by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
December 17, 2013 | 12:30 a.m. ET
On Monday, they experienced what happens when you take an opponent lightly.
On Wednesday, they'll experience what happens when you've made an opponent angry. Specifically, LeBron James.
The Pacers couldn't pull off their customary second-half magic Monday, losing their first game of the season at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 101-96, to Detroit. Softened by their league-best record, their Nov. 5 win in Detroit, and their habit of overcoming halftime deficits, they gambled and lost this time.
Games like this happen over the course of an 82-game trek, and this likely won't be the only time this season they lose a home game to a losing team. The NBA schedule practically demands upsets. Still, it was a jarring loss for a team that prides itself on trying to approach each opponent equally in its quest for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. A game against the Pistons is supposed to be taken as seriously as one against Miami, which happens to be the next opponent, because the league standings don't differentiate quality of opponent.
That didn't happen this time. Detroit, which had lost an overtime game to Portland on Monday, had more energy from the start.
“They just outhustled us,” said Lance Stephenson, who hustled most among the Pacers while compiling 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists without a turnover.
There were endless examples of the Pacers' malaise from the outset. There was the time, for example, that none of the Pacers went after Greg Monroe's missed 19-foot shot, leaving it for Josh Smith to grab and hit a 17-footer that gave the Pistons a 10-5 lead. And there was the time later in the quarter when backup center Josh Harrellson, a former second-round draft pick who has been traded twice and cut twice, grabbed three offensive rebounds on one possession, and then finally ended the madness with an assist to Josh Smith for a layup that made it 15-11.
It went on like that for most of the first half, when the Pistons grabbed nine more offensive rebounds and scored nine more second-chance points than the Pacers. The Pacers couldn't muster a serious run until the final six minutes, pulling within two points on three occasions, only to find the Pistons unwilling to collapse.
All three of the Pacers' three previous losses had come on the road, and in the second half of back-to-back sets. This one had a drastically different feel to it, but also a familiar touch. The Pacers have now let nine consecutive opponents shoot better than 40 percent from the field, something that rarely happened earlier in the season. Detroit shot 43 percent, mostly because of all its second-chance opportunities.
“A loss like this brings us back to reality,” Paul George said. “We can't turn it on, we can't have a switch when we want to. Teams are getting up and getting ready to play us, so we have to match that energy and prepare like they're the team to beat.”
George is dealing with a new reality as well. He's had three consecutive sub-par games now, in which he's combined to hit 10-of-37 shots. He was 4-of-14 on Monday, hitting just 1-of-5 in the final period, one he has dominated in most games this season. He found it difficult to get open for shots, and missed most of the ones he got.
He was in a serious frame of mind following this loss. Rather than wrapping himself in towels and sitting back to answer questions, as is his norm following wins, he was still in uniform and hunched over in his chair as he talked quietly with reporters.
“I'm just going through a time where I'm getting guarded differently,” he said after the group dispersed. “The only thing I can do is watch film and see where I can attack and get open shots and be efficient in our offense.”
It's all part of entering the realm of the NBA's elite. George had been getting mentions as an MVP candidate after surpassing 30 points five times in the first 20 games, including a career-high 43 at Portland. He's also been getting more and more national requests for his time, whether it's interviews or commercials. He filmed one at the Fieldhouse on Saturday, a day off for the Pacers. Time and ego management will become more crucial as his notoriety blossoms.
“As much as I like the national attention, I'm not desperate for the national attention,” he said. “I know when to turn things down and when I can jump on something.”
Now he can direct his focus to Miami, which will be waiting on the Pacers with a chip on each shoulder. The Heat aren't as worried about homecourt advantage as the Pacers, having won a championship without it and lost one with it, but they do have the pride of a two-time defending champion and will be looking to offer a rebuttal to the Pacers' 90-84 win last Tuesday.
They apparently will try to draw added motivation from Lance Stephenson's emphatic breakway dunk with 26 seconds remaining, when the Pacers already led by seven points. James could be seen on camera saying, “I'm gonna remember that. I'm gonna remember that,” as he brought the ball upcourt.
The Pacers are aware of that. Assuming the sprained ankle that James suffered in Miami's win over Utah on Monday isn't too serious, they'll get his best – along with the rest of the Heat.
“They were really mad at the end of the game because I got a cheap dunk,” Stephenson said. “I know they're going to bring it to us.”
On the other hand, Stephenson wonders, what was he supposed to do with the ball and an open rim in front of him?
“They didn't get back on defense,” he said. “Of course I was going to score. I don't think there's nothing wrong with it, but they're going to use that to get them hyped.”
Detroit's slam-dunk of a victory on Monday should serve the same purpose for the Pacers. That means two hyped teams should be taking the floor in Miami on Wednesday.