The Indiana Pacers (15-16) are under .500 for the first time since early in the season after winning just 1 of their last 5 games. They are 4-9 over their last 13 contests and have fallen to 9th in the Eastern conference.
If you haven’t been here before, welcome to PacersrecaP where every column ends the way it began much like a Christopher Nolan film. Think of it like Tenet, confusing at first, no one knows what I’m talking about but slowly it starts to make more sense as time goes on. Or maybe I just like palindromes and couldn’t resist being clever for the sake of being clever … like a Christopher Nolan film.
Quick Summary of the Week’s Games:
- The Pacers and the Heat played in a game that felt like it was from 20 years ago with a final score of 87-82. While it was good to see the Pacers have a tremendous defensive mindset following their lack of effort on defense and the glass against the Nets backups, they couldn’t overcome a late flurry of scoring by Jimmy Butler and an incredibly off-night from their star Tyrese Haliburton, who scored just 1 point and went 0 for 9 from the floor.
- The Pacers swept the season series against the Golden State Warriors, which if I’m not mistaken makes them the NBA Champions now, with a 125-119 win. The Pacers scored 47 points in the second quarter and built a 20-point halftime lead and survived the Warriors comeback attempt as Steph Curry injured his shoulder and Draymond Green got ejected after complaining about an obvious foul call, though Green may have been an addition by subtraction in the Warriors comeback attempt as he scored just 1 point and had 3 assists and 6 turnovers.
- The Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the battle of teams without wings. The Pacers built a double-digit lead heading into the fourth but the offense struggled in the clutch scoring just 2 points in the final five minutes and Donovan Mitchell scored 18 of his 41 points in the fourth, leading the Cavs to a 118-112 win.
- The Pacers had a 6-point lead with under two minutes to go but couldn’t close out the New York Knicks who won by a final score of 109-106. Aaron Nesmith had a career high 23 points and 10 rebounds but not enough shot making from the rest of the roster as the clutch-time offense failed the team again.
Tyrese Haliburton still finding the right balance between aggression and passivity
Haliburton started off the week with the worst game of his Pacers career, scoring just 1 point and missing all nine of his shots as he was flummoxed by the defense of Bam Adebayo who repeatedly ended up guarding him after switches. The problem, however, was less than he missed all nine of his shots but that he quit looking to take his shot and only had one attempt in the fourth quarter. There were a couple of possessions where Haliburton had a chance to take an open shot but hesistated and his window quickly closed.
In a game where the Pacers scored just 82 points, they needed more looks for their leader and couldn’t afford him to pass any up. Haliburton recognized that saying after the game that he has to do a better job understanding how quickly you can turnaround an 0-for-9 game. That’s why the most encouraging Haliburton game this week was not the next game against the Warriors where he dazzled with 29 points but the Cavaliers game where he missed all 8 of his 3-pointers but stayed aggressive all night and finished with 17 points and 14 assists by making all five of his 2-point attempts and making all seven of his free throws.
Even though he couldn’t buy a shot from the outside, he never shied away from a shot or being the leader of the offense like he did in the game against the Heat. It didn’t end with a W and the clutch offense has been a struggle through all of the week’s losses but that was a necessary thing to see for Haliburton.
In the final game of the week against the Knicks, Haliburton wasn’t his typical efficient self as he scored just 15 points on 16 shots and added 10 assists. In another example of him still walking that line of being aggressive and looking to set others up, he passed on a potential 3 while iso-ed against Julius Randle with 38 seconds left on a possession that ended with a Buddy Hield turnover and then with 12 seconds left he took the same 3 on a stepback but missed.
Jalen Smith, Chris Duarte, and general rotation questions
Jalen Smith this week lost his starting gig, or at least won’t be the starter every night, as the Pacers turned to their much used 4-guard lineups in three of the four games to start. Smith then became the backup center which pushed Isaiah Jackson out of the rotation for both the Heat and Warriors games. Smith started but played only 14 minutes against the jumbo-sized Cavaliers. Then as Christ Duarte returned from his ankle injury, it looked as if Smith would be out of the rotation completely as Jackson got the backup center minutes but Smith ended up supplanting Oshae Brissett after the team struggled in Brissett’s initial minutes.
All of this to say that Smith’s bounce around the lineup this week is kind of a microcosm of the Pacers problem of having lots of guys, especially young players in need of development, that deserve minutes:
- Pushing a first-round pick from last year in Isaiah Jackson out of the rotation is less than ideal.
