And that’s that.
The Indiana Pacers’ 2015-2016 campaign just came to an end tonight in Toronto after falling in game 7 to the Raptors, 89-84.
Despite the disappointment, the Pacers can hold their heads up high after pushing the 2nd seed to the limit as a 7th seed. They’ve certainly exceeded my expectations after a frustratingly inconsistent season, not bowing out in 5 games like I had anticipated and not getting blown out in game 7 by crumbling under the pressure. Things looked grim after they fell down by 14 heading into the 4th quarter, but they finally managed to pick up the defensive intensity down the stretch to make a game of it.
The game ended somewhat controversially, with Ian Mahinmi getting shoved in the back by DeRozan — quite blatantly too, on the replay — on an alley-oop attempt that could have cut the lead down to just one with 15 seconds left in the game. Instead, there was no call, and the Raptors came away with the ball, and the flabbergasted Pacers wasted another 9 seconds off the clock before putting DeRozan at the line. The game was effectively over after the two free throws, and was set in stone after Paul George missed a final desperation three that wouldn’t have mattered even had it gone in.
Of course, there was of course no guarantee that Mahinmi would have hit any of the free throws, and the Pacers have no one to blame but themselves for falling so far behind early in the game. But still, it sucks to be deprived of a final opportunity on a bad call. It hurts now, but in the scheme of things the Pacers should be proud of what they achieved with this deeply flawed lineup.
Paul George impressed again tonight with 26 points (8-18 shooting), 12 rebounds, and 3 steals, but his night was marred by 7 turnovers, some of them crucial ones down the stretch (he had an offensive foul on a breakaway and them lost a pass out of bounds later on). If this series showed anything, it’s that Paul George is a top 10 superstar when dialed in. He averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2 steals in this series on 45.5% shooting from the floor, 41.9% from three-point range and 95.3% from the line.
By contrast, Toronto’s two All-Stars had a horrible series, but managed to win because of their supporting cast. Kyle Lowry had 11 points on 5-14 shooting (he did have 9 assists), while Demar DeRozan had 30 points but got there on 10-32 shooting. In 7 games, Lowry averaged 13.9 points on 31.6% shooting, while DeRozan averaged 17.9 points on 31.9% shooting.
So who can Paul George really depend on for the Pacers to get better? George Hill was solid again tonight, scoring 19 points on 8-11 shooting and again doing a great job on Lowry (for the most part). That’s what George Hill offers — good defense and solid, reliable, albeit unexceptionable offense. Monta Ellis didn’t provide the spark I wanted him to, and he finished with 15 points and 7 assists on 50% shooting. These two weren’t the problem tonight.
Myles Turner had another off game, scoring 4 points on 2-11 shots, but he did have 4 blocks, 6 rebounds, and a bunch of rookie mistakes. He didn’t play well, though his poise was telling. There was a stretch when he missed a bunch of shots but did not hesitate on the next play, drilling a long 20-footer. This kid will become a beast in the next couple of years.
Two other guys who contributed positively were Rodney Stuckey (9 points on 4-6 shooting in 15 minutes) and Solomon Hill (4 points and 5 rebounds in 34 solid minutes). Stuckey is locked into contract, but it’s a shame the Pacers will likely be saying goodbye to Solo after refusing to pick up his team option — unless they are willing to pay more to keep him. It’s shocking how decent Solo has actually been this series.
It is worth noting that Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill both had DNPs tonight. Allen played himself out of the rotation, while Hill was just a mismatch waiting to be exploited by Toronto’s bigs. These guys will contribute against the right lineups during the regular season, but in a crucial playoff series their flaws become impossible to hide. CJ Miles, who had 6 minutes, and zero points on two missed shots tonight, is in a similar boat.
When the bitterness fades, the Pacers should become a better team next season. Paul George should be scary as his leg strengthens, meaning we ought to get a more explosive, experienced player and better leader. Hopefully it also means more consistent and less whiny. Monta Ellis, George Hill and Ian Mahinmi (if the Pacers re-sign him) should maintain their current level of play without too much of a drop-off, so the big X-factor is the development of Myles Turner. If Turner has a good summer the Pacers could be a completely different team next season despite returning with the same starting lineup.
Off the bench is where the changes are likely to happen. Guys coming off the books include Jordan Hill (4m), Ian Mahinmi (4m), Solomon Hill (1.3m) and Ty Lawson (min. contract). With the salary cap set to spike next season, it’s unlikely the Pacers will attract any marquee players and will have to wait for the scraps after the dust settles. Ideally, they can re-sign Mahinmi and find some good pieces to bolster the front court and provide a better spark off the bench. I wouldn’t be surprised if some trades went down for this to happen.
A big question mark hanging over the team is the future of coach Frank Vogel. His contract is due to expire and there has been no talk of an extension. Frank took over an underachieving squad from Jim O’Brien and turned them into contenders until the implosion from a couple of seasons ago that had him hanging by a thread. This season? Did he overachieve or underachieve? It’s hard to tell with so many uncertainties and unknown factors. What is irrefutable is that the small-ball experiment advocated Larry Bird was never fully implemented, and the Pacers never really got the most out of the PG-Ellis duo like they had envisioned. Tellingly, Bird reportedly refused to discuss Vogel’s future when asked immediately after game 7.
The real chance for improvement comes from the potential development of players already under contract. I’ve already mentioned Myles Turner, but the Pacers also have Joe Young, Glenn Robinson III and Rakeem Christmas under contract for around 1m each, and possibly also Shayne Whittington if they pick up his team option. Can these young guns develop enough to earn minutes in the regular rotation? That’s what will determine how successful the Pacers will be in 2016-2017.