The Indiana Pacers showed modest improvement in 2007-08, but this year has been a bit of a disappointment thanks to an awful start that buried the team. Believe it or not, with three wins in their past four games, the Pacers are actually over .500 (14-13) since the start of 2009, but injuries to All-Star Danny Granger, Mike Dunleavy and Jeff Foster (who returned Sunday) have ripped a whole in the starting five. It could be an ugly finish in Indy. Then again, this isn’t the first time this season that the team suddenly starting chalking up Ws with the deck stacked against it.
Granger’s foot injury will cost him as many as two more weeks; Dunleavy could be just plain Dun for the season in what’s essentially been a completely lost year for him after last season’s breakout campaign.
The team’s overall record is completely underwhelming, yet somehow, the Pacers are the only NBA club to post wins over the Lakers, Celtics, Cavs and Magic this season. The up-tempo offensive system under coach Jim O’Brien continues to show improvements, but defensively, this team has been in free fall for a few seasons. Good defensive efforts have been few and far between, and until the team develops some kind of defensive consistency, it will be hard pressed to take the next step and become a playoff contender in the East.
Of course, if they could win a bit more often than seven times in 30 tries on the road, that would be a good start. At home, Indy has been tough to beat; away from Conseco, they’ve barely been a match for a high school team.
After pulling off the win against Chicago Sunday (despite going 11 minutes without a FG during the second half), Indy is now just two games back of the Bulls, but sans Granger and Dunleavy, it’s hard to see the Pacers escaping the Central cellar. But as I mentioned, this team seems to rise to the occasion when its backs are against the wall. When Granger is out, Indy is 5-1; when both Granger and Dunleavy are sidelined, the Pacers are 4-1. What’s the deal with that?
They travel to MSG to take on the Knicks Monday night, a team that’s been struggling recently, but plays pretty well at home. Indy had held its own lately, vaulting over Charlotte recently (giving themselves a chance to pass New York with a win Monday), and the playoffs are still a possibility (hey, it’s the East!), but again, without their two main scoring options, it’s going to be a very tough haul to expect this recent winning to continue down the stretch.
With the two big guns out, Troy Murphy has moved into a primary scoring role, and he responded in a huge way on Sunday, canning 8-of-16 from the field and 8-of-9 from the line for a season-best 27 points. He drained a trio of treys, hauled in 14 boards (that’s 33 double-doubles for the season, just four shy of his career high), dropped three dimes and pitched in with a steal. Murphy owners are going to enjoy the next few weeks. He’s already been on fire in February, averaging 18 PPG, but now you can expect even more. Murphy’s having a superb season, averaging a career-high 11.5 RPG and shooting a career-best 46.4 per cent from the field. Hell, he’s even draining 80 per cent of his free throws for just the second time in his eight-year career.
T.J. Ford also figures to see an uptick offensively, and Sunday, he came through with 19 points, helping to ice things by scoring nine in the final four minutes — a stretch during which Chicago simply couldn’t stop the speedy PG from getting to the basket. He added eight boards, two steals and a 3-pointer that gave Indy the lead for good, all in 37 minutes of action. Yes, I’d definitely like to see more than 11 assists over the past three games from a point guard, but before this recent skid, Ford had actually been doing a better job of distributing the rock of late. He’s always injury prone, but is just one game from matching his games played total from all of last season, so that’s been huge. What else has been big for Ford this season is his more aggressive play, leading to a career-best 4.5 trips to the charity stripe per game — two more per game than he had in his last season with Toronto. Small wonder he’s enjoying his finest offensive season to date.
We slagged Indy’s defense before, so we suppose it deserves some props for Sunday’s effort. Chicago scored just 14 points in the paint all game — the lowest number by an opponent all season long for the Pacers.
As mentioned above, Foster was back Sunday after missing five games with a wonky back. He came off the bench behind Roy Hibbert, and didn’t play much, but it’s probably just a matter of time before he starts seeing bigger minutes and takes the starting job back — unless Indy goes into the tank and falls out the race, at which point it would behoove the Pacers to run with the rook down the stretch. Foster looked rusty, shooting just 2-of-6 for only four points and five boards, but he did chip in with a steal. He looked good back in November, but he’s been slipping the past few months, so I’m not sure how much value he’ll have unless you’re super desperate for a big man. Foster has always been one of those players that just teeters on the edge of fantasy value, as he’s been a starter about half the time over his career, but just never quite gets enough minutes on a consistent basis to warrant keeping on your roster for longer than brief stretches during a season.
At one point on Sunday, the Pacers missed 13 straight shots. And yet, they came away with the win in the end. Go figure.