- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers have a big problem. A big, frustrating, recurring and expensive problem. It’s one coach Nate McMillan has tried solving a few different ways. That latest iteration came Monday against the New York Knicks.
It didn’t work.
With Indiana past the halfway point of this up-and-down season, they continue sputtering around the .500 mark. After a 109-103 loss to the Knicks, they’re 22-22 and treading water in an Eastern Conference where doing so is good enough for a first-round exit from the playoffs. That’s not what the Pacers, or team president Larry Bird, had in mind after bringing in a new coach and seven new players during the offseason.
In an effort to jump-start his flawed and enigmatic team, McMillan insert shooting guard C.J. Miles into the starting lineup, his fourth appearance as a starter this season. The move pushes Glenn Robinson III back to the bench along with former starter Monta Ellis.
The two-guard position has been a Gordian Knot for Indiana throughout season. It has given the team fits no matter who is on the court, and has been an Achilles heel for a four-man unit that otherwise plays well.
The Pacers gave Ellis his turn during the first 23 games, going 11-12 in that span and getting outscored by four points per 100 possessions. Ellis and his 31-year-old knees provided little in the way of defense and his non-existent shooting touch allowed opponents to clog driving lanes meant for teammates Jeff Teague and Paul George. A groin injury suffered December 10 against Portland made it convenient for McMillan to quietly end the Ellis era, giving the reigns to an untested Robinson.
Things worked, until they didn’t.
Robinson’s ability to play without the ball opened up a turgid Pacers offense. As he stood in the corner as a three-point threat, he created more possessions in which Teague ran the show and opened up driving lanes for George. His defense was hit-or-miss, but Indy was dropping 120 points like clockwork and winning desperately needed games. Then the losing came back along with Robinson’s youthful flaws -- inconsistent energy and spotty rebounding the biggest culprits. The Glenn Robinson era ends with an 10-9 record.
- Phil Taylor
In comes Miles, a streaky 3-point threat whose veteran savvy allows more offensive flexibility for a team in search of any good news it can find. Miles played 34 minutes, scored 10 points and was mostly unremarkable aside from a vicious putback dunk during the first quarter. That was when the Pacers burst to a 14-point lead, before giving up 40 to the Knicks in the second quarter, trailing by 17 in the second half and a crunch-time bucket from Carmelo Anthony gave the Knicks the victory.
It’s just one game, but it was like so many others. McMillan says Miles will start again when Indiana plays Thursday in Minnesota.
“It certainly gives us another option on the floor,” McMillan said. “Tonight, Melo had to guard one of those guys between Paul and C.J., and I thought that would open up the floor with Jeff handling the ball and C.J. spreading the floor. We could just open things up a bit more tonight.”
Miles certainly deserves a chance to step to the plate, and is arguably the best man for the job of all the candidates currently on the roster. Between Robinson, Ellis and Rodney Stuckey (who did not play with a lingering hamstring injury), he’s the best shooter from downtown and provides more opportunities for George to guard opposing forwards or guards.
He’s not the long-term solution at shooting guard the Pacers deserve, just the one they need right now.
The four players eligible to play the two spot with the rest of the starters are getting paid a combined $23.2 million, and not a single one has shown they’re worthy as a night-in-night-out option. That’s $23.2 million -- nearly a third of the team’s overall salary -- thrown at a problem that Bird and McMillan can’t solve and one that is a continuing hindrance.
There are other problems that plague this team, sure. Backup center Al Jefferson is predictably inept on defense, getting worked over Monday by Knicks reserve center Willy Hernangomez (14 points and 10 rebounds). Myles Turner plays like a young star still finding his way. Though he spent the fourth quarter helping the Pacers rally with put-back dunks and volleyball blocks, a possession that would potentially give Indy the win rolled off Turner’s foot and out of bounds.
A real-life starting two guard won’t make the Pacers title contenders, at least not right away, but it will go a long way towards getting them out of their inconsistent funk. Indiana’s starting five is a jigsaw puzzle that’s missing a corner piece, a player who can execute simple duties.
Until then, they’ll march onward, flummoxed by the same flaws.