Well, it looks like the Indiana Pacers small ball experiment is officially over after just half a season.
After all that talk from Larry Bird about playing more like Golden State and putting Paul George at the four (which never really happened anyway), coach Frank Vogel has settled on a traditional two-bigs lineup that he intends to stick with the for remainder of the season. The transition began with inserting rookie Myles Turner — who has developed far quicker than anyone had hoped for — into the starting lineup seven games ago, though the proper starting unit did not come into being until Ian Mahinmi returned from injury two games ago.
The return to good old smash-mouth basketball — the term used to describe the days when the team was anchored by David West and Roy Hibbert — has been so far, so good. The Pacers have gone 5-2 since Turner moved into the starting lineup and 2-0 since Mahinmi’s return, with the latest being a 89-87 home victory over the LA Lakers in Kobe Bryant’s final visit to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. It was an ugly game, and for most of the night it felt as though the Pacers were taking the Lakers too lightly. Despite running up a 17-point lead, the Pacers actually fell behind by 4 points with 1:10 left in the game, and needed 7 points from PG and two clutch free throws from Monta the rest of the way to grind out the win. It was the second game in a row that the Pacers gave up a lead, only to pull it out in the end. From one perspective you could say it’s good the Pacers are finally learning how to close out games down the stretch (following their well-documented struggles all throughout the season), though from the other you could say the games never should have gotten close in the first place.
The Pacers now stand at 28-24 for the season, putting them at 6th in the East ahead of Chicago and Detroit and just a game behind Atlanta and Miami. They’ve got one more game before the All-Star break, against Charlotte, who are staring into the playoff picture at just half a game behind Detroit and have gone 4-1 in their last five, including wins against Cleveland, Washington and Chicago.
Welcome back, Smash-mouth Basketball
The starting lineup Vogel hopes to use, barring injury, for the rest of the season is as follows:
PG: George Hill
SG: Monta Ellis
SF: Paul George
PF: Myles Turner
C: Ian Mahinmi
Earlier in the season, Vogel used a variety of lineups that either had CJ Miles at PF (against smaller opponents) or with Jordan Hill or Lavoy Allen at PF (against bigger opponents). They touted the virtues of flexibility at the time, though it’s clear that the lack of consistency in the starting lineup wasn’t helping in the long run. The team got out to a hot start because Paul George and CJ Miles couldn’t miss, but over time they were being beaten up down low, which I believe was a core factor in the long shooting slumps experienced by both players over the last couple of months (both have admitted as much). They now appear to be slowly getting their legs back, and hopefully this new rotation can keep them fresh enough for the playoffs.
Now, with Turner developing into a potential beast (he had 14 points and a career-high 13 rebounds against the Lakers tonight) at both ends of the floor, Vogel doesn’t have to worry as much about the speed of the bigger lineup. Turner has proven that he can run and finish, he can hit the mid-range jumper, and that he is a fantastic shot blocker (just ask Lebron), especially from the weak side. Combine him with Mahinmi, who is more of a traditional, straight-up, Hibbert-style defender, and the Pacers have a solid one-two punch in the front court who can bang with bigger teams while keeping up with the smaller ones.
Crucially, Turner should not affect Vogel’s intentions to maintain the faster pace the team has been playing with this season. They were the 4th worst team in terms of fast break points last season but have risen to 7th in 2015-2016. Much of that has to do with wing trio of PG, Ellis and George Hill, who are 8th, 11th and 31st in the league in steals, respectively. As long as these guys play together the Pacers can expect to continue pushing the ball on every turnover.
Apart from the starting unit, Vogel has also made subtle adjustments in the bench squad.
I’m really liking that we’ll get to see more of the duo of Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill, two guys who will hustle for every loose ball and give the Pacers plenty of second-chance opportunities with their offensive rebounding. Secondly, CJ Miles is much better suited to the second-unit because he’s hot and cold, and if he gets it going they can ride him, and if he struggles he won’t take as many possessions away from PG and Monta. Thirdly, Vogel appears to have shelved Chase Budinger for good in favor of Glenn Robinson III. Budinger has generally been horrible, so I thought the race would be between GRIII and Solomon Hill, but it appears after the Lakers game that Baby Big Dog has won out. It could be that Vogel just likes GRIII’s athleticism and scoring ability more, and when the team needs defense Vogel will throw Solo back out there.
The last piece of the puzzle is Rodney Stuckey, who has missed a huge chunk of the year due to that nasty ankle injury. Stuckey is actually the centerpiece of that second unit, so his absence cannot be understated. In the meantime, Joe Young has filled in for about 10-15 minutes per game. He hasn’t been great, but a rookie who can be borderline serviceable is about as good as it gets for the Pacers right now. When Stuckey returns, the Pacers will be a much more formidable team, and if they can take advantage of a soft patch in the schedule after the All-Star break, it’s possible they could sneak into the top four seeds.
For that to happen, however, they’ll need to get better at closing out games, and PG can’t afford another prolonged slump. With Monta seemingly becoming more comfortable as his health improves, PG getting and Miles getting their second winds, George Hill still not missing much form the outside (he’s shooting nearly 52% from deep in 2016), Myles Turner continuing to grow, Mahinmi gradually improving into a 60% foul shooter, Lavoy Allen and Jordan Hill crashing the boards, and Rodney Stuckey getting ready to return, the Pacers’ future is starting to look bright again. At least for now.