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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Failure to Launch: Misfiring Rockets Crash Against Pacers

The Indiana Pacers shot .349 from the field at home versus the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night--and still won, 81-76. This was the first time all season that Houston scored less than 80 points and the fewest points that Indiana has allowed this year. The teams combined to miss 102 field goals in a game that looked like one of those practice drills during which coaches put a lid on top of the basket so that the players can practice rebounding; Indiana grabbed a season-high 38 defensive rebounds. Houston's 20 points in the paint were the fewest by a Pacers' opponent this year. Clearly, the Rockets missed the services of All-Star center Yao Ming, who will be out several more weeks because of a fracture near his knee--but the Pacers were also missing their best inside player and leading scorer (18.7 ppg), Jermaine O'Neal, who was a late scratch (flu).

Al Harringon led the Pacers with 23 points despite shooting 10-24 from the field. He also had 14 rebounds. Jeff Foster scored just one point but he had a game-high 16 rebounds and a season-high tying three assists. Jamaal Tinsley finished with 17 points (6-16 shooting), six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Tracy McGrady returned to action for the Rockets after missing seven games with back spasms. He showed serious signs of rust, shooting just 7-22 from the field and committing seven turnovers, but he still led Houston with 19 points and five assists.

Houston started out strongly, taking a 7-0 lead in the first 1:31 of the game. Tinsley almost singlehandedly brought the Pacers back, scoring 10 points in a five minute span, after which Indiana led, 13-11. The Rockets led 24-22 at the end of the first quarter even though McGrady shot just 1-5 from the field.

The second quarter statistics are very interesting. Indiana shot 6-29 from the field (.207)--and outscored Houston, 19-15. How did this happen? The Rockets turned the ball over eight times, so they only attempted 14 shots, making six. McGrady had his best quarter of the game, shooting 4-5 from the field and scoring 10 points, but he was also charged with three of the turnovers. Indiana shot 15-52 (.288) in the first half but led Houston, 41-39.

The Rockets' turnover problems continued in the third quarter (six) and their shooting--which was not great in the first half (15-35, .429) began to go south as well (7-19, .368). In one priceless sequence, Juwan Howard airballed an eight foot jumper from the right baseline, Dikembe Mutombo rebounded the miss on the left baseline and shot an airball jump hook. Later in the quarter, Mutombo went up for a two hand dunk--and airballed it. I've never seen an airball on a dunk before. The Pacers shot 8-18 (.444), with Harrington (eight points) doing most of the damage, and they led 62-58 at the end of the period.

The Rockets finally solved their turnover problems in the fourth quarter, committing just two, but they shot a miserable 5-21 (.238). They fell behind by as many as nine, tied the game with 2:01 remaining but missed five of their last six shots after that. Harrington shot 3-3 from the field, scoring six points, while McGrady shot 0-8 from the field, 0-2 from the free throw line and committed both of Houston's turnovers, including one with 1:29 left and the Rockets trailing 74-73. After the game, he explained why he played so poorly in the game's final moments: "Because I was fatigued down the stretch, I didn't recognize the double teams. That is how I got stripped a few times by them. That's the biggest thing, being fatigued and not being in basketball shape...When I get into game shape, that will help me get rid of some of those turnovers like I had at the end."

In his postgame standup, Rockets' Coach Jeff Van Gundy offered this concise assessment of the game: "It looked like both teams had pianos on their backs...You can't turn the ball over like we did tonight and expect to win, especially on the road. We were discombobulated out there."

Meanwhile, Pacers' Coach Rick Carlisle started his postgame standup with a smile and a "Whew!" He elaborated on that expression of relief: "It was a really tough game, a low-scoring, grinding game. Houston plays that style at times and that was their approach tonight. We tried to get out and run some but we had mixed success with that, so we wanted to get the ball to Al (Harrington) inside and he delivered for us. If we had one of those Taco Bell deals tonight (which usually means free food if a team scores 100 points), it would have been 80-point chalupa night the way both teams were playing. Our guys played hard tonight, they really did. It's a struggle at times and sometimes it looks like we are playing to keep both teams in the game at the same time, but the intentions are good. I hope that we get to a point where we don't make the game so hard on ourselves."

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Notes From Courtside:

Some of Carlisle's comments from his postgame standup pertained less to this game and more to the general state of the Pacers. A lot of what is said in these sessions does not make it to newspaper game recaps that are written on deadlines (and may have limitations in length) but I thought that these remarks should not be left on the cutting room floor, so to speak:

"We're in a situation right now where we have to have a balance with our movement game, our pick and roll game and our postup game. The thing that hurts us is when we get in a gray area where we are not really running anything and we are not in transition. That's what we're fighting right now and it's a battle worth fighting and when we get to the point where we can make those transitions smoothly the game won't be as difficult for us."

Carlisle chose to start little used rookie Shawne Williams in O'Neal's spot, explaining that he wanted to change his rotation as little as possible; also, continuing to bring Danny Granger off the bench allowed the second unit to retain its firepower. He made it clear, though, that he is looking at more than just this game:

"We're at a point now in evaluating our entire situation in which I have to look at what is best for this team, long term. I told the guys today that in the next three games--including tonight--that we have to make a statement with the group that is (currently) starting or otherwise I'm going to look to go in a different direction (obviously, he said this to the team before realizing that O'Neal would not be able to start) because the consistency hasn't been there and there may be a way--there is a way--to look at a different lineup situation that may help develop our roster to make us a better team come March and April. That is something that I have be aware of in my position...That's where we are: the effort is inconsistent and the carelessness and some of the other things--you have to take a hard look at that and say, 'What is best for this franchise? What is best for the ownership and our fans?' One of the things that I am looking at is that a guy like Shawne Williams can help this team. He is probably our best athlete--he and Granger are probably our two best athletes. He is a live body; he can shoot the ball. We are going to look for opportunities for him to play--and then he has to earn the minutes when he is in there. Something like this (starting Williams) can help deepen our team a little bit and we're looking to do that because we are not just looking to win a game today but we're looking to compete in the East and that's not based on just putting five guys out there who look like they should be the starters. There could be a more complex formula to that."

Asked about how the team is doing this season compared to how he expected the Pacers to do, Carlisle replied: "All things considered, we're OK. We're a couple games above .500, we've had a murderous schedule that really doesn't get any easier until February and we've had our franchise player (O'Neal) miss some games. I'm not upset about where we are and overall our effort has been good but you have got to look to maximize your situation and that's what I'm doing. I'm looking at this thing very closely and the best formula for us to win may not be starting the five best players. It may be something else where the pieces fit together a little differently. We're going to look at it through the month and see where we are. If Jermaine can come back on Friday, then of course we'll start him. If not, maybe we'll start Shawne and maybe we'll start someone else...The business of winning games in this league is a dead serious business and I don't mind making the hard decisions if my gut tells me it's right. Right now, I'm looking at this very closely."

Williams shot 0-2 from the field and grabbed two rebounds in 11:15 of action. It should be noted that on October 5, Carlisle signed a contract extension and was given the additional title of Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. That is the Pacers' way of making it crystal clear that if the team does not perform up to expectations, this group of players--and not Carlisle--will be held accountable. Carlisle certainly seems to be setting the stage to take one or more of his high profile players out of the starting lineup. Another way to interpret what he said is that the Pacers need to see what the other guys on their roster can do and that if their young, talented players develop then this could clear the way to trade any veterans who are underperforming. It is interesting that Carlisle says that he is not upset with where the team is and yet he has told the players that he is considering changing the starting lineup within the next three games if the starters do not perform with more consistency.

posted by David Friedman @ 12:22 AM

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