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Pacers fall to Thunder – and lightning

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 5, 2013

On second thought, maybe it was a good thing ESPN chose to televise the Miami-Charlotte game instead of this one. It was bad enough the fans who filled Bankers Life Fieldhouse to capacity had to witness it, much less the entire nation.

“It's tough to have a game like this and play the way we played,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said following his team's 97-75 loss to Oklahoma City on Friday, and that about summed it up. Coming off a four-game sweep of a Western road trip, the Pacers had stoked their fans to a peak level, only to leave them hanging with an eight-point fourth quarter and the worst homecourt loss of the season by 14 points.

Oklahoma City had defeated visiting San Antonio by 12 points on Thursday, then came back and dominated the Pacers. Even with the clock applying a mercy killing at the end, its reserves were defending with all-out aggression while the starters stood and cheered them on from the bench. Coach Scott Brooks had told his team before the game that sleep is overrated, and his players followed through by outrebounding the Pacers 53-31 – 15-9 on the offensive glass – outscoring them 21-7 on second-chance points, beating them to most of the loose balls and rattling them into 2-of-21 three-point shooting.

Add to that the lightning strikes of Kevin Durant (34 points, nine rebounds) and Russell Westbrook (24 points, nine assists, seven rebounds) and it's no wonder the Thunder tore Indiana asunder. Give them credit.

“That's the best team we've played all year,” David West said. “Just the way they look, their composure. We were going to have to play almost perfect and have some big nights out of everybody to keep pace with them.”

The Pacers got big nights out of just two starters, West and Roy Hibbert. West scored 17 points, 11 in the second half when the offense was stalling. Hibbert continued his solid play with 22 points and eight rebounds in just 31 minutes. He was called for a questionable foul barely more than two minutes into the game and played just two minutes in the second quarter before picking up his third.

Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill combined to hit 9-of-30 shots and the five reserves who played combined to hit 3-of-14.

“I feel we just laid an egg,” George said.

The Pacers, who had not played since Monday's game in Los Angeles against the Clippers, were rested and ready at the start of the game, but the Thunder seemed to steal their spirit as the game proceeded. Vogel pleaded for his players to capture more loose balls during the game, but never got the results he wanted.

“If you don't win the loose ball game against a team like that you're not going to win,” Vogel said. “It seemed we were a step slow to every one of them.”

Durant, the NBA's leading scorer at 28.4 points, at least gave the Pacers fans the consolation prize of a brilliant performance. He had just two points as the first half wound down, but drove the baseline for a power layup, drew Hibbert's third foul and converted the three-point play with 3:55 left. He added seven more points before the half ended, seven more in the third and topped off the evening with 15 in the fourth.

Durant plays an understated game for someone who scores so rapidly. He moves quietly, lying in the weeds of the game, and then strikes like a snake, almost at will. But how long a snake? He claims to be 6-9, but has admitted he likes the sound of that better than, say, 6-11, which he appears to be. The programs, though, go with 6-9.

“No way,” said West, who sees what 6-9 looks like every time he looks in the mirror. “He's huge, man. That's why he's the best scorer in the league. It's hard to get two guys on him. In order to slow him down you need two guys on him. We tried some different looks, we tried to trap him, but he'd back the ball out to midcourt and spread us out … that's why they're the best team in the Western Conference.”

Added Vogel: “He's ridiculous. Just an elite, elite scorer who challenges you in every way.”

For the Pacers, it was just one loss, and in the bigger picture no different than if they had won three-of-four on the road trip (which would have been judged a success) and won this one. It also was a rude wake-up call following the bliss of their road sweep and three days of rest and preparation, a reminder of just where they stand among the league's elite.

If Pacers fans are upset by Friday's outcome, imagine how fans in Seattle feel. They had Durant playing in their city before the franchise bailed out for Oklahoma. Or how about the fans in Portland. The Blazers had the first pick in the draft when Durant was available, but opted for Greg Oden, as the majority of NBA teams would have done.

The Pacers will win the Central Division, eventually. Perhaps it will happen Saturday night in Washington. If not, it will happen soon. But games like this one remind them that they are a promising team but hardly a finished product.

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