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Pacers Need to Regain Mojo, Keep Brooklyn at Bay

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 13, 2013

Not that long ago they were within range of Miami, regarded as an outside contender for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Then they appeared locked into the No. 2 spot, with no chance to catch the streaking Heat but safely ahead of the rest of the pack.

And then New York caught fire and it seemed they would have to resign themselves to the No. 3 seed, which, ok, would be good enough, and who knows, perhaps bring a better first-round playoff matchup.

Now? The Pacers are having a full-blown identity crisis going on, and are admittedly puzzled by their appearance. It's like it's time to get ready for the prom and they're wandering around in tattered jeans.

They're three games behind the Knicks, who they play on Sunday in Madison Square Garden, and just two ahead of Brooklyn, which dominated them for all but 16 minutes in a 117-109 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday. So forget looking ahead, it's time to look out below. The Nets are gaining on them, and have the easier remaining schedule. While the Pacers play at New York and Boston (both playoff teams) before finishing the season at home against Philadelphia, the Nets have three games against non-playoff teams: at Toronto and then home against Washington and Detroit.

Still, it will take a complete collapse for the Pacers to drop from the No. 3 seed, thanks to the tiebreaker rule instituted by the NBA a few years ago. Brooklyn has won all three games against the Pacers this season, but Indiana controls the tiebreaker because it's a division winner. The NBA made that the first tiebreaker to add more emphasis to winning a division. The Pacers, therefore, can clinch the third seed by winning just one of their final three games.

Still, their primary issue will be to regain mojo, momentum and, in the case of their starting point guard, mobility.

"There's concern," coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously you want to be playing better at this time of year. But losses are motivating. Sometimes teams that are red-hot get a little full of themselves and struggle.”

The Pacers apparently were guilty of just that after sweeping their four-game Western trip what now seems like a few months ago. They've lost three-of-four games since then and have trailed by at least 20 points in all four of them. The miracle comeback against Cleveland on Tuesday is all that stands between them and a four-game losing streak.

What's wrong? Vogel spelled it out for his team – literally, in all capital letters – during a timeout midway through the third quarter, when he wrote one word on his white board: DEFENSE.

The Pacers have been the NBA's best defensive team, statistically, for most of the season. They entered Friday's game ranked first in opponents' field goal percentage (.418) and second in points allowed (90.2). Now they've allowed four of their previous six opponents to break 100, and the other two scored 97 and 94. Brooklyn's point total was the most by any opponent this season.

“We didn't draw a line in the sand defensively,” said David West, who led the Pacers with 26 points, hitting 11-of-13 shots.

“Our defense has been a step or two too slow for the last week.”

The Nets were the more determined team from the opening tip. Before, actually. Reggie Evans and West were jostling for position at the center circle as the ball was about to be tossed, and Evans was allowed by the referee to stand where he wanted – which pretty much turned out to be an omen, because the Pacers gave ground, too.

Brooklyn shot 71 percent in the first quarter and 59 percent in the second for a 69-50 halftime lead. Deron Williams had turned in a full evening's work by then, scoring 25 points while hitting 4-of-7 three-pointers, and passing out eight assists.

“This is ridiculous!” a Nets beat writer proclaimed after the half ended. “They just scored 69 points on the Pacers!”

It got worse before it got better, and before it got worse again. Brooklyn's lead peaked at 76-52 early in the third quarter. But just as they stormed back from a 20-point deficit in the final nine minutes to beat Cleveland on Tuesday, the Pacers' defense sparked a run that got them within seven by the end of the period and all the way to a 101-99 lead on Lance Stephenson's three-pointer with 5 minutes remaining.

They had a chance to extend the lead after forcing a turnover, but Roy Hibbert was called for an offensive foul on a rebound to start a run in which they came up empty in six of the next seven possessions – including three turnovers and two bad shots. Brooklyn regained a nine-point lead before winning by eight.

The Pacers got back into the game by switching Paul George onto Williams, who went from 10:09 left in the third quarter (at which point he had 30 points) to 48.7 seconds remaining in the game without scoring. Vogel also went with a smaller lineup at times to better defend the pick-and-roll on the perimeter, but that meant leaving Roy Hibbert on the bench for all but 5 ½ minutes in the final period.

Such is their defensive dilemma. Can you get better defensively when you have to leave your proclaimed Defensive Player of the Year candidate on the bench?

The closest thing to an excuse for the Pacers' recent defensive lapse is George Hill's collection of nagging injuries throughout his groin, hips and thigh. Vogel said he's considering resting his point guard as the season winds down. Hill, however, accepted the blame for his struggles against the recent murder's row of point guards he's faced: Williams, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, Washington's John Wall and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook.

"It starts with me," he said. “I have to defend a lot better than I've been defending. I can't make excuses.”

Hill wasn't alone. Throughout the locker room, players accepted accountability. This would be an opportune time, however, to turn words into action.

“We've got to play some of the best basketball we've played all year to give ourselves momentum and something to feel good about,” West said of the short road to the end of the regular season. “Winning cures all and we've got to figure out a way to win.”

Editor's Note: The article was updated to reflect a rule change regarding tiebreakers.

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