This year is a test for everyone, but there are four teams to watch for the remainder of the season — four teams that are either experiencing a temporary internal crisis or playing closer to what is really their true level. If it’s the latter, teams just outside the playoff races or holding a loose grip on the No. 7 or No. 8 spots — the Grizzlies, Jazz, Bucks and Timberwolves — might have reason for encouragement.
A quick look at each:
The Pacers have lost six of eight to drop to 18-12, ceding that “feel-good threat to Miami and Chicago” status to Philadelphia and falling to a point where New York, Boston and Milwaukee can see them without squinting. Injuries and the schedule are both culprits here, but the collapse of Indiana’s formerly top-shelf defense and the shaky play of its bench are both worrisome trends to monitor.
The Pacers are without George Hill, their best bench player and key insurance for Darren Collison, and Jeff Foster returned from injury only a week ago. They also just finished a stretch of seven games in 10 days that contained one segment of four games in five nights and a separate back-to-back-to-back that ended Thursday night, with a much-needed win over Deron Williams and the Deron Williams Players.
This Indiana team was always going to win by relying on solid defense to lift a mediocre offense, while hoping internal improvements to that offense might help it win more — and against better teams — later. The offense has remained inconsistent, even as Danny Granger has done the inevitable and rediscovered his jumper. This is a post-heavy team without an elite creator, and it can look very slow on the wrong night.
The Pacers have been neck-and-neck with the Lakers all season in terms of devoting the greatest share of its possessions to post-up plays (per Synergy Sports), and Collison, despite flashes and generally solid play, just hasn’t made a leap as a penetrator or creator. Hill and Paul George can both run the pick-and-roll, but they often do so tentatively, dribbling sideways instead of into the teeth of a defense.
The offense doesn’t seem likely to improve dramatically, especially with Tyler Hansbrough struggling and Lance Stephenson mostly looking out control. But the Pacers will not be able to win much at all with a bad defense, and their defense has been bad over this losing stretch. In their five losses before Thursday’s win, the Pacers allowed a points-per-possession number that would have ranked 25th or worse overall, per Hoopdata. They have been fouling like crazy and allowing more offensive rebounds than usual: They’re down to 20th in defensive rebounding rate, and that just won’t do.
The “glass-half-full” view would be that these things — fouling and poor rebounding — are exactly what we’d expect from a tired team. The “half-empty” view would be that Indiana has proven to be vulnerable on pick-and-roll plays.
Collison too often looks like a man with no plan, sometimes going way under screens, sometimes going over them, but generally ending up out of ideal of position. The Collison/Roy Hibbert duo is especially shaky, since Hibbert doesn’t have the quickness to jump out and cut off ball-handlers. The Pacers make up for this by rotating very well on the back line, and Hibbert’s length allows him to challenge shots even when he at first appears out of the play.
The Pacers’ true defensive ability is far above what they’ve shown in the last two weeks. But they cannot afford even a minor slippage when it counts.
It’s crisis time again for the Celtics, losers of four of their last five games after a five-game winning streak against mostly bad teams and one good one (Memphis) that was missing a crucial player (Tony Allen). Boston is now 15-14, a half-game ahead of New York for the No. 8 spot, and it’s managed this against the league’s third-easiest schedule – one that has featured just 10 road games, the second fewest in the league.
There are worries that the dynamic between Rajon Rondo and the aging Big Three is off, that the team has recently lost games in which Rondo has asserted himself as its top option. You could argue Boston has only three quality wins all season, and those three games — the Magic twice, plus the Pacers — indeed came when Rondo was out with a wrist injury.
But the Rondo issue is talk-radio fodder that misses the big picture. The Celtics are the same as ever: an aging team with an elite defense and a below-average offense that figures to get worse as the core players age — and as Brandon Bass, the team’s most reliable bench scorer, recovers from a knee injury. The Celtics rank 22nd in points per possession, and they are essentially the same offensive team we’ve seen for two-plus seasons now — one that attempts a low number of threes, earns few free throws, coughs up piles of turnovers and ranks (for now) dead last in offensive rebounding rate. Boston’s offense has collapsed of late, scoring at a sub-Bobcats rate in three of the team’s last five games.
They have no margin for error, and as Paul Flannery points out, they don’t have the horses to keep up with Rondo in transition. Only the Pistons and Hornets are playing at a slower pace, despite Doc Rivers’ constant claims about wanting to run.
