KRAVITZ: Mediocre Pacers look for a jump start in the second half of the season

Denver's Danilo Gallinari, right, and Paul George compete during a game between in London on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP photo)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - They are average. Mediocre. Middling. After 40 games, just one game short of the halfway point in this NBA season, the Pacers are a decidedly ordinary 21-19 after Monday’s desultory 98-95 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.

And we didn’t expect average. Or mediocre. Or middling. Not this year. Not after Larry Bird made so many off-season moves that appeared, at least on paper, like they would catapult the Pacers from last year’s 45 victories to 50 or more. Some of us – OK, my hand is up – thought the Pacers helped themselves more this summer than any team in the league, thought this was a top four seed in the Eastern Conference, but this confounding team, which can’t win on the road these days, is making some of us look silly.

Take Monday afternoon, for example. This was the Pacers’ season in microcosm, playing beautifully while building a 32-18 first-quarter lead, moving the basketball, playing sticky defense, doing everything we expected them to do this season. And then came the second quarter, during which they were out-scored 34-22 and couldn’t have looked more different if they’d changed uniforms. Anthony Davis, the Pelicans’ big man, was injured while attempting to dunk on Myles Turner early in the third quarter. Still, the Pelicans, led by reserves Terrance Jones, E’Twaun Moore and Tyreke Evans, hung around and hung around and had a chance to send the game overtime with a three-point try at the buzzer.

It fell short.

Just the way the Pacers are falling short of most reasonable expectations through this half-season.

Little wonder that Nate McMillan sounded somewhat less than thrilled when he spoke to the media after the game. He sees what we all see: A team that can’t seem to maintain its level of play for any length of time, especially on the road. And that’s not great news with a three-game West Coast trip beckoning – at Sacramento, at the Lakers and at Utah.

"That’s been the story of the season for us,’’ Nate McMillan said. “Closing out games, executing down the stretch, getting stops as well as executing the offense, moving the ball, taking care of the ball, making shots. And [Monday] was a total breakdown offensively the last few minutes. We turned it over. There were lazy possessions, missed free throws…You won’t win many games playing like that. We’ve got to give a better effort than we gave [Monday against New Orleans]."

As this is being written, the Pacers are tied with the Washington Wizards for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, 2 ½ games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the fourth-place spot. More ominous, though, Milwaukee is right behind the Pacers at 20-20, Chicago is 21-21 and Charlotte is 20-21. In other words, there’s very little room for error. They’ve done what they’re supposed to do recently, running off six victories in seven games, but nobody is jumping for joy; they’ve played lousy competition, simply won the games they’re supposed to win.

So why haven’t they been on a 50-plus-win pace?

Why have they underachieved?

“I still think you have to look at all the new players we have; we knew it was going to take time to jell,’’ Al Jefferson said. “It’s been frustrating, the lack of consistency, especially on the road. But what I like about this team is, we’ve got so many different guys who can do different things, and I like the way Monta [Ellis] has looked coming off the bench. I think we’re going to be all right. I really do.’’

There is some truth to Jefferson’s first point. Jeff Teague: new. Thaddeus Young: new. Jefferson: new. Aaron Brooks: new. Teague, in particular, struggled the first week or two, but has been everything the Pacers hoped he would be since those early hiccups. To wit: Since Nov. 3, Teague has averaged 16.4 point, 8.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shoot 47 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from three. He has led the Pacers in assists in 33 games and is sixth in the NBA at 7.9 assists. Even more, he’s got seven double-doubles after having only four last year in 79 games for the Hawks.

So he’s been fine.

Paul George, he’s nowhere near an MVP candidate, but by and large, he’s continued to be the Pacers’ best player.

Myles Turner already has six double-doubles after recording just four all of last year, and he continues to look like The Future in concert with George (assuming George stays in Indiana).

There are pieces here, enough pieces to make a second-half run at a top-four playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. But the sum has not been greater than the parts, not by a long shot. This team should be challenging Toronto and Boston; instead, it’s fending off a bunch of 20-20 outfits.

The offense is scoring nearly four points more per game than last year, but that’s not nearly enough, not given the way Larry Bird and Nate McMillan want to play. And the defense, well, it’s not close to where it once was, especially with the losses of George Hill, Solomon Hill and Ian Mahinmi, three of the Pacers’ best defenders. This is a team that’s betwixt and between, still attempting to establish a new identity, move away from the smashmouth style of basketball that characterized the Frank Vogel years. Maybe they find themselves in the second half, start hearing the “new voice’’ that Bird chose to lead this team.

Or maybe not.

The talent is there, to be sure. But something is missing, something intangible, and the Pacers desperately need to find it, and find themselves.

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