Basketball and the state of Indiana have been synonymous for decades. On the scholastic level, it’s right up there with G-d and country. John Wooden grew up there. Larry Bird grew up there. Hoosiers was real.
On the collegiate level, mostly thanks to Bob Knight and, oh so briefly, Bird, they’ve tasted national success. For a few brief minutes even this year, Purdue has led the ranks of college basketball, and in a field perhaps as undecided as in many a year, they might just still wind up winning something this season.
And professionally? Well, the Pacers have been one of the more fascinating teams of this NBA season, and the fact they’re still thriving despite nary a championship, and just one finals apperance, since they entered the league in 1976, speaks volumes to their omnipresent potential. And having one of the league’s most promising young talents in Tyrone Halliburton, their allure to hard-core basketball fans around the country is arguably at a level not seen since the glory days of Reggie Miller.
But in their last couple of outings, we’ve been reminded exactly how far this team has to go to be a true competitior. For as offensively talented as they are, they are defensively porous to nearly historic levels. On the epic stage of the finals of the NBA In-Season Tournament Saturday night, they allowed the Lakers 123 points on a night where Lebron James didn’t dominate. And last night, playing their Central Division rivals Milwaukee for the third time in this young season in their third venue, they allowed more history to be written. As the hometown INDIANAPOLIS STAR’s Dustin Dopirak chronicled:
After beating the Bucks at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in November and in Las Vegas last week, the Pacers lost 140-126 to Milwaukee at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday with Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounm(o) scoring a franchise-record 64 points.
The Pacers snapped a four-game winning streak (not counting the In-Season Tournament final loss to the Lakers, which doesn’t count against the standings) and fell to 13-9.
The two-time MVP scored 64 points (a Bucks record and the most ever scored on the Pacers) on 20 of 28 shooting, making 24 of 32 at the line. The Pacers tried all manner of coverage to slow him down and switched defenders on him constantly to protect themselves from foul trouble. That did in fact keep anyone from fouling out, but even with fresh legs they couldn’t provide much resistance.
It was a reminder of exactly how defense-deficient the team is, a point raised in the wake of their Las Vegas finals loss by the MESSENGER’s Neil Payne:
Among players on the final two teams, it was Haliburton — not James — who led the league in points (26.7) and assists (13.3) per game, to go with plenty of indelible moments like this step-back dagger 3 in the semifinals against Milwaukee.
It’s fitting that Halliburton’s offensive outbursts stole the show in the tournament. Indiana has crafted a breakout scoring attack this season that, seemingly out of nowhere, ranks No. 1 in the NBA in offensive efficiency while averaging 123.3 points per 100 possessions. Although it bears mentioning that the league is approaching record levels of offensive efficiency, no team has ever averaged more than 120 points per 100 possessions over a full regular season before.
Indiana could become the first, which would be an incredible benchmark along the NBA’s path toward ever-increasing levels of scoring efficiency. But at the same time, with a near league-worst defensive rating of 119.9, the Pacers could also become the first team to allow more than 120 points per 100 possessions in a season. Simply put, Indiana is a study in extremes, which makes it a team unlike just about any we’ve seen before in NBA history.
And it’s not like they don’t know they’ve got a problem. FAN NATION’s Tony East foreshadowed this in an October season preview:
Last season, the Indiana Pacers finished 26th in defensive rating. The year prior, they were 28th. In both seasons, the blue and gold were among the bottom-two worst defenses in the NBA after the All-Star break. They have not been able to get stops.
But their most recently telegraphed idea for a solution, per FORBES’ Morten Stig Jensen?
One name that’s been brought up in recent weeks is that of Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors. The 6’9 wing big is one of the most versatile two-way players in the NBA, offering up the ability to be a consistent 20-point scorer, who will switch, hedge, rotate, and do all kinds of wonderful things for your defense – a category in which the Pacers rank 28th in the league.
Except when one looks at Siakam’s stats in that key defensive rating category, there’s some uncomfortable facts that get in the way of said narrative, per STAT MUSE: Pascal Siakam’s defensive rating is 109.3 in his career1, 115.5 in his last 100 games in his career2, and 115.3 in 2022-2334.
Doesn’t sound like an ideal fix, does it?
Appropriately, Greek Freak’s record at the expense of the Pacers occurred 40 years to the day after the NBA’s highest-scoring game of all time was played, an incredible 186-184 triple overtime win for the Detroit Pistons over the Denver Nuggets which a triumverate of THE ATHLETIC’s venerable writers chronicled in a brilliantly-written retrospective that graced yesterday’s editions of corporate cousin THE NEW YORK TIMES.
The Pacers haven’t quite scored, or allowed, that many points quite yet.
But there’s still roughly three-fourths of this season left. And if they were to acquire someone like Siakam on top of it all, they might just threaten it.
The Pacers are better than the Bulls (not to mention this season’s Pistons) in the Central Division. But they more resemble matadors than Bulls, valiantly waving their cape only to have their competitors seemingly score at will on them. And until they can somehow get this under control, the Pacers may prove to be entertaining, but they’ll continue to be chasers.