The Pacers' Poor Reputation in Close Games


As we approach the postseason, where games are closely contested and often come down to the final possessions, the Indiana Pacers continue to struggle in the late stages of contests. With a chance to put the nail in the proverbial coffin of rival Chicago's season on March 29, Indiana went cold late in the fourth quarter, scoring just two points in the final 5:46 as the Bulls went on to win 98-96. Instead of maintaining a firm hold on their playoff position, Indiana dropped to the eighth seed, and Chicago was able to keep their postseason hopes alive.

The Pacers' late-game woes have been no secret this season, as they have made a habit of letting leads slip away in second halves of games or made costly errors at the worst possible times. When watching Indiana conduct themselves in these situations, there is often miscommunication between the players on how the play is supposed to unfold. The team also makes a bad habit of draining the shot clock in later possessions only to rush through their play and commit a turnover or hoist an ill-advised shot. Other times, the Pacers won't even rush their offensive set, and they will simply commit an unforced error. Watch here as Monta Ellis surrenders a possession at a critical point in a game against Cleveland:

While this seems like a mistake that wouldn't occur often for an NBA team, moments like these have become far too common in Indiana. As it turns out, the numbers do suggest that the Pacers are one of the least effective teams in the late stages of clutch situations. "Clutch" or "crunch time" is typically defined as the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points, but we'll look at several different variations of this to identify when the Pacers have struggled the most.1

 Let's start with the traditional sense of crunch time; these are games where the score is within five points in the last five minutes. Indiana has played a league-leading 52 games that have finished in crunch time. In those situations, they have amassed 51 total turnovers (so, essentially one per game), shoot 40.1% from the floor (20th in the league), and 69.7% from the free-throw line (4th worst in the league). Ouch. Interestingly, the Pacers' record in these situations is a respectable 29-23, which, percentage-wise, is the 11th best mark in the league. It seems with their backs against the wall, the Pacers are able to shift the momentum their way just enough to avoid digging a deeper hole. And more often than not, it's from their superstar, Paul George:

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So if the Pacers actually are an above-average team in crunch time, where does this poor reputation come into play? As it turns out, Indiana is one of the worst teams at holding a lead down the stretch in close games. Down by five late to the Pacers? There's a solid chance you'll win. If the scenario is that the Pacers are either tied or lead by as many as five points with five minutes left, their record is 29-18. While this might not appear to be a poor record, it is the 11th worst record in the league in such situations, and worst rate among teams currently in playoff spots. Also, it means that in those 23 losses in crunch time, they've held the lead or tied it up in 18 of them and then went on to lose the game. Against Boston on January 13, the Pacers committed four turnovers in a span of 1:33 to surrender eight points. A late three point lead became a nine point loss.

Holding leads is the number one issue facing this Pacers team, inherent in their record in these close matches, and even in blowouts-turned-close games. Hosting the Timberwolves on November 13, Indiana was rolling; a Monta Ellis bucket made it an 87-60 game with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. From that moment, Minnesota would go on a 40-14 run to close the gap to just one point with 1:17 remaining in the game. Later that month, a 17 point lead against the Lakers dwindled to just two points over the course of the fourth quarter. An 18 point lead against Miami turned into an overtime loss in early January. Just last week, the Pacers had to overcome a late small deficit against a Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks team after leading by 18 points. A double digit lead is slowly becoming a death sentence for these Indiana Pacers.

Going forward into the postseason, the Pacers need to find a new strategy when it comes to closing out games. The Pacers' likely first round opponent Toronto has the third best record in crunch time situations this season, trailing only Golden State and San Antonio. On Wednesday, Indiana perhaps had their best late-game performance against Cleveland, as their double digit lead never seemed in jeopardy throughout the second half. Part of that is owed to uncharacteristically good shooting, but the win could also be attributed to discovering a winning game plan refusing to play cautious with the lead. This is the strategy Indiana must adopt for the rest of the year. Coach Frank Vogel has been much better at recognizing effective lineups and adapting the team rotation as the course of games continues, and his roster tweaks could be the difference between a first round blowout exit and unexpected playoff success. 

1. All stats are courtesy of stats.nba.com


 
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