Controlling The Pace Becoming Key For The Indiana Pacers

Inconsistent, rickety, and uninspired have been words used to describe the 2021-22 Indiana Pacers throughout their ongoing season.

At their best, the Pacers look electric. They already have wins over strong teams such as the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, and Utah Jazz this year, and over half of their victories have been by double figures. The blue and gold are a force when they play the way they want to.

But that doesn’t always happen. Indiana has losses to the lesser Pistons and Raptors this season, and in a loss against the Charlotte Hornets last week, the team looked so bad that head coach Rick Carlisle benched his starters for the final 20 minutes of action. It’s hard to get a read on such an unpredictable team.

The Pacers are attempting to become more steady, though, and a buzzword that has been mentioned often in their quest to do that is pace. Pace, or just general speed of play, is something that is hard to control but important to consider in every game. The Pacers are finding out the hard way.

“The exact pace for each game is going to be different, depending on the opponent,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said this season. “One thing we are learning about our team is that we’ve got to play with momentum, we’ve got to play with force, and we’ve got to play free.”

Playing free, and making sure the Pacers control the speed of each game, is challenging. Every team has an ideal speed for their personnel, and most squads do everything in their power to play at that perfect pace every night. Other nights, teams will create a game plan that attempts to slow a game down against down against a fast team or speed up the pace against a slower team. There is no model tempo to play with, but teams try to control the speed of every game.

The goal is simple — make the opposing team play at a speed they don’t prefer. The team that can force its opponent to react to their pace usually has an advantage as they are dictating the game flow. It’s easier said than done, but controlling the pace is vital for team success, and the Pacers are figuring that out.

“Controlling the pace doesn’t always mean being slow. I think it means us being controlling in what we are doing, us playing the way we want to and not allowing the team to dictate how we are playing,” forward Justin Holiday said earlier this week. “That can mean not letting a team speed us up or, at the same time, slow us down.”

As of now, the Pacers rank 21st in pace at 98.13 possessions per game, per It isn’t a slow speed, but it is deliberate. “We have to play with the right kind of speed and we can’t play frantic and willy-nilly. We’ve done a good job of that the last two games,” Carlisle detailed this week.

That intentional and calculated speed is a result of the blue and gold learning to control the pace. In certain games, like their win over Utah, the Pacers tried to play fast and speed up their opponent. The Jazz rank 19th in pace, and Indiana won that game by 11. In other instances, such as in Sacramento, the blue and gold try to slow things down. The Kings rank 10th in pace, but the Pacers grinded that game to a halt and won by 3. Controlling the pace has won the Pacers some games this season.

Such a strategy has also hurt the Pacers at times, though. The Pacers got into a track meet with the slower-paced Wizards and couldn’t get enough stops to win, for example. Slowing the game down against Portland, who ranks about average in pace, did not behoove the Pacers as they blew a lead down the stretch. It isn’t about playing at a pace that makes the other team uncomfortable, it’s about controlling the pace in a way that gives the Pacers an advantage.

The Pacers slowed it down against the Blazers, but they didn’t have their starting point guard, Malcom Brogdon, that night. He is key in setting the appropriate tempo for the team, and the Trail Blazers controlled that game in his absence.

“Our point guards, Malcom and T.J. [McConnell], have done of a great job of either getting the ball up or pushing it themselves or telling us when we’ve got to slow it down,” Holiday said.

Against the Wizards, Indiana didn’t have starting shooting guard Caris LeVert. While Holiday didn’t mention him specifically, LeVert is talented and has the ball handling ability to control a game’s pace. Without him, the Wizards were able to run up and down the floor and score 135 points.

Controlling pace is an art, and the Pacers are learning how to create it. In general, when the game is played near the Pacers typical tempo, they do well. Their average pace is roughly 98, and when the blue and gold finish a game with a possession count within five of that number, they are 7-6. Playing their ideals game is comfortable, and it allows the team to control the momentum.

“I think us having that control in the sense of knowing what to do and when and not being sped up, not getting slowed down, and doing what we want to do and dictating the game the way we want it, it’s been good for use these past two games,” Holiday detailed after Indiana beat Chicago on Monday.

Often, when the team gets pulled away from their practical speed, it is their own doing that causes the speed change. During the team’s struggles in the early portion of the season, they were getting sped up often. Four of the team’s first five games had possession counts over 100, which is too fast for the Pacers deliberate style. They lost three of those battles.

When the team went on a three-game losing streak last week, things were too slow. They had their most unhurried performance of the season against the Knicks, logging just 88 possessions in a loss, earlier this month. That’s too relaxed for the blue and gold.

“Coach, you know, this road trip he was coaching us, calling out the plays, doing his job,” two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis said of Carlisle. The numerous play calls slowed the team down. “Today [Saturday, November 20th against New Orleans], he just said ‘I’m going to back off a bit and let you guys play your game.’ I feel like that really helped with a lot of players out there to be more themselves.”

Before that game against New Orleans, even Carlisle noted that the team was playing too slow in recent games. “We can play faster. We’re 30th in the league, out of 30 teams, in pace after defensive stops. Which really is a dubious distinction,” he said. “We just need to make it a mindset to get the ball up the floor quicker and create as quick a problem as we can, and create a good shot. That’s certainly an emphasis.”

No matter what end of the pace spectrum the game ends up on, the Pacers are better with a speed somewhere in the middle. In their two slowest games of the season, they lost. In three of their four highest possession games, they lost. But in the middle, the Pacers have their sweet spot, an area where they can push the pace after misses but still play with intentionality after makes. Indiana needs to pursue that pace every night.

“The more randomly we can play, the better,” Carlisle said. “Athletes in this league perform better, they execute better, when they don’t know exactly when their shots are going to come or where their shots are going to come because it becomes more of a reactive game and less of a thinking game. This is stuff that we’ve worked on since the beginning of training camp. The tempo thing is a real thing.”

It’s a very real thing, and the Pacers are working on it. They are doing everything they can to not play frantically and get sped up, but also not get bogged down. Recently. they have improved in this area, and the results reflect that. Now, they must continue to make it a focus and dominate pace control. It’s one of their best chances at success.


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