Mark Montieth headshot

Pacers Maintain a Recent Trend

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 8, 2013, 1:39 AM

Editor's Note: Have a Pacers-related question for Mark? Want to be featured in his mailbag column? Send your questions to Mark on twitter at @MarkMontieth or by email at askmontieth@gmail.com.

You've heard this story before. It's not a pleasant one, it doesn't contain much drama and the ending does not surprise. But then again, perhaps the collaborating authors are too young to know better.

It's the one about the Pacers coming off a great success, a peak moment, with an opportunity to make an even greater statement, and losing. Not just losing, though. Collapsing. Collapsing as in committing 21 turnovers, giving up 29 second-chance points, allowing a 30-2 run through the third and fourth quarters and getting zero points from the starters for the first six minutes of the final period, before the coach admits the futility of it all and clears the end of his bench.

Tuesday's 105-79 loss to New York at Madison Square Garden left them with a 1-1 split in their second-round playoff series with New York as they headed home. That's as good a scenario as anyone had a right to expect, and leaves them with homecourt advantage for the rest of the series as long as they can win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but the nature of the loss was puzzling.

Or maybe not, given their season-long history.

That 102-95 victory at the Garden on Sunday, coming two days after they had closed out Atlanta in the first round, had been a powerful statement. And, all season long, this team has tended to follow powerful statements with questions.

To review: They won three games in three nights, and followed with two homecourt losses, one to a non-playoff team. They won four consecutive games on a Western road trip, and followed with five losses in six games, trailing by at least 20 points in all six. They won two games to open their first-round series with the Hawks, and followed with two double-figure losses in which they trailed by 28 and 19 points.

So, Sunday's impressive victory dropped the first hint that Tuesday was not going to end well. Prosperity usually softens willpower, in life and basketball, and the Pacers have been Exhibit A. They were physical on Sunday, so much so that some of the Knicks complained about it, but the Pacers were bullied on Tuesday. They didn't need former team president Larry Bird to call in with a s-o-f-t declaration, as he did in last year's series with Miami. They volunteered for the label this time.

“We did not come out and play as aggressive,” Roy Hibbert said. “We played pretty timid and soft in the first, but we're a team that grinds it out and I feel like we were right there.”

They were so “right there” that they led the game for awhile in the second half. The “timid and soft” beginning led to a deficit that reached 13 points with 3:46 left in the second period. The Pacers had seven turnovers in the first quarter and five more in the second as they gave up the ball on double-teams and sometimes dribbled it as if it were triangular.

They closed the second quarter strong to get within five at the half, and then continued to chip away until they took the lead for the first time on Lance Stephenson's three-pointer with 4:20 remaining in the third quarter. Kenyon Martin's layup put the Knicks back up by one, but George Hill answered with a three-pointer for a 64-62 lead at 3:28.

The Pacers had a chance to get closer following Carmelo Anthony's missed three-pointer, but coach Frank Vogel called a timeout. When play resumed, Paul George bobbled Hill's pass from 10 feet away, which turned out to be the first falling rock of a landslide. The Pacers were outscored 10-2 the rest of the period, and 20-0 to start the fourth. By then, Vogel had pulled his starters, with 6:02 remaining.

His turn in the postgame interview room lasted less than two minutes, his frustration apparent in his deadpan demeanor and short answers.

Why the timeout?

“I usually use that situation to put something in while we have the ball,” he said.

After three other routine questions, he was asked what had gone wrong in the fourth quarter, then the Pacers were outscored 33-13, with all 13 points coming in the final 4:48.

“We turned the ball over, we didn't make free throws, we gave up second shots and we didn't guard the paint or the rim,” he said. “And we didn't score.”

The session was cut off there, to the surprise of reporters but no doubt to the relief of Vogel.

The youngest team left alive in the playoffs had taken its 1-0 lead and homecourt advantage and gone on a casual joy ride that ended in a ditch. Now it's 1-1, and can find hope in its history. A loss such as this one counts no more than one that comes from a buzzer-beater, and it has rebounded well from embarrassments such as this one throughout the season.

“Keeping it in perspective, I just thought the wheels fell off,” David West said. “They just got rolling. They can make shots in bunches and put you away. The wheels fell off in terms of not being solid enough to compete at the close of that third and the start of the fourth.”

Hibbert said afterward “we knew that we were not going to sweep,” making Tuesday's performance a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, however, the Pacers know they're going to have to return to New York for a fifth game in this series, and that a loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday or Tuesday will return momentum to the Knicks.

They're not exactly in a desperation situation yet, but their sense of urgency certainly will be heightened. Lately, that's the only way they can play well.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.