With the first month of the NBA season already passed, it’s time to take stock of where the Indiana Pacers stand in their quest to bring a playoff game back to downtown Indianapolis for the first time in four years.
T.J. Ford’s started 12 of a possible 13 games at the point. The only game he didn’t start? A November 14 victory over the Eastern Conference leading Boston Celtics. Coincidence? I think not. His replacement in the lineup, Earl Watson, had 12 points, seven assists and no turnovers. He also didn’t attempt any of the ill-advised, double-teamed, fadeaway jump shots Ford’s become notorious for shooting. In fact, Ford so frequently takes bad shots that I’m starting a petition to begin referring to all momentum killing, forced jumpers as “T.J.’s.” Agreed? Good.
If the shoot-first point guard was at least scoring at the 15 points a game rate he was last year, some of his boneheaded offensive decision could be excused, but he’s not. He’s been under double-digits in seven games, and he’s yet to hit a three-pointer (he made 35 in 74 games last year). Worse still, despite playing 26 minutes a game, he’s averaging a career low 3.1 assists. For perspective, that ranks as the 53rd highest average among point guards, sandwiched right between rookie Eric Maynor and some Slovenian named Goran Dragic. Does that sound like someone you want running an offense that relies on feeding the wing players, penetrating and dishing, and precision inlet passes to Roy Hibbert? Me neither.
On the bright side, Watson’s been an old-school delight. Statistically, he’s not someone you’d want occupying a spot on your fantasy roster (7.1 points, 2.9 assists, 1.2 assists), but on the floor, operating as Indiana‘s trigger man, he’s been a very solid addition. He’s a considerable upgrade on the defensive end when he replaces Ford, and when the Pacers have the ball, he knows who to get the ball to, and more importantly, when and where to get it to them.
For someone who’s watched nearly every game, it’s clear to me that the team runs much smoother with Watson as the primary point guard. And with offensive weapons like Danny Granger, Hibbert, and Troy Murphy already running with the first unit, efficiency is what the Pacers need.
Just to be sure I wasn’t making things up in my head, I went back and checked Brandon Rush‘s split stats from last year, and just I had thought, he was good at one point. Over the season’s final two months, Rush averaged 12.5 points and 4.5 rebounds while making 34 three-pointers and shooting 47.8 percent from the field. Those are promising numbers for a rookie shooting guard, and it was expected he’s take a big leap forward in his second season. He hasn’t. In fact, he’s performing like Tom Green’s “Backwards Man” this season.
Rush is shooting a team-worst 35.2 percent from the field, and he disappears for such long stretches on the court that there’s an underground movement to assign him the nickname “The Ghost.” Jim O’Brien‘s steadfastly stuck by his young player, running him out with the starters in all 14 games, but if he doesn’t start showing improved confidence soon, he’ll find his minutes resembling his impact on the court; nonexistent.
O’Brien’s preferred shooting guard, Mike Dunleavy, made a triumphant return to the court on Friday night after missing 77 of the past 94 games with knee issues. Upon entering the game at the end of the first quarter against Dallas, Dunleavy promptly beat his man on a backdoor cut, received a pass in stride, and converted the layup. It was immediately evident to all Indianapolis basketball fans in attendance that the intelligence and composure, which made Dunleavy an integral component of the team prior to his injury, was still there.
As if to emphasize that point, the Pacers displayed a Jumbotron segment with all the Pacers trying to answer the question “What three players have won a championship at the high school, collegiate, professional and Olympic levels?” Michael Jordan was tossed out by nearly every player, as was Bill Russell. Neither accomplished the feat. A few guessed Magic Johnson, who did indeed succeed in all four endeavors, but nobody could identify the other two. Finally, Dunleavy appeared on the screen.
Surprising the capitivated audience (seriously, it was the like Pacemates were performing, that’s how enthralled the crowd was), he quickly named Indiana University‘s Quinn Buckner and Jerry Lucas before pausing a beat and concluding with Magic. Three-for-three. On his first try.
Point being, Mike Dunleavy’s a student of the game. A coach’s son who acts as an extension of O’Brien on the floor, the Pacers need Dunleavy to remain healthy (a risky bet), and in the starting lineup for them to have a chance at contending for the playoffs. Which, of course, would force Rush to bench, leaving him to either elevate his game or risk losing a spot in the rotation to the effective-in-short-spurts Luther Head.
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