The Indiana Pacers were the new challengers in the East.
In fact, they were the only challengers for the Miami Heat after Derrick Rose went down for the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks became a laughing stock again, and the Brooklyn Nets suffered too many injuries to have a full squad the rest of the season. After such a promising start to the 2013-14 season and putting the world on notice that the Heat wouldn't be a lock to return to the NBA Finals.
Sunday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers failed to crack 80 points for the entire game. This was something they couldn't do against the 20th ranked defense in the NBA. It's something they've only done once in the past five games when they scored 84 points in a one point win over the Miami Heat. Other than that offensive explosion, they've scored 71 (11-point loss to the Grizzlies), 77 (12-point loss to the Bulls), 78 (13-point loss to the Wizards), and 76 (14-point loss to the Cavs) in their past five games.
Last season, the Pacers were making games ugly and grinding out victories -- an Eastern Conference version of the Memphis Grizzlies. Their offense was ranked 19th in the NBA at 101.6 points per 100 possessions. This season, their offense has actually gotten worse though, dropping to 22nd in the NBA with an offensive rating of 101.3. This is after an offseason that boosted the scoring acumen of arguably the worst offensive bench in basketball last season.
Sure, the Pacers have the best defense in the NBA and it's historically pretty remarkable; the only way the old adage of "defense wins championships" comes to be true is if you have a pretty decent offense to accompany that defense. Since the defensive rule changes in 2004-05 season to open the game up more, we haven't had an NBA champion that was ranked lower than 11th in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Indiana is 6-9 in their past 15 games, with four of those wins coming in a stretch that saw them face the Celtics, Pistons, and Sixers (twice). In those 15 games, the team's offensive rating is a pathetic 95.7 while their defense has been roughly four points per 100 possessions worse at 100.4 (it's a 95.5 on the season).
During this 15-game stretch of mediocrity, Paul George is averaging 18.1 points on 15.5 shots while shooting 36.2 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from 3-point range. David West is making just 42.6 percent of his shots, George Hill is shooting only 39.1 percent from the field, and Roy Hibbert is averaging just 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds during this stretch.
The league's second least productive scoring bench from last season has improved to the third least productive scoring bench this season. They simply don't get enough from players who aren't in the starting lineup and in the past 15 games, players not named Lance Stephenson in the starting lineup haven't been able to carry the team.
A nagging problem a couple weeks ago is growing into a much bigger concern right now with the Pacers. They aren't dead in the water but they haven't built up enough credit -- not even in a season that has them 30 games over .500 right now and still first in the East by one game (tied in the loss column) -- to assume they'll just flip a switch once the playoffs come about to right the ship.
They can't score and with being able to game plan against a limited offensive team over a seven-game series, not even home court advantage in the East playoffs can give them much confidence if they make it to the Eastern Conference finals. Despite a recent victory over the Heat, there isn't much reason to think the Pacers, as currently performing, are a team worthy of making the NBA Finals.
Unless they can find their scoring touch again, they won't be able to challenge the notion that the Heat are Finals bound for the fourth straight season.