INDIANAPOLIS -- In August, after a flurry of off-season moves, the Pacers were supposed to be the new threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ supremacy in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they weren’t even a threat to box out.
There are plenty of things not working for this team. After 16 games, Indiana sports an unimpressive 7-9 record. The team's defensive abilities range from mediocre to horrendous, their offensive execution is too unpredictable and their roster is a mix-match of players that possess redundant yet oddly disparate skill sets.
And, for yet another season, the bench stinks. Drink a shot.
During the Pacers’ 96-85 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, all of the above manifested in a performance that was a mirror of so many others this season. Indiana was out-rebounded 56-37, turned the ball over 18 times, shot 40 percent from the floor and attempted just 14 foul shouts.
Indiana trailed by as many as 20 points -- including a 17-point first half deficit -- thanks to self-inflicted wounds and a lazy effort that made it clear the only thing on these player’s minds was getting an early jump on Thanksgiving.
Good news, Paul George and center Myles Turner returned from injury. Bad news, it didn’t matter. George shot just 6-of-22 and Turner was no match for Atlanta center Dwight Howard, who scored 23 points and grabbed 20 boards.
There’s a lot to fix. But what was most troubling Wednesday was the performance of the bench. Indiana’s reserves combined to play roughly 54 minutes in the loss, but mustered just six total points, shot 3-of-13 from the floor, missed both of their free throws and committed five turnovers to just one assist.
Guard Rodney Stuckey played 17 minutes and didn’t score, missing all five of his attempts. Center Al Jefferson played 13 minutes, got one bucket and spent the rest of the time air-balling shots at the rim or just getting punished by Atlanta’s forwards. Glenn Robinson III, who played well in place of the injured George and CJ Miles -- who is still out with a sore knee -- missed open 3-pointers and missed his man on defense.
The starters played awful in this game, too. It was because of them that this game got out of hand so early. They allowed Howard to run rampant in the paint, finishing the first quarter with 10 points and seven rebounds. Not one Pacer bothered to help an obviously overmatched Turner in his fruitless pursuit on the glass.
After the first half, the Hawks out-rebounded the Pacers 30-15.
But, unlike the bench, the starters got their act together. Thad Young was brilliant, pouring in nine of his 24 points in the second half, chipping in five boards during that same span. Monta Ellis -- the embodiment of this team’s inconsistent nature -- scored 11 second half points, making half of his field goal attempts. Even George, who shot poorly from the floor, still managed to lower his head and get to the line for easy points.
The starters cut a 17-point Hawks lead to one. Oblivion was averted. The Pacers were back in the game.
But the bench…
The bench was gifted a measly four-point deficit by the starters late in the third quarter. But as Jefferson and Stuckey took the court, Atlanta went on a 19-2 run lasting into the final period to put the game away.
While the Hawks whipped the ball around the court, penetrated the lane, found open shooters and crashed the boards, the Pacers ran Jefferson-to-Stuckey pick-and-pops.
But what did coach Nate McMillan do as the game spiraled out of control, as everyone in the Fieldhouse groaned at the sight of another game slipping away? He let it continue. By the time he returned the starters into the game wholesale, there was less than five minutes remaining and another winnable game was squandered.
Remember when Jefferson was Big Al, a throwback, post-up center that managed to remain relevant in a league going small? The Pacers didn’t sign that guy this summer to a 3-year, $30 million deal. They signed a clearly aged player who only warrants playing time only if the match-up presents itself, which rarely does these days. Jefferson is shooting a career low 44.4 percent, has a near career low defensive rating at 107, and has attempted a total of just nine free throws this season.
At one point during the fourth quarter, as a wayward Atlanta shot bounced off the rim and went up for grabs, Jefferson simply watched the ball arch skyward as Hawks forward Paul Millsap scooped in for the easy putback.
He’s a net-loss player.
And then there is Stuckey, who was a revelation for this team in 2014 when George missed all but six games due to a broken leg. He put up career shooting percentages and excelled as a sixth-man, pushing a team of also-rans to an unlikely playoff push.
That was on a veteran's minimum contract. Upon being rewarded with a 3-year, $21 million deal last season, it’s been the same-old Stuckey: bad shots, inefficient scoring, worse defense, inefficient scoring and tunnel vision with the ball in his hands.
Those are just the two biggest culprits. Lest we forget Lavoy Allen, the rebounder who can’t rebound. On the whole, the Pacers’ bench ranks near the bottom of the league in several categories. They’re 19th in field goal percentage, 20th in rebounding and 28th in free throw attempts. They don’t make anything easy, be it for themselves or their teammates.
Yes, Miles’ playing making and ability to shoot the long ball is badly missed, as is reserve center Kevin Seraphin, who sat out Wednesday’s game with an injured knee. He offers the kind of rebounding and defensive presence Jefferson never will. He’s the anti-Jefferson.
For now, these are the rotations the Pacers are forced to play. If only a few of them were played a little less often, perhaps this team would have a few more wins to its name.