The Pacers had a chance at a second straight dramatic victory and to clinch a playoff berth in storybook fashion on Monday night.
Down two in Denver with seven seconds remaining, they put the ball in the hands of leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic drove to his right and created separation from Will Barton with a step-back move before launching a potentially game-winning 3-pointer.
Bogdanovic's shot hit the rim, bounced up high in the air, and...over the backboard.
And despite a memorable rally from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit, Indiana (44-26) fell to the Nuggets (46-22), 102-100. They will have to wait at least one more day to secure their fourth straight postseason appearance after their ninth straight loss at the Pepsi Center, an arena where they haven't won since Nov. 27, 2007.
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"It was definitely a back-and-forth game, but we got to figure out a way to overcome it," Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said. "We can't keep putting ourselves in those type of situations where we give ourselves chances to win and then take that chance away from ourselves by making bad plays, bad reads, and not continuing to execute."
The Nuggets led 96-89 with 2:56 remaining on Saturday when All-Star center Nikola Jokic was called for an offensive foul wrestling with Myles