INDIANAPOLIS -- Even under the bright lights of professional basketball, high school hoops were the theme Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers donned their maroon and gold “Hickory” jerseys, a tie-in with the fictional team portrayed in the film Hoosiers that doubles as a chance to honor Indiana’s illustrious history of prep basketball.
Thursday’s honoree was Damon Bailey, an unassuming native of Bedford who ranks among the state’s great high school talents. He’s the one who caught Bob Knight’s eye as an eighth grader, the one who holds Indiana’s all-time scoring record for high school basketball. Bailey is now an assistant coach for Butler, but he packed gyms two decades ago for his singular ability to play the game.
The Pacers could have used him.
Hell, the Pacers could use nearly anyone right now so long as they meet a few basic requirements: shoot consistently, play solid defense, move the ball, move without the ball, play with effort.
Ya know, the basics.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play. You already know what ails this team. It was on display once again during their 109-102 loss to the Boston Celtics. Turnovers were plenty (19), the defense was invisible (Boston made 75 percent of its attempts at the rim) and the offense a victim of its flawed construction once more.
So here are the Pacers, 31 games into the season at one game below .500. They’re in the playoff race in a jumbled Eastern Conference, but they’re still looking for answers instead of priming themselves for a run up the standings. Players are clearly flummoxed, coach Nate McMillan is tired of answering the same questions, team president Larry Bird appears to have some buyer's remorse.
“We’re always going to be inconsistent, because of the fact that we don’t defend as well as I thought,” Bird told NBA.com’s David Aldridge this week. “And we’ve got too many guys that just want to dribble the basketball. That kills your offense.”
Alas, Larry Legend admits his folly. After all, he’s the one responsible for this inconsistent, undefinable team. The one who deliberately dismantled a defense so stingy it flirted with basketball history and replaced it with a roster that rarely plays like the sum of its parts, one that plays defense every three games and whose offense doesn’t have the juice to string together enough wins to distinguish itself in a vanilla conference.
Indiana may not have been a fun team to watch during their smash-mouth basketball days under former coach Frank Vogel, but those teams were successful because of an identity, something to rally around. Now they have nothing except the hopes that Paul George saves them in the clutch.
Two years ago, Bird saw the light. He envisioned a lightning-quick Pacers team that could play small and create mismatches for opposing teams. Watching the Golden State Warriors make history will do that to a starry-eyed man looking to reinvent a team whose championship window closed the second George snapped his right leg in half.
I don’t fault Bird for wanting change. I fault his execution.
I fault him for signing Monta Ellis, who is certainly small for his position at 6-foot-3, but doesn’t possess the shooting touch to open the floor. Then he re-signed Rodney Stuckey, who attacks the paint off the bench but suffers from tunnel vision and is as diminutive as Ellis and just as poor a shooter.
Bird promised those players $18 million combined this season, and neither has helped this team to the promised land of up-tempo bliss.
“We’ve got too many guys that just want to dribble the basketball.”
Granted, Ellis and Stuckey missed Thursday’s game with injuries. But replacement Glenn Robinson III hasn’t fared much better. I’ve already stated my case in support of his place in the starting lineup. I still think he’s the best answer.
But he’s not a permanent answer. In fact, he didn’t look like an answer at all against the Celtics, scoring just 2 points and making one of his nine attempts. Robinson can be a good rotation player, but he’s too young and too inexperienced to be an immediate solution.
Bird mistook pace as more raw production, famously saying he wanted the Pacers to score six more points a game during a postseason press conference in 2014. But forward C.J. Miles knows the true meaning of pace. It’s not an exact number, it’s a methodology.
“I think everybody takes that word ‘pace,’ as getting up a lot of shots, a lot of up-and-down all the time,” Miles said. “I think it’s more so how you run your stuff (offense). And it seems that way because you’ll get shots early in the clock, but it’s not so much being out there with unlimited ammo spraying all over the place. It’s about running your stuff, getting into your stuff quickly and getting open shots.”
Miles referenced the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs as teams worth emulating, teams who move the ball with unselfish ease and value outside shooting above all. They are teams in which Bird rightly sees the future but has thus far missed the mark.
At least he’s admit his mistakes. That’s always the first step. Now it’s time to learn from them before George’s patience wears out.