This one was like a multiple-choice question. Did the Pacers shoot poorly and lack energy at times in their 110-99 loss to the Clippers because:
1. They were playing the first home game after returning from a nine-day, five-game road trip and had not practiced on Sunday.
2.They simply aren't as good as the Clippers, who were playing the second half of a back-to-back and were without star Kawhi Leonard and rotation players Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green.
3. They just had one of those nights, like every team has in the 82-game season.
4. They didn't have the poise to compete with an elite team.
Take your pick. An answer could be made for any or all of the above.
Monday's was the first of 11 games through the end of the year in which the Pacers play seven winning teams. Not just winning teams, but elite teams such as the Clippers, who are now 17-7, and Boston, which will bring a 17-5 record into Wednesday's game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Further down the road they'll face the likes of the Lakers, Milwaukee, Toronto, Miami, and Philadelphia, not to mention Denver in their first game of the new year.
Before tipoff on Monday, coach Nate McMillan called the game "an opportunity to see where we are." Afterward, though, he wasn't sure what to make of it.
"I can't explain this game," he said. "We just never got anything going. I don't know. We looked flat.
"We had wide-open looks we just could not knock down."
That part is undeniable. The Pacers had their second-worst shooting night of the season, shooting 35 percent from the field, and hit just 10-of-35 3-point shots. They were outperformed in the lane despite Domantas Sabonis' career-high 22 rebounds, getting outscored by 20 points, and got decent offensive games from just three players.
Malcolm Brogdon, who missed Saturday's game in New York with an injury pinky finger on his shooting hand, led with 20 points. Sabonis had 18 but hit just 7-of-18 shots. Doug McDermott continued his strong play off the bench by scoring 17 points, hitting 5-of-8 3-point shots.
The Clippers got most of what they needed from Paul George, who still hears loud boos from the fans three seasons after his "gut-punch" trade request. George, making his first appears as a Clipper after two seasons in Oklahoma City, finished with 36 points, one short of his season high. He hit just 10-of-26 shots but settled in after missing his first four 3-point attempts to hit 7-of-12 the rest of the way.
He got a few friendly whistles along the way, but still dominated the Pacers' defense. He also had nine rebounds, five assists, and two steals and was the primary defender of T.J. Warren, who hit just 2-of-8 shots and scored 12 points.
George lingered on the court after the final buzzer to talk with Victor Oladipo and some of the other Pacers players, then talked at length with friends from his time in Indianapolis. He was by far the last player to reach the Clippers' locker room and the last player available to the media coming out of the locker room by a greater margin.
Photo Credit: Matt Kryger
He then offered up cryptic comments that raised as many questions as they answered.
Asked about the boos, which echoed through The Fieldhouse every time he touched the ball, George said, "That's Indiana for you."
He then claimed to draw energy from the fan reaction and called it "fun."
He then said he planned to write a book when his playing career ends to tell the real story of why he asked to be traded.
Finally, he stopped in the hallway to have a friendly chat with three members of the Pacers' media relations staff before heading to the bus.
The importance of what all that means pales greatly in comparison to what implication should be taken from the Pacers' performance. They trailed by five points after the first quarter and were tied midway through the second but trailed by 12 at halftime after giving up 36 points in the second period.
The gap peaked at 24 points in the third and was still 20 with less than nine minutes left, but the Pacers chipped away long enough to make it interesting for a few minutes. They had it down to seven with 1:46 left on Warren's 10-footer and had a chance to get closer after Montrezl Harrell's missed shot, but Warren missed a 3-pointer from out top at 1:13 and Clippers forward Maurice Harkless followed with a clinching tip-in.
The shorthanded Clippers played some zone defense to try to keep the Pacers' off-balance. Whether or not that was the reason for the Pacers' meager offense could be added to the multiple-choice list.
"I thought we had open looks that we normally knock down," McMillan said. "Was it a hangover from the road trip? I can't say. We just looked flat. You have games like this during the season. It was one of those nights...if you're open, you just have to knock down the shots.
"I didn't think the zone was that good, but they stayed in it because we weren't knocking down shots."
The locker room was full of vague analysis as well. Some players mentioned the impact of the long road trip, others did not. The consensus was a collective shrug.
"I don't think we were locked in," Brogdon said. "Our minds might have still been on the road. And at the same time we played a really good team. We played an elite team with an elite player in Paul George. Bad combination. We've got to be better."
Starting Wednesday. By then the Pacers will have had time to settle into their home routines and will be coming off a practice on Tuesday. It will be the better opportunity to see where they are and ponder their challenging future.
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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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