The Pacers had just failed to close out a close game for the third consecutive time, so naturally the conversation turned to the issue of finding someone who can take over in such circumstances and make winning plays.
"Of course that could be part of it," a tired and exasperated Nate McMillan said. "But we're without him. He's not coming back this season."
There's no need to identify "him." Victor Oladipo remains in Miami, rehabbing the injury suffered on Jan. 23, and the Pacers don't have anyone else with the individual athleticism, skillset, and/or mindset to deliver knockout blows in the clenches. That means they have to execute in both quality and quantity, which they haven't done in the second half for the previous three games.
Saturday's 121-116 loss to Orlando at Bankers Life Fieldhouse wrapped up a difficult week and difficult month in appropriate fashion. Coming close, but coming up short. The Pacers went 4-10 in the March and are looking forward to turning the page to April, when the schedule is easier. But hardly easy.
Boston, which took fourth place in the Eastern Conference from the Pacers on Friday, tried to hand it back by losing in Brooklyn. But the Pacers turned their backs by squandering a lead that peaked at nine points past the midway point of the third quarter and was still eight in the final 2:02 of the period.
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They were outscored 42-29 the rest of the way because they couldn't get stops, couldn't find enough good shots in their halfcourt offense and couldn't hit enough of the ones they got, even layups. They made just 9-of-24 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter, including 2-of-9 3-pointers, and committed two turnovers in the final 2:48.
That followed Friday's two-point loss in Boston, when they scored just 21 points in the fourth quarter, gave up Kyrie Irving's layup in the final seconds, and failed to get off a shot on their final possession.
And that followed Wednesday's loss in Oklahoma City, when they lost a nine-point halftime lead by allowing a 24-0 run in the third period and lost by eight points.
Think Oladipo, who carried them across the finish line so often last season by hitting clutch 3-pointers or getting to the basket for layups, might have helped in any of those games? All of them? The Pacers don't bring him up unless asked, but the answer is obvious.
"We have to keep working, try to work our way out of this thing," McMillan said. "That's all you can do."
The Pacers' reserves made a major contribution in Friday's game against the Celtics, sparking a 35-point second quarter with ball movement and shot-making superior to that of the starters. McMillan called them out in Saturday's loss, however. Each of the four who played in the second half had a plus-minus of at least minus-nine. Tyreke Evans, who had generally played well over the previous two weeks, was particularly troublesome. He missed all four field goal attempts and both free throws in the second half.
"You make substitutions, they make a run," McMillan said, allowing himself a pained chuckle.
"You have to sub your guys. The second group came in, we didn't get stops and we were turning the ball over. You have to give (the starters) a breather. Our second group...Ross got hot, we turned the ball over a few times and all of a sudden lost momentum."
Photo Credit: Jessica Hoffman
Ross is Terrence Ross, Orlando's backup guard who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half when he hit 4-of-9 3-pointers. He wasn't the only heated Magic player, though.
Wesley Matthews' 3-pointer with 2:16 left in the third period gave the Pacers an eight-point lead, forcing an Orlando timeout. Michael Carter-Williams scored on a weakside rebound of Ross' missed 13-footer, drew a foul from Evans and converted the three-point play. The Pacers turned it over when Domantas Sabonis' forced pass to Myles Turner in the lane was mishandled, and Carter-Williams came back with an open 3-pointer from the left corner. Evans then forced a step-back 3-point shot that barely grazed the rim and Ross followed with a 3-pointer off a screen give the Magic a one-point lead.
Darren Collison, who led the Pacers with 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting, scored five points in the final 52 seconds to provide a two-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. But the Pacers never led over the game's final 10 1/2 minutes.
Thaddeus Young, who missed an uncontested layup late in the loss at Boston, missed another one midway through the fourth quarter. Bojan Bogdanovic, who had another strong offensive game with 22 points, missed a driving left-handed layup with four minutes left, then he and Turner missed open 3-pointers on the next possession. Collison got the deficit down to five points after a timeout with a strong drive to the basket, but Bogdanovic dribbled the ball off his knee and out of bounds as he started to head downcourt after controlling the rebound of Evan Fournier's missed jumper.
That kind of night.
The offensive woes are easier to calculate, but the Pacers' problems collected mostly on the defensive end. Scoring 116 points will win most games, but not the ones in which you give up 65 points in the second half.
"It's mainly our defense," said Collison, who also had nine assists and just one turnover. "They had some layups in the fourth quarter and late in the third. That's inexcusable on our part. Wide open layups, that's tough. We have to cut down our breakdowns and have that grittiness.
"We've got to take this one on the chin. This ain't nobody's fault but ours. There's no other way to put it. We just didn't get the job done defensively. It hurts losing this way."
The Pacers, having played three games in the past four nights, will embrace Sunday's day of rest, then return to The Fieldhouse on Monday to play Detroit, which is fighting to hang on to sixth place in the East. The two teams play again in Detroit on Wednesday. Then Boston comes to The Fieldhouse on Friday, followed by Brooklyn on Sunday. That's four opponents with something to play for.
The Pacers do, too, but have to stop the bleeding first. They’ve lost seven of their previous eight games. They were competitive in all but one of those defeats (at Golden State) but the standings don't take that into consideration.
"It's the NBA season," Collison said. "You have to be mentally tough to withstand these obstacles. If you can't, you don't belong in the NBA.
"The good thing is, its happening right now before the playoffs. If it gets us a little tougher mentally and if we cut down some of the mistakes we're making in the fourth quarter of these games, we'll be fine. We've got to be tougher."
Because "he" is not walking through that door.
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