What's happened to Harrington?
Yikes! That's a scary thought for the Pacers. But it may well be true, which brings into question the ability of the Pacers to survive in these playoffs after a 61-win season.
We're hardly talking about the Pacers' best player, though you might get an argument from Harrington. We all know who are the Pacers' best players: Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest. At least, they are the players the Pacers can count on every game.
O'Neal averaged 20.1 points a game in the regular season and upped that to 21.8 going into Game 6 against the Miami Heat. Artest averaged 18.3 points in the regular season and was at 20.3 before Tuesday's Game 6. It's what defines the best players: improvement in the playoffs. The scores usually are down and the pace of the game slows. Each possession requires a bigger commitment.
But Harrington, after a nice run for the Sixth Man Award while averaging 13.3 points a game, is averaging 10.8 in the playoffs and 7.8 in the conference semifinals. This is hardly an aberration for Harrington, whose playoff performances have been shockingly poor and were a big reason why the Pacers have been a postseason disappointment the last few years.
Last season, after averaging 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in the regular season, Harrington collapsed to average 3.0 points and 3.7 rebounds in the disappointing six-game, first-round loss to the Celtics. And now, against the Heat, Harrington has scored in double figures just once.
This all goes back to the issue the Pacers had before the season: The Pacers had to do something with Harrington, and to a lesser extent Jonathan Bender. Frankly, things went too well for the Pacers. In a weak conference with the conference's best offensive and defensive player, the Pacers were a little too much.
The notion going into the season was the Pacers had a glut of forward talent in O'Neal, Harrington and Bender (who could play some on the perimeter because of his shooting range). That compromised the defense some.
The Pacers' belief was Scot Pollard would somewhat offset the loss of Brad Miller in tandem with Jeff Foster, but it was no long-term solution. It ended up being obscured by the slower, defensive system played by new coach Rick Carlisle. It worked for the Pacers, and the excess of Harrington and Bender was forgotten. The notion was another big man wasn't needed.
Perhaps if Foster plays regularly like he did in Game 5. Don't count on it. There's still a hole there, and it's hurt Harrington.
And Harrington is hurt as well with a sore right hand suffered earlier in the Heat series. He says it affects his jump shot. Which is a problem. More so why he's taking it and that he has to.
Harrington isn't supposed to be the Pacers' savior. To blame him for any loss would be unfair. After all, here's a kid who didn't attend college, was a low first-round draft pick (25th overall) and has never really been a full-time starter. Why is anything supposed to be his fault?
But he's good. He could be very, very good.
He's a 6-foot-9, 250-pound post man with a good shooting touch from mid-range and the strength to get inside position. Almost sounds like O'Neal, eh?
Which is one of the internal issues that could disrupt the Pacers: Harrington believes he could be doing what O'Neal is doing -- being a 20-and-10 player who can score on the block at big times.
Harrington has played the good soldier this season, but it's clear he hasn't fully embraced his role. Even though he finished second in the Sixth Man voting (behind Dallas' Antawn Jamison), he pined to be a starter. And what's complicated it all has been Artest.
Harrington is a pretty good defender. He moves well and is strong. When Michael Jordan made his comeback with the Washington Wizards, it was Harrington who constantly gave him the most problems. But there's Artest, who just was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Artest also happens to be an undisciplined offensive player. Get a look at his shot selection if you can stomach it. Artest makes up for it with his defensive play, and you wouldn't want him on the bench anyway, if only because he'd be such a pest begging to go back in.
But Artest doesn't have the consistent shooting range of most wing players. He likes to score in the post as well, his unique strength enabling him to move inside and challenge the biggest players.
|Al Harrington's tale of two series|
|4/17 vs. Boston||33||6-10||14|
|4/20 vs. Boston||34||6-14||12|
|4/23 at Boston||28||9-14||19|
|4/25 at Boston||31||3-9||13|
|5/6 vs. Miami||25||3-7||7|
|5/8 vs. Miami||34||3-6||8|
|5/10 at Miami||28||5-12||13|
|5/12 at Miami||22||2-5||4|
|5/15 vs. Miami||21||2-7||7|
About five points under his regular-season average. It seemed Harrington's playoff blues were over after he averaged 14.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and shot 51 percent in the first-round sweep of the Celtics. But to be honest, Boston didn't deserve to be in the playoffs and was as poor a playoff representative as the NBA has ever had. So in the series with Miami, even general manager Larry Bird has been openly frustrated with Harrington. But it is a delicate balancing act.
The numbers are an indictment. Perhaps no one has had poorer averages in the playoffs compared with the regular season. It's often considered the best measure of a top player. Going into this season, Harrington's career regular-season average was 9.2 points a game and his playoff scoring average was 2.6. The numbers would say Harrington is a playoff choker. The numbers would be misleading, as they often are.
In the regular season, there are opportunities for Harrington to play the post with O'Neal not playing as much. Harrington can take turns going inside, where he is most effective. It doesn't happen as much in the playoffs. With O'Neal and Artest playing the bulk of the minutes, Harrington gets forced outside more, where he is not a great jump shooter. It also takes away his greatest strength -- his strength.
And he hasn't helped by not handling it that well. Clearly, there's some jealousy. Harrington seems to feel he can do more -- be the go-to guy at big times to make big plays and help carry the team. He wants to be the guy with the awards and accolades. They're not going to come with the Pacers. But if he does the job the Pacers ask him to do, they'll all have nice shiny rings to show around.
The Pacers know what they'll get from just about everyone but Harrington. If he's great in his role, they could be as well. If he's not, as he hasn't been yet, the summer could be coming up quicker than they'd all hoped.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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