There's still time to top this, the season has yet to end, but it appears as if the Indiana Pacers have finally bottomed out. The 17-16 finish to the regular season seemed to see its lowest point when Indiana managed just 23 first half points in a game against Atlanta in the week’s penultimate week of the regular season, resulting in coach Frank Vogel resting all five starters in a subsequent game against the Milwaukee Bucks some three nights later. Then there was the opening-game loss in the team’s first-round series against the Hawks, dropping the home-court advantage after working all season to earn such a benefit. Against an Atlanta team that finished under .500 in the regular season, no less, with 18 fewer wins than the Pacers.
Or maybe the low end could have been Indiana’s trip to Atlanta in Games 3 and 4, one that saw them barely eke out a comeback win in Saturday’s Game 4 after being blown out in Game 3.
A lot of "Atlanta" and “Hawks” in there, you’ll notice.
Or maybe the lowest point happened in Monday’s pivotal Game 5, a contest that saw Atlanta go up 30 points in the third quarter, besting the Pacers in just about every basketball area imaginable, without even getting into the mental or motivational end of things. The lightly-regarded Hawks beat Indiana for the fifth time in nine tries this season in Indianapolis on Monday, going up 3-2 in the series, pulling out a 107-97 win against a Pacers team that looks completely clueless on both ends.
That isn’t hyperbole. Once again, the Pacers are completely out of sorts offensively, while still struggling to put up some semblance of a fight defensively against a Hawks offense that ranked 18th in offensive efficiency during the regular season. Indiana owned the NBA’s top defense throughout the regular season, and yet the Pacers gave up 41 second-quarter points on their own court in this defeat, giving up an 81 percent shooting mark to Atlanta and letting the Hawks miss just two 3-pointers in 11 tries in that run.
In response, on the other end, Indiana gave in to its lesser instincts. The ball stuck, with players like Paul George and Lance Stephenson attempting to make up for the malaise by resorting to one-on-one play instead of quick hits and movement from all corners. Pacers coach Frank Vogel showed a bit of desperation, inserting Chris Copeland for his first extended minutes of the series, watching as a rusty first-year Pacer badly missed his first four shots (including three open 3-pointers) while weirdly providing his biggest influence on the defensive end.
Roy Hibbert, who finished with four fouls and zero points in 12 minutes, once again contributed a miserable stat line – and yet the Pacers played relatively well with the All-Star center on the court in the first half, he was actually on the pine when the Hawks turned a 21-21 tie into a whopping 21-point advantage at the half. Luis Scola, who could not guard a soul out there, somehow managed a -16 night in terms of plus/minus in just under eight minutes of play. New’ish addition Evan Turner was even worse when counting the seconds, putting up a -14 in 4 1/2 minutes.
The team picked up a five-second out-of-bounds call on its final play of the game. Its lone spark had to come from C.J. Watson, who helped spear a comeback to make things respectable in the second half. Poor David West had to play over 40 minutes, and he was noticeably gassed while attempting to guard Paul Millsap, and shooting his array of in-between shots on the offensive side of things. The boo-birds were out in the second quarter. It was an atrocious display, despite the second-half comeback that cut the deficit to nine points in the fourth quarter. It was a low point in a spring full of them.
And the only way Indiana makes it out of the first round is if it wins its next two games. Against a Hawks team that has blown out the Pacers by double digits in three meetings over the past 22 days, not even counting a Game 1 defeat that saw Atlanta lead in double-figures until Indiana’s garbage-time comeback.
The Pacers are a mess, but Atlanta is to be credited.
Reserve young forward Mike Scott came out of nowhere in the first half to remind the NBA he is more than capable as a 3-point shooter, nailing all five of his 3-point attempts in the first half alone and finishing with 17 points. Jeff Teague remains un-guardable unless either Paul George is forced to cover him (and even that’s a stretch), or the Hawk offense goes elsewhere. DeMarre Carroll hit timely perimeter shots, making George work, and veterans Millsap (18 points, sound work down the stretch) and Kyle Korver (5 of 10 from long range, including one dagger from 30 feet away after the Pacers had cut it to an 11-point deficit) were offensive killers.
Meanwhile, reserve point guard Shelvin Mack – a Butler product – led his previously unheralded Hawks team with 20 points off the bench, killing the vaunted Pacers D with an array of drives and perimeter flourishes.
As a result, the Pacers are in danger of becoming the fourth top overall seed in NBA history to be downed by an eighth seed in a seven-game series.
Two of the previous victims – the 2007 Dallas Mavericks and 2011 San Antonio Spurs – were Western Conference teams defeated by very good lower seeds that showcased a matchup advantage over the favored squads during the regular season. Another, the 2012 Chicago Bulls, had to mostly work during their six-game loss without the help of injured stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
These Pacers? Sure, the Hawks trounced them just a week and a half before the postseason started, but these are the Hawks. The 38-win Hawks.
Unless Vogel comes up with some season-changing combination of on-court efficiency, rotation breakthroughs and motivational magic, it’s the Pacers who are about to become the Pacers. A one-time championship contender, beaten to bits by a team that couldn’t win half its regular-season games, looking like a crew of unknowing strangers all along the way.
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