- Brissett’s constant standing on the fringes of the rotation is bizarre as the lone wing on the roster taller than 6’6″.
- Aaron Nesmith has been playing very well of late as he’s averaging 9.4 points in 21.8 minutes over 10 games in December with shooting splits of 48.4/42.9/100. He’s hit at least two 3-pointers and shot at least 40% on his threes in each of the last six games.
- Smith, who was likely promised the starting four spot in the Pacers attempt, has been inconsistent and that has led to teams cross-matching with him and Myles Turner which led to the offense not running as smoothly and likely gave further reason for Carlisle to make Smith a starter in only certain matchups instead of every night.
- Chris Duarte played for 15 minutes in his return to action and as it stands it’s hard to see the 14th overall pick from 2021 getting too much more time than that with how the roster currently stands.
- Andrew Nembhard has thrived in any role that Carlisle has put him in whether it’s as the off-ball connector and do-it-all defender or emergency lead guard. He’s also shown more than enough as a point guard that giving him minutes in that role leading the second unit seems like a worthy goal.
- Bennedict Mathurin leads the NBA in bench scoring and while his minutes are in no danger of being cut, eventually they may want to move him into the starting lineup though he does often close games.
- Then you also have guys that probably shouldn’t get minutes right now but in a year about development you probably want to see them play some like Terry Taylor (too many centers in front of him to play at his best spot), Goga Bitadze (forever behind 2-3 centers for his entire career), Kendall Brown (injured), and Trevelin Queen (G-League MVP, buried behind everyone on the depth chart).
Besides that last group of players, that’s 7 players battling for rotation minutes. It’s a good thing that Carlisle has found success with these 4-guard lineups because that’s given him more options to find time for some of these guys but if everyone is healthy, someone’s minutes are going to come up short every night.
As the Pacers have struggled at 4-9 over their last 13 games and fallen below .500, you wonder if a trade is on the horizon if they continue to falter. They could open up a lot of minutes for Smith and Jackson by moving Turner. It becomes a lot easier to find guard minutes if a new home is found for Buddy Hield, who just turned 30. A TJ McConnell trade could allow the Pacers to see how Nembhard develops in that backup point guard role.
All of these veterans have been crucial to the Pacers success in beating expectations to begin the year but if they are just going to float around the edges of the play-in as a 9th or 10th seed, I’m not sure that’s where they want to end up. Especially considering that after Turner helps keep them around .500, he may be ready to move on in free agency this summer and then the Pacers are left with Smith and Jackson anyway. Hield just turned 30 and the writing is on the wall with McConnell ever since that first Warriors game. Eventually, Nembhard is taking his job. With Duarte’s higher age as a second-year player, he feels like the most likely to be dealt out of the Pacers younger group.
Weighing how valuable playoff experience against the Celtics or Bucks in the first round would be (if they can make it) against the value of another top-10 pick, whatever return they could get by trading some of the veterans, and the additional development time in the regular season is a tough task. Getting to the playoffs and competing can push the team’s confidence like the Pelicans this year and can help attract free agents like the Pacers did with David West after they lost a first-round series against the Bulls.
Unfortunately, injuries have too often taken care of any of these types of possible crowded rotation issues for the Pacers in the past few seasons so hopefully there’s nothing like that that ends up making the decision for the coaching staff.
- Myles Turner’s defense against the Heat was peak Turner rim protection. Repeatedly Turner would perfectly defend 2-on-1 scenarios at the rim by helping on the initial drive and then getting back to his man at the rim to block the shot.
- Earlier in the season, Haliburton had said that he needed to find some shots for Bennedict Mathurin when he was hot. This week we saw multiple instances of the point guard hunting shots for the rookie. One possession against the Warriors, he didn’t even have the ball but was directing the entire team for where they should be and what play should be run. Resulted in McConnell feeding Mathurin coming off a screen and him drawing a foul. On another he set up Mathurin for a long trailing 3-pointer in the Cavaliers game, Mathurin missed it but it’s good to see these two develop further chemistry and the trust that Haliburton has in the rookie already.
- Isaiah Jackson was in perfect pogo stick form against the Cavaliers after not playing in the previous two games. He blocked one fadeaway and started a fast break. On one offensive possession, he pump faked and didn’t get a bite from Jarrett Allen but went up anyway and dunked before Allen could meet him at the rim. His quick jumping ability continues to impress.
- If you haven’t read this Caitlin Cooper piece yet, you should fix that immediately.