First, some background.
Before Saturday, the Pacers ranked third this season in the NBA in points allowed and opponents' field goal percentage. During their recent seven-game winning streak, not a single team had managed to shoot 40 percent against them. They had allowed just seven teams to shoot 50 percent all of last season, and nine teams this season.
That's why recent events, and especially what happened at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against Brooklyn, are so difficult to explain. Shooting comes and goes, but defense is supposed to be a constant. But for the Pacers, it has come and gone, and is in dire need of retrieval.
Brooklyn, a team that ranked 17th in field goal percentage and hadn't arrived in Indianapolis until about 3:30 a.m. after playing a triple-overtime game on its homecourt on Friday, shot 61.3 percent against the Pacers, highest for an opponent in the franchise's NBA history. It also scored 123 points, most for an opponent since New York scored 132 in January of 2010.
For that to happen while the Pacers are in the midst of a frantic playoff rush, when they had already lost four consecutive games, made it all the more remarkable. And confusing.
You can shrug it off as an incredible shooting display by the Nets, which the Pacers did. You can blame your lack of defensive execution, which the Pacers did. And you can criticize your defensive effort, which some of the Pacers did.
There's no simple explanation for this, nor for the Pacers' five-game slide – one that follows their seven-game winning streak – that has taken them out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We needed this game,” said Luis Scola, who scored 17 points in the 123-111 loss. “We complicated things a little more than they were before the game.
“This was an important game. Right now we don't have a margin at all, so we have to come out and win games.”
The Pacers are now ninth in the East, a half-game back of Boston in eighth, just percentage points ahead of Charlotte for ninth and a half-game ahead of Brooklyn for 11th. With just 13 games left in the season, issues are urgent and answers are needed.
The Pacers had allowed four consecutive teams to shoot better than 40 percent following their seven-game win streak, a fluctuation that can be explained largely by the improved caliber of their opponents. To allow 61 percent, though is a different story altogether, and not easily explained. They were asked to try, however, and gave varied responses. That's probably appropriate, because something like that can't likely be explained simply.
“To shoot 61 percent against our defense is a pretty special performance,” coach Frank Vogel said. “You have to give them credit.”
The Nets indeed were hot. Brook Lopez, who had scored 32 points on Friday, came back with 26 on 11-of-14 shooting. Bojan Bogdanovic, a 43 percent shooter, came off the bench to hit all eight shots, including all three 3-pointers. But Deron Williams was probably the biggest cause of the landslide, scoring 15 points in the first quarter on 6-of-9 shooting. The Pacers' adjustments to keep him under control created opportunities for others, and they failed to stop those.
“It's not effort,” said George Hill, who led the Pacers with 18 points and passed out nine assists. “I think everyone's playing hard; it's just execution. Not being there on help side, rotating, sometimes not covering the blitz exchange, things like that. I think every guy in this locker room is giving great effort.”
David West, who played his best game since the winning streak with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting, agreed.
“Teams are making shots and we're not doing enough to make them uncomfortable,” he said. “We've had some tough matchups but we haven't been as tied together as we have been.”
Solomon Hill, who scored 17 points, did have an issue with the Pacers' effort. Well, not their effort so much as their extra effort.
“I feel everyone is giving effort, but it's like that 110 percent effort (is missing),” he said. “A hundred is not enough anymore in this dire situation.”
The Pacers were OK offensively against the Nets, reaching their third-highest point total of the season and shooting 50 percent. But a lingering problem remained. They got to the foul line for just 18 attempts. Brooklyn had 31. Throughout the five-game losing streak, opponents have attempted 42 more foul shots, a reflection sometimes of the Pacers' inability to get the ball into the paint and other times of their inability to stay in front of ballhandlers while on defense, which leads to fouls.
George Hill, the most crucial Pacers player, is playing with a sore lower back according to Vogel. Hill doesn't like to talk about it, and won't comment on the extent of the pain. Rodney Stuckey, until recently an explosive scorer, strained a calf muscle against Boston on March 14 and had to pull out of Saturday's game after playing 13 minutes in the first half. He said he's unsure of his status for Monday's game against Houston.
Just 13 games are left in the season, and it's still difficult to know who the Pacers are and where they're headed.
“We've been having those ups and downs a lot,” Scola said. “We're a good team and we've proved that, but we've also proved we get ourselves in these holes, and we go deep.”
The Pacers will take solace in that. They can fall into a slump quickly, so they believe they can climb out of it just as quickly. They're about to find out as the season winds down.
“As long as you play with the competitive spirit we're playing with, we'll be all right,” Vogel said.
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