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Three Plays Turned 3-0 into 0-3

by Conrad Brunner || Caught in the Web Archive

April 21, 2011

Of all the lessons imparted by the playoffs, none is more important to the Pacers than this: there is no margin for error.

In any game, at any time, under any conditions, one play can make the difference between victory or defeat.

They have played with incredible grit and determination in a first-round series with the Chicago Bulls, and yet have nothing to show for it. The Pacers head to Game 4 on Saturday in Conseco Fieldhouse facing elimination.

But for three plays -- one in each game -- they could instead be looking at a closeout opportunity, up 3-0 rather than down 3-0.

This is not intended to assign blame to any of the players involved, but rather to illustrate how thin the margin between the joy of victory and the agony of defeat.

Game 1: The layup

Tyler Hansbrough played brilliantly in the opener, racking up 22 points and dominating his matchup with Bulls star Carlos Boozer. Hansbrough scored seven in a row, including the ultimate embarrassment of Boozer: Hansbrough stole the ball from the veteran, raced the length of the court for a dunk, drawing Boozer's fifth foul in the process. That three-point play put the Pacers up 98-88 with 3:38 left.

We all know what happened next. Derrick Rose took over, the Pacers didn't make another basket and the Bulls closed with a 16-1 run to win 104-99.

The play that might've changed it all came early in the run, after the Bulls cut the lead to 98-92. Hansbrough drive down the lane against Boozer but missed the layup and the rebound turned into a Bulls fast break that resulted in a dunk for Joakim Noah. Instead of a 100-92 lead, which might've stemmed Chicago's rising tide, it was 98-94 with 2½ minutes left and the floodgates were fully opened.

Game 2: The twist

A big spark in Game 1 with 17 points, nine assists, six rebounds and two steals, Darren Collison was once again igniting the Pacers in Game 2. His driving layup with 2:32 remaining in the first half built a 45-36 lead and it looked like the Pacers were going to head into the locker room with firm control of the game.

Instead, Collison's ankle turned and with it the game.

Collison tumbled out of bounds after the drive and became tangled with photographers on the baseline, spraining his left ankle in the process.

When Collison limped to the locker room, the Pacers faltered just long enough for the Bulls to complete reverse the momentum. Chicago went on a 23-7 run spanning the break to take a 59-52 lead, forcing the Pacers to play catch-up the rest of the night and the Bulls went on to win 96-90.

Game 3: The run-stopper

Danny Granger was feeling it in the fourth quarter, making four jumpers, including a tough step-back on the right baseline that wiped out a five-point Chicago lead and tied it at 84-all with 1:42 left, sending the Conseco Fieldhouse crowd into a full-blown frenzy.

When the Pacers came up with a defensive stop, the home team had its big chance for a magic moment.

They got the ball to the hot hand and Granger spun open when Luol Deng went for the steal, but his slightly off-balance look from 18 feet rimmed out. Rookie Paul George won the scramble for the rebound, providing a second chance, and the Pacers called a timeout with 55.4 seconds left to set up the critical possession.

On the ensuing play, Granger popped open on the right wing for an instant as two Bulls defenders got tangled but Collison elected to drive into the lane, where he missed a 13-foot floater.

Had either shot fallen, the Pacers would've had the lead control of the closing seconds, which instead shifted to the Bulls when Rose drove through the defense for a decisive layup with 17.8 seconds remaining.

Rather than entering their final full possession with the safety net of overtime beneath, the Pacers instead faced the desperation of a deficit and could not get a good look as Granger missed a long 3-pointer and Ronnie Brewer closed out the 88-84 Chicago victory at the line.