It is a maxim here at Pace and Space that “great teams win big and lose close.” Basic point differential theory dictates that a team that “guts out close wins” isn’t a good team, nor are they particularly better per se than a team that goes 72-10 but goes 5-3 in games decided by three points (IE one possession or less).
After all, the 2016 Grizzlies went 8-3 in one-possession games. Were they “grittier” than the ’96 Bulls?
Of course not! And part of that is the fact that Chicago was blown out exactly once in that greatest-of-all-time season, a 104-72 pasting at Madison Square Garden to the Knicks that was part of the reason Michael Jordan made it his personal mission to dismantle New York that year in the playoffs. Their only other double-digit loss all season was 106-96 to Phoenix on the road.
Chicago had a plus-12.3 point differential in 1996 and went 72-10. Memphis got thumped by 20 or more nine times, 30 or more five times, and got beat by 49 (Houston, March 14) and 50 (Golden State, November 2). They finished at minus-2.2, lost 14 of 17 to close the regular season, then got swept by San Antonio by an average of 22 points per game.
Great teams win big and lose close. Bad teams win close and lose big.
So what’s my point, since we’re clearly talking Pacers; it’s Tuesday and, well, read the headline?
Well, Indiana is 13-11 and just smacked the Knicks 115-97 in their last game. They are 3-0 in one-possession games, 7-7 in double-digit margin games, and plus-1.1 in point differential.
So basically, some nights they’re the ’96 Bulls, and other nights they’re the 2016 Grizzlies.
The whole thing just makes no sense at all; they’re a shooting team, fourth in the league in field goal percentage and second (yes, second, behind only Golden State) in three-point percentage.
And really, the Warriors are the team the Pacers are most comparable to this year.
The difference is that Golden State has a much better defense (first in lowest opponents’ field goal percentage and eighth in opponents’ three-point shooting, against 27th and 11th for Indiana.)
Fundamentally, the teams are the same offensively; when their shots are falling, they run opponents off the floor; when their shooters go cold, they have to rely on their defense, and the difference between 19-6 and 13-11 is the difference between seventh in defensive rating and 19th.
This, in hard numerical terms, is also so much of the reason why the Pacers are so much fun to watch; they’re Golden State Lite. Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic are essentially down-market versions of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson when they have the ball (which makes Thaddeus Young into Dollar Store Kevin Durant in this metaphor, but details, details…)
When the Warriors are shooting well, they’re the single most electric offensive team since the old Showtime Lakers. When the Pacers are shooting well…well, Indiana is ninth in the league in pace and Golden State is 14th.
I have said time and again that the Pacers make no sense at all, usually after they follow a big win with a run of lousy shooting and losing winnable games.
But really, explaining the 2018 Pacers is a simple matter, because they answer one simple question:
“What if the Golden State Warriors had a below-average defense?”
Everything else is a matter of scale.