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Pacers' "Mental Breakdowns" Cost Them

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 16, 2013, 1:56 AM

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Scalpers hustling on the street corners outside. A capacity crowd inside. Fans allowed to enter the playing area a half-hour earlier than usual to accommodate the increased turnout. And, the ultimate indication of a big game: An ice cream bar set up in the media room.

There was a playoff atmosphere at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday, but only one team met the challenge and it wasn't the home team – although admittedly it was difficult at times to identify the home team, based on crowd reaction.

The Pacers' 99-93 loss to the Lakers stands as perhaps the most disappointing defeat of the season. They didn't execute offensively, hitting just 37 percent of their field goal attempts and getting a combined 13-of-45 shooting effort from the starting frontline of Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert. They were just as bad defensively, allowing the Lakers to hit 13-of-26 three-pointers and to get to the foul line for 30 attempts – 21 more than they managed.

Their postgame analysis was right on target, though.

“Too many mental breakdowns,” an uncharacteristically terse Frank Vogel said. “We didn't deserve to win tonight, the way we played.”

“They were more aggressive, and we were just fouling too much,” a characteristically blunt West added. “Just grabbing and reaching. We just didn't put enough pressure on them to win.”

The Lakers are the eighth-seed in the Western Conference, but not for long. They've won 10 of their last 13 games, and clearly are overcoming the early-season issues that stemmed from adding two major players to the starting lineup – Dwight Howard and Steve Nash – and having three head coaches in the first 11 games.

They played three-fourths of this one without Kobe Bryant, who gave it a shot on his severely sprained left ankle but couldn't hit a shot in four attempts and sat out the rest of the game after a scoreless first quarter. Still, they came together in the finale of a three-game Eastern road trip, gathering winning performances from a variety of veterans who don't flinch in the bigger games.

Steve Blake, replacing Bryant as a starter the final three periods, scored 18 points off the bench, hitting 5-of-7 three-pointers. Antawn Jamison added 17 off the bench, hitting 4-of-7 three-pointers. Metta World Peace, who was called Ron Artest among other things when he played for the Pacers, had 19 points and one of the game's most telling baskets, an offensive rebound and layup amid stagnant Pacers midway through the fourth quarter.

They've now won 10 of their last 13 games and will nobody's preferred opponent in the first round of the playoffs. They also served up an example to the Pacers about stepping up when the bar gets raised. Especially when an opponent's best player (Bryant) is ineffective and/or absent.

“You have to take advantage of the fact they had a 30-point scorer out of the lineup,” West said.

Friday's game continued a recent and disturbing trend for the Pacers. They've lost four of their past five games against elite teams in the NBA, three on their home court. They've fallen to the Clippers, Celtics and Lakers at Bankers Life, and at Miami. It's not a successful postseason formula.

“Terrible. Terrible,” West said. “We just haven't stepped up to the challenge. Tonight, I didn't play well enough personally to give these guys a chance. That's disappointing. Regardless of what the Lakers' record is, they're an elite team.”

No doubt about that. World Peace scrolled through the roster highlights afterward: Nash is a certain Hall-of-Famer, Howard is a likely Hall-of-Famer. Jamison is closing in on 20,000 career points.

“I didn't even mention myself,” he added.

He could have. Now 33 years old, World Peace is not the two-way threat he was in his tumultuous time with the Pacers, for whom he was voted an All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. But he showed Friday he's still a threat. He played an efficient offensive game, scoring 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting and grabbing seven rebounds, and was at least partially responsible for West's 4-of-13 shooting performance.

He's now just one of six players in NBA history to score 12,000 points, grab 4,000 rebounds, hit 1,000 three-pointers and compile 1,500 steals, joining Bryant, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Paul Pierce.

He's still an unpredictable conversationalist, though. Appearing on a 1070 The Fan talk show Friday morning, he said his best memory from his time with the Pacers was “shopping at Target, probably.”

His comments following Friday's game elicited fewer head scratches. He called it the Lakers' biggest win of the season, given its timing on the road trip, Bryant's absence and the caliber of the opponent.

“Most of the people in this organization are used to winning significant games on the road,” he said. “Obviously you have to be able to win on the road to reach your goals, you know? This is a step in the right direction for us, against a really good, well-coached Indiana team.”

The Pacers are good. They're also well-coached. But something has been missing lately in their “significant games,” both on the road and at home. They need to find it soon, or they won't get to experience many big games in the playoffs.

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