Some of this is by choice. Boston has long stressed transition defense over offensive rebounding, and the general goal here is to survive the lockout schedule and reach another level in the playoffs. That probably explains both the slow pace and Boston’s strange new embrace of zone defense, which is one way of decreasing on-court exertion during actual game play. Regardless, the Celtics, in many ways, are playing precisely as we should have expected, even if this were a normal 82-game season.
Do they have another gear for May and June? They did in 2010, but this is 2012.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
The bad times started for Portland before LaMarcus Aldridge injured his ankle a few minutes into the Trail Blazers’ blowout home loss to the Wizards on Tuesday. The Blazers had lost six of 10 going into that game, but things have really spiraled since a brutal home defeat to the Thunder — one aided by a last-second goal-tending call on Aldridge that everyone but the Thunder’s broadcast crew realized was wrong as soon as they saw one replay.
There is no rhyme or reason to Portland’s struggles, which is fitting for a team whose general problem lies in the amazing inconsistency of everyone on the roster outside of Aldridge — a legit MVP candidate, non-LeBron division. Inconsistency is actually generous when it comes to Raymond Felton, who is killing Portland’s offense (still 10th in points per possession) in stretches with bricked outside shots and maddening turnovers — so much so that there is a groundswell among Portland fans for second-year guard Elliot Williams to snag more of Felton’s minutes. Jamal Crawford, launching more mid-range shots than ever, has been only marginally better, and the two combined have stunted Wesley Matthews’ development into something more than a cutter/shooter.
Portland can point to its schedule, which almost mirrors Indiana’s over the last two weeks, including a back-to-back-to-back that ended Thursday night with an ugly, slug-fest loss to the Clippers. The deluge of seven games in 11 nights, plus nicks to Aldridge and Marcus Camby, probably explains some of Porltand’s recent drop-off in defensive rebounding. The Clippers, Wizards, Hornets, Rockets and Thunder have put up better-than-average offensive rebounding rates against the Blazers in games over the last two weeks.
The issues with guard play and the rotation go deeper. Nate McMillan hasn’t been able to settle on a consistent crunch-time lineup, and the problem has not been one of having too many reliable players from which to choose. Even if the Western Conference is more open than anticipated, with the Thunder playing close games seemingly every night, it’s hard to imagine Portland jumping into the conference-title fight without some major improvement.
One other note: Portland has played the easiest schedule, in terms of opponents’ winning percentage, of any Western Conference team. The schedule will get harder, and Portland is just 2-9 against winning teams so far this season.
It’s easy to pin the Nuggets’ slide from 15-7 to 17-13 on injuries, since about half their rotation has missed at least one game in that eight-game stretch. Danilo Gallinari, perhaps Denver’s best all-around player, hasn’t played since sustaining a chip fracture in his foot on Feb. 6 against Houston — a game Nene, Timofey Mozgov and Arron Afflalo all missed due to injury. (Corey Brewer also missed that game due to the death of his father.) Nene has been fighting heel and calf injuries most of the season, and Mozgov, nursing an ankle injury, hasn’t played in two weeks.
You can only sustain so many injuries, even if you’re as deep as Denver. The slippage has come on defense, where the Nuggets have fallen all the way down to 17th in points allowed per possession. Again, the injuries hurt. Gallinari is a feisty wing defender who can at least battle against most power forwards when he plays there, and Nene is by far the Nuggets’ most well-rounded big-man defender. Denver has been starting Kenneth Faried, and for all his explosiveness, Faried has struggled badly — as you’d expect from a rookie — when it comes to defensive positioning.
The biggest change has come from behind the three-point line, where opponents have shot 40 percent on about 24 attempts per game over the last 15 games – up from just 34 percent on 19.8 attempts in Denver’s first 15 games. Some of that might be random luck, and some is surely due to the trickle-down effect of the injuries.
But Denver, healthy or not, can fall into some bad habits that may hurt it against good teams in the playoffs. It still switches a lot, on and off the ball, and that has resulted in communication breakdowns and mismatches. The latter can be doubly bad for a team that plays so small, with three-guard lineups and Al Harrington filling the power forward slot.
More talent helps, and Mozgov will play limited minutes Friday against Memphis. Nene should back in a few days, according to The Denver Post, and Gallinari might return in the first week or so of March.