudes in here" after the loss to Washington, and it certainly doesn't look or sound like things are getting any better.

"We've been in a downward spiral," Hibbert said Monday. "And we've been splintering a little bit."

Point guard George Hill and shooting guard Lance Stephenson had to be separated in a timeout after a "verbal confrontation," according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, and Vogel is trying to figure out how to manage the rotation. Swingman Evan Turner, who had been playing the sixth-man role since being acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers at the trade deadline, has shot just 41 percent in Indiana. He didn't play a single minute in the second half against San Antonio, with Vogel opting instead to use veteran Rasual Butler.

It's not as if the Pacers were ever a lights-out offensive team, but they've slipped significantly. Since March 4, they've had the lowest offensive efficiency in the league at 95.2 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's worse than the Sixers this season. The players are talking about sharing the ball, and the bigs want to play inside-out, but part of the problem might be that they wore themselves out with the Pacers' starters playing heavy minutes after an extended playoff run last year.

Paul George has taken the brunt of the criticism, shooting just 37 percent in March after his MVP-caliber start, and some of that is warranted. He's being asked to shoulder an incredible load, though, guarding the opponent's best player and serving as Indiana's No. 1 option and creator. Turner, theoretically, was supposed to help, but the hasn't yet panned out in Indiana. Between now and the playoffs, Indiana needs to figure out how to balance its offense. George's 6-for-22 and 8-for-22 nights aren't ideal, but his teammates have to help pull him out of his funk.

Earlier in the season, a dominant defense disguised what was only an average offense, but at least the Pacers had some ball movement. At least they looked unselfish, and like they enjoyed playing together. They weren't pretty, but the dynamic worked. Now it's broken. In the last six games, George has shot 34-for-99, Hibbert 19-for-55, Lance Stephenson 28-for-67 and David West 24-for-70.

Indiana will face the Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks before meeting the Miami Heat on March 11. The Heat beat the Raptors on Monday, and moved percentage points ahead of the Pacers in the race for the No. 1 spot Indiana coveted since the preseason, the spot that seemed to belong to it only a month ago.

"Good for them,'' Hibbert told reporters. "We don't deserve it."

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