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Pacers Fall Into Early Hole

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 20, 2014

His postgame conversation with the media completed, David West walked over to visit with Ian Mahinmi following the Pacers' numbing loss to Atlanta on Saturday. They chatted quietly for about 10 minutes, Mahinmi seated with his left shoulder wrapped in ice, West standing and wearing his game shorts, shower sandals and a concerned expression.

“Look at this (stuff),” Mahinmi said, pointing to his copy of the box score. “We ain't going to win with this (stuff) right here.”

Mahinmi later declined to specify the subject of his concern, but here's the best guess. The Pacers committed 29 fouls in their 101-93 loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, allowing the eighth-seeded Hawks to score 24 points from the foul line. That was eight more than they managed, which happened to be the margin of their defeat.

“That's too much,” West had said earlier.

“When you foul as much as we did, offensively you're going to go stale. You're taking the ball out of the net and having to run a set every time. Putting them on the free throw line every other trip, that's going to kill you.”

The deeper concern for the Pacers is the reason for all the fouls. They had no answer for Atlanta's jet stream of a point guard Jeff Teague, who got to the basket whenever the mood struck and scored a playoff career-high 28 points. Six of his nine field goals came off layups, usually off picks. He's clearly quicker than anyone on the Pacers' roster, but he was too quick even for the help defenders.

That, combined with the fact the Hawks controlled the majority of the loose balls and long rebounds, brought the Pacers' effort and/or strategy into question. That actually would be the preferable explanation. If it was simply a matter of Atlanta's superior quickness, there's not much the Pacers can do about that.

Most of the fans populating cyberspace were calling for changes to the starting lineup, or at least the rotation in Tuesday's game, which looms as a legitimate do-or-die for the Pacers. Coach Frank Vogel said he would “probably stick with what we got,” but allowed for the possibility of change. West doesn't expect anything drastic, just the sort of strategic adjustments that are typical from teams that lose a playoff game.

“Right now?” West said when asked if it was time for lineup changes. “Naahhh. We can't change who we've been all year. We've got enough. We've got to put together more solid stretches.”

The Hawks put together a 16-2 run in the first quarter and a 14-0 shutout in the third, when they outscored the Pacers 30-16 and elicited boos from the home fans. Teague scored 14 in the period, hitting 4-of-5 shots, including his only three-pointer. Paul George, who led the Pacers with 24 points, was conspicuous by his absence during that run. The Pacers trailed by three points when he went to the locker room to have a bruised thigh treated, and by 13 when he returned to the game three minutes later.

Despite their late-season swoon and Saturday's stumble out of the playoff gate, the Pacers continue to profess confidence. Depending on the outcome of Tuesday's game, they'll either turn out looking incredibly poised or in a state of serious denial.

“I think we're all right,” West said. “We talked a little after the game. We just didn't play solid enough defensively.”

“It's the little stuff; little adjustments that have to be made,” Mahinmi said. “You don't want to over-react too much to what they did. We were the best defensive team, but tonight we didn't play like it. When we're at our best, we're the best defensive team in the world. That's what we believe.”

Added George: “I think we're fine once we find a way to eliminate them spreading us out and do a better job of containing guys.”

The Pacers can take some comfort in franchise precedent. Three times, they've been in a playoff series where the higher-seeded home team lost the opener and went on to lose the series. They lost to Kentucky at the Coliseum in the opening game of the second round in 1970, then swept the rest of the series – and went on to win the ABA championship. They won Game 1 at Philadelphia as an eight seed in 2001 but were swept out of the series from there. They also won the opener of their series at New Jersey the following year, again as an eight seed, and lost the series in six games. Both Philly and New Jersey went on to play in the NBA Finals.

The difference is that none of those openers were blowouts along the lines of Saturday's game, when the Hawks led by as many as 20 points midway through the fourth quarter.

So here we are. Tuesday's game looms as the biggest the franchise has had in several seasons. A season that began with such promise, eliciting legitimate talk of a championship, is on the brink of collapse if the Pacers can't win Game 2.

“It's time to make adjustments,” West said.

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