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Loss Reveals Pacers Still Searching for Solutions

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 23, 2012

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There they were, winners of three of the previous four games and holding a 17-point lead over one of the NBA's elite teams midway through the third quarter.

What happened after that went a long way in revealing why there appears to be more missing from the Pacers than Danny Granger, who was exiting the locker room on crutches as media members were allowed in. Their 104-97 loss to San Antonio at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was full of self-inflicted wounds at both ends of the court. What was looking like the perfect send-off to a four-game road trip before 17,000 festive fans became a setback that raised doubts about the team's collective character.

Or should have. It was difficult to gauge the Pacers' mindset afterward, as many of them grasped for silver linings.

"There's still a lot of positives out there," coach Frank Vogel said.

"Coming off tonight we feel good," Paul George said. "Couple of cleanups and we'll be ready."

Only time will tell whether the Pacers are an optimistic team that will positive-think its way to the playoffs or a soft one that is collapsing amid the glare of greater expectations. Friday, however, there was no doubt what happened down the stretch. They collapsed. As a unit. At both ends of the court.

The Spurs have now defeated the Pacers in 11straight games, but were more vulnerable than ever in this one. They were without two key players, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard, and hit just 2-of-17 three-pointers. They still had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, however, not to mention coach Gregg Popovich, and that nucleus has been enough for a long time.

That's why the Pacers' 17-point lead with 6:35 left in the third period didn't seem like enough. Giniboli re-entered the game at that point, and he, Duncan and Parker proceeded to score all but three of the points that bled the lead to just four at the end of the period. The Pacers regained an 11-point lead two minutes into the fourth quarter, but proceeded to miss their final 14 field goal attempts.

The Spurs regained the lead with 3:49 left, and never looked back. If they had, they would have witnessed roadkill.

A couple of cleanups? To say the least.

The game-closing offensive drought was the most painfully obvious factor in the outcome. Roy Hibbert, who hit just 5-of-18 shots, missed four attempts between three and seven feet in a 90-second stretch, the last one with 3:19 remaining. Even West, normally the team's most reliable clutch player, missed an open layup at 2:06 and two foul shots at 1:45.

The players, however, were most frustrated by their defense. Ninety-seven points would have been enough if they hadn't given up 31 in the fourth quarter. And it wasn't as if the Spurs scoring came from unexpected sources.

"We didn't do enough in terms of our collective effort to affect their main three guys," West said. (Duncan) had way too much time to line them up. Same thing with Parker, he was slicing us up. It's not all on the guy guarding them; we pride ourselves on defense, but they just picked us apart."

Vogel talked before the game of his attempt to emulate much of what the Spurs do offensively, and how he relied on ex-Spur George Hill as a de facto assistant coach. Hill, however, acknowledged the Pacers have a long way to go to match the Spurs' efficiency and maturity.

"You can't emulate them, they're one of the best in the NBA," Hill said. "They have a flow and that's something we don't have right now. We have to figure out how we can get better."

The Pacers leave Monday on a four-game road trip that will take them to Los Angeles (Lakers), Sacramento and Golden State. They'll return home for a day, and then go to Chicago for another road game. That will end the brutal opening segment of their schedule, in which 12 of the first 18 games are played on the road. The trick will be to still have reasonable cause for hope by the time it's over. They're 6-8 now. A 6-12 record will be difficult to overcome, as well as a cause for serious soul-searching from the locker room to the front office.

"I thought we had an opportunity to do something special tonight," Hibbert said. "It would have been a great boost for us to go to the West Coast."

Instead, they're still searching. For solutions, and an identity.

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