After "Humbling" Finish to Season, Pacers Looking to Rebound

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by Mark Montieth |

April 18, 2013, 1:57 AM

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The Pacers, of course, wanted to be playing their best basketball of the season and ride a tsunami of momentum into the playoffs.

The reality, however, is that they've lost five of their last six regular season games, and have misplaced the defensive edge and shot-making ability that had them looking faintly like a title contender at times throughout the season.

There's nothing left to do now but fake it – convince themselves everything is all right and will only get better once they get back to their former selves, a challenge helped by the fact they'll be playing Atlanta, a team with issues of its own.

“Ideally you want to be playing your best ball at this time of the year,” coach Frank Vogel said after his team's 105-95 loss to Philadelphia at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “We were, up until the final week. For whatever reason we struggled the last week. I've seen red-hot teams struggle when they get in the playoffs and get bounced and I've seen teams that struggled the final few weeks go very, very deep. I wouldn't over-react to it.”

That's Vogel, putting an optimistic slant on a questionable situation, something he does exceptionally well. From his (public) perspective, Wednesday's loss featured a “heckuva burst” from Gerald Green, who scored a career-high 34 points, as well as solid play from Jeff Pendergraph, who scored 12 points and helped lead a second-half rally that reduced a lead that had peaked at 26 points early in the third quarter to eight with more than four minutes remaining.

The fact the Pacers are playing a team – or, more accurately, a franchise – that's defeated them in 13 of the past 17 games, also holds no relevance to Vogel. Nor does the fact the Hawks have won 11 straight over the Pacers in Atlanta, including two victories this season.

“History shows the regular season doesn't mean that much when it comes to playoff matchups,” Vogel said.

No doubt there are plenty of examples to support Vogel's spin. The Pacers, for example, lost three of their final four games in the 2004-05 season, with the lone victory coming by two points over Chicago in the last game. Yet that team won its first-round matchup with Boston in seven games, and took the defending champion Pistons to six games in the second round.

And, certainly, whatever happened in Atlanta in previous seasons means nothing now, and even this season's two games in Philips Arena seem like ancient history. The Pacers blew an 83-69 lead in the first one on Nov. 7, before Lance Stephenson entered the starting lineup, and lost by three points. They lost by nine on Dec. 29, the game in which Roy Hibbert infamously failed to scored in 21 minutes.

Those games might as well have been played in the Ice Age, the way things change in the NBA. Stephenson is now a starter and Hibbert has been revitalized since the All-Star break, so it's unlikely the Pacers will trudge into Philips as if it's a house of horrors. Win the first two games of the series on their home court, and that will provide sufficient momentum. Lose one of those games, and whatever happened in the regular season won't mean much anyway.

Still, this is not how Vogel would have scripted the season back in November. Wednesday's game aside, when Stephenson was the only starter to play, his team has lost the defensive edge that carried it through the regular season. It led the NBA in opponents' field goal percentage throughout most of the season, and was first or second in points allowed. Yet, it gave up an average of 101.7 points over the final seven games, excluding Wednesday's, more than 11 above its recently inflated average.
It hasn't shot as well, either, with Paul George a notable perpetrator. George is likely to win the NBA's Most Improved Player award, but has hit just 17-of-60 shots over his past five games.

Asked before Wednesday's game for an explanation for George's struggles, Vogel said, “I hope he's tired.” Meaning, that would be the best possible explanation, because George has had plenty of time to rest this week.

“He's got to make sure he's getting a lot of shots up this week,” Vogel added. “I've encouraged him to get after that workout routine he did after the game at Golden State (when George went scoreless). That changed his confidence.

“When you're fatigued and playing so many minutes in so many games, it's tough to maintain that level of shooting repetition. I think it's something he hopefully gets back to in these next few days and it carries over into the playoffs.”

Atlanta seems a better first-round matchup for the Pacers than Chicago – which would have been their opponent had they lost on Wednesday and Atlanta had won. The Hawks, after all, lost five of their final seven games, and are in a major state of uncertainty. First-year general manager Danny Ferry has designed his roster to be blown up after the season, with more than half of his players becoming free agents. The list includes leading scorer Josh Smith, who appears unlikely to be re-signed. Theoretically, the Hawks could go all out and play for their future contracts in the playoffs. More likely, the uncertainty will creep into their chemistry.

The Pacers, meanwhile, can take comfort in the fact they have rebounded well in both the literal and figurative senses throughout the season. They lead the league in rebounds of missed shots, and have bounced back from missed opportunities as well. When beating winning teams on the road was their final unproven talent, they went West and won four straight.

They've lost five-of-six since then, which presents another challenge.

“It brought us down to earth,” Pendergraph said. “Just a little humbling experience going into the playoffs, and I think that's a good thing to have. You can't go in there thinking you're going to run through everybody. As long as we keep that in perspective and work hard, we'll be fine.”

They might as well tell themselves that, because there's no better alternative at this point.

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