2nd Quarter Woes: Troubling Problem or Transient Phase?
As the second quarter drew to a close last night, Pacers fans everywhere began to panic. Famous Pacer fan Jason Whitlock bemoaned that “Frank Vogel still had a nast[y] habit of allowing the bench to come in and kill the momentum.”
Nobody could blame him or anyone else for the reaction. After all, in the last two games, the Pacers were outscored 51-21 in the second quarter as the bench, just like last year, seemingly handed away a substantial lead.
But is this really an indication of a season-long flaw for Indiana? Let’s not get too carried away.
Through five games, the Pacers have been outscored 124-82 in the second quarter this year. Indiana fans are (rightfully) concerned about last year’s flaw coming back to bite them, especially after the front office tried to address the problem with several new additions to the squad. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves in panic, lets all take a breath and remember that the bench looks nothing like what it will look like with a healthy squad.
It’s hard to overstate just how much a healthy Danny Granger will give to this team. Not only will he add versatility, but he will most importantly give the bench unit the scorer’s punch it needs in order to right the ship. Much of the blame for Indy’s second quarter woes has been placed on Lance Stephenson, and at first glance, he’s been awful in second quarters. He’s played 55 of the 60 total minutes and has shot less than 35% during that time (compare that to his 55% rate he’s been shooting in all other quarters and it’s even worse). His turnovers have also jumped. The decline is all due to his usage rate – while Lance is often the second option on the wing and third or fourth option in the offense, his usage rate jumps to 27% in the second quarter when he’s trying to be “the guy.”
In fairness to Lance, the team absolutely needs him to be “the guy” while he’s leading the second unit. It’s not the end of the world if he shoots a lower percentage while he’s out there with the reserves. Last year, Grantland’s Zach Lowe outlined just how valuable Danny Granger was to the Pacers’ offense, even he happened to be less efficient than other great scorers. The idea is that while his shooting percentages were undesirable, the defense still had to game plan for him and it put the rest of the team in better spots. When Lance is on the floor with Sloan, Scola, Mahimni, and Johnson, who exactly is supposed to be the playmaker? Stephenson has rightfully taken the lead. He’s been aggressive, he’s been the leader, and he’s tried to carry the offense. He’s also not quite ready for that. When Granger returns, his floor spacing and shot making should move Stephenson back to where he belongs – the second wing scoring option – and we have all seen how good he is at that role early on this season.
Further, we have yet to see how Chris Copeland could factor into the equation. In the post-game press conference, Frank Vogel admitted that he may need to tinker with the rotation a little bit or possibly even run some different sets for the bench unit. Might that involve more than just garbage time minutes for the ex-Knickerbocker? One might argue that there are just too many guys in front of him – especially with the way Orlando Johnson and Solomon Hill have played in spurts this year. Still, I believe Copeland will eventually get his chance as soon as he figures out how to defend the way Vogel wants. Copeland wasn’t just a good 3-point shooter last year, he was a great one, and as the season wears on and the playoff rotation comes into focus, Copeland is the guy that has proven he can play well in only 15 minutes of action. He may be more ready to deliver in that role than both Johnson and Hill at this point in their careers.
It’s also important to remember that Tuesday and Wednesday night’s games were played under extenuating circumstances. Vogel was more likely to run his bench for a little longer considering they were the first two games in a brutal “four games in five nights” run. Indy’s Head Coach is too smart to burn out his starters this early in the season. Would I have liked to see Paul George a little more in Tuesday night’s second quarter and see him make a run at 40 points? Sure. But I would be missing the forest for the trees.
In each of the last two nights, Coach Vogel kept George out of the game for at least seven minutes in the second quarter before playing him almost the entire second half. Vogel couldn’t be making it any plainer: he was purposefully giving away a little advantage in order to capitalize later on while also ensuring that his team would be rested enough to get through the week.
In the long run, I don’t see Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and David West sitting out of second quarters as long as they did against Detroit and Chicago. Still, with a healthy squad, they might be able to do just that. Remember that George Hill has missed the last three games, shoving CJ Watson into the starting role and pushing Donald Sloan and others into more important backup roles. As good as Sloan has been at times, the second unit will still function much better on both ends of the court with Watson running the show.
It’s early, and it’s much easier to focus on the problems than to highlight the positives. The good news is that in spite of the atrocious second quarters, the Pacers still sit at 5-0. Also, the same bench units that have played so lousy in the first half have also routinely stretched leads at the beginning of each 4th quarter. The talent and potential are there this year for the Pacers to turn the bench weakness into a strength. Just show a little patience and trust that one of the best coaches in the league will put it all together.