Reruns get old after awhile, especially the ones with unhappy endings. The Pacers offered up another one on Tuesday, an agonizing loss that featured the customary late-game flaws.
A victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse would have eliminated Chicago from the playoff race from a practical standpoint, but the Pacers' 98-96 loss dropped them into eighth place in the Eastern Conference, just two games ahead of the Bulls. The Pacers have a more favorable remaining schedule than Chicago or Washington, which is just 2 ½ games back of the eighth and final playoff spot, but one thing is obvious: for the Pacers to manage anything resembling a happy ending to their season, they're going to have to figure a way to close out games more effectively.
The Pacers scored just 12 points in the fourth quarter, hitting 5-of-22 shots, but still managed to overcome a seven-point deficit and lead by three points with three minutes remaining because the Bulls were just as bad: 6-of-23, with seven turnovers.
Chicago got a game-winning 10-footer from Jimmy Butler with 3.7 seconds left because the Pacers fumbled their final defensive possession, and that was enough. The Pacers settled for too many perimeter shots – they attempted just two foul shots in the fourth quarter, none in the final eight minutes – but it didn't matter. They missed shots at the rim, too.
"Too many lost possessions on the offensive end," coach Frank Vogel said.
The Pacers took a 94-93 lead with 5:46 on Myles Turner's 10-footer over Butler, but followed with five consecutive misses:
- A quick 3-pointer by Paul George, who finished with 20 points but was scoreless while playing the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter.
- An 18-footer by Turner, who nervously jiggled out of the shot while releasing the ball.
- An off-balance layup attempt by Turner.
- An 18-footer by Monta Ellis, who hit just 3-of-12 shots in the game.
- An open 3-pointer from Solomon Hill, a 25-percent shooter from behind the arc.
They were getting stops and forcing turnovers on defense, though, so they still managed to take a three-point lead on George Hill's reverse layup off a fastbreak feed from Ellis with 3:03 left. But they wouldn't score again, missing six more shots. Those ranged from George Hill's awkward floater in the lane to Solomon Hill's missed rebound attempt to George's missed 19-footer to Turner's ill-advised turnaround shot in the lane to, finally, C.J. Miles' desperation 29-footer at the buzzer off an inbounds pass with 1.9 seconds left.
In the midst of all that, George committed a costly turnover by throwing an underhanded cross-court pass out of bounds with 1:10 remaining.
All the Bulls had to do to break their four-game losing streak was score five points in the final three minutes. Nikola Mirotić hit a 3-pointer – one of seven on his way to 28 points – with 2:19 left to force a tie, then Butler's hit the gimme game-winner after George and George Hill failed to execute a switch.
The Pacers knew what to expect, and assigned George Hill to the 6-10 Mirotić so Hill could switch off onto Butler off of Mirotić's screen. Mirotić, however, slipped the pick, moving away as Butler dribbled by him. That created uncertainty between Hill and George, neither of whom got to Butler quickly enough to contest his shot.
"We were trying to confuse them," said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who began his NBA playing career with the Pacers. "They both kind of stayed in no-man's land there and Jimmy rose up and knocked down a big shot."
It wouldn't have to come to that, however, if the Pacers had executed offensively.
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Vogel wasn't happy with his team's decision-making at times. "You've got to read," he said.
The shooting accuracy spoke for itself.
"We didn't make the shots," Vogel said. "Sometimes it's a make or miss league."
George acknowledged the fourth-quarter offensive woes, something that has plagued the Pacers all season.
"It was stagnant; real stagnant," he said. "Despite the looks we got, we've got to get better looks than what we did."
Do better plays need to be drawn up, or do plays need to be executed better?
"It's both," George said.
Perhaps something good will come out of all the frustration, which was palpable in the Pacers' locker room.
"It's at its peak," George said. "Same game, losing the same way. It's frustrating. It's real frustrating."
The schedule remains favorable for the Pacers. Four of their remaining eight games are at home, with only one of the road games against a winning team (Toronto). The Bulls and Wizards both play more difficult road-slanted schedules.
For now, though, Thursday's home game with Orlando is enough to worry about.
"It's a must-win," George Hill said. "Any game right now is a must-win."
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