Poor energy, chemistry, shooting and timing are a bad combination of issues when you're in the business of winning a basketball game. Which makes you wonder how the Pacers even got as close as they did.
Their 92-85 loss to New York at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday goes down as one of the "worst" of their season, although it counts as only one in the standings. The Knicks were just 13-36 entering the game and had already lost to the Pacers at Madison Square Garden in December, so they seemed like the perfect opponent for a team undergoing reconstruction.
Seemed. But weren't.
The Pacers were ripe for a letdown coming off their most emotional game of the season, Wednesday's overtime victory over Chicago that featured the season debut of Victor Oladipo. The Knicks, meanwhile, were coming off one of their most embarrassing defeats of the season – which is saying something for a team with a 14-36 record - a 127-106 loss to Memphis at Madison Square Garden. The famously cynical New York newspaper reporters considered their bounce-back performance one of their best of the season.
What's the old saying? It's not who you play, it's when you play them. For the Pacers it was probably a bad time to play anyone, least of all a team hungry to restore some pride.
"I just thought we were flat," Pacers coach Nate McMillan said. "I thought we were flat the entire game."
Especially in the first and fourth quarters. Starting as if they hadn't recovered from the celebration of Wednesday's drama, when Oladipo hit a 28-foot three-pointer to force an overtime, they scored 11 points on 5-of-23 shooting in the opening period. And then, after fighting back to take a brief lead early in the fourth quarter and forcing a tie at the six-minute mark, they missed nine of their final 11 shots.
The only consistency they showed throughout the game was in failing to rebound. New York, the NBA's best offensive rebounding team, dominated the boards 57-34 and outscored the Pacers on second-chance points 19-4.
"They were the aggressors tonight," said Myles Turner, whose three 3-pointers in the third quarter and fourth to open the fourth propelled the Pacers' comeback.
With Oladipo back and Turner returning from a two-game absence because of the flu, the stars finally aligned for the Pacers to have an entirely healthy roster for the first time all season. And while McMillan plans to bring Oladipo off the bench until the All-Star break, he finally was able to put his intended starting lineup on the court together at times in the game.
It didn't go well, understandably, and it might not happen again for awhile anyway. T.J. Warren, the team's leading scorer heading into the game, fell hard on the back of his head in the third quarter when he was knocked down by a driving Julius Randle. Warren, who had been hit hard in the forehead early in the period, lay face-down and motionless in the end zone by the Pacers' bench for a few minutes before he was finally helped to the locker room. He was taken to a hospital to check for concussion symptoms.
"That's kind of how this season has gone. One guy gets back, another goes down," Turner said.
Oladipo, the guy who got back, still showed the rust of his year-long layoff from game competition. After hitting just 1-of-7 shots before nailing his stunning overtime-forcing three-pointer on Wednesday, he made just 2-of-14 shots against the Knicks.
Beyond the impact his absence has had on his shooting, his return has forced everyone to begin studying new chemistry lessons. The lack of comfort was painfully obvious at times in the halfcourt offense, similar to the start of the season when the Pacers lost their first three games while getting acquainted. Now they have to incorporate a player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective.
"There's different rotations, different roles," added Jeremy Lamb, whose starting position is scheduled to be handed over to Oladipo after the break. "I'm playing with a new unit, playing different minutes as far as when I come in and come out. It's just different. Everybody's adjusting a little bit."
Most of all Oladipo, who won't go 2-of-14 forever.
"Obviously it's all new," he said. "Be realistic, it's new for everybody for me to be out there. Guys have to figure out what our roles are and where guys fit in. It's going to take a little time, just like the beginning of the year took a little time. But once we figure it out, we'll be fine."
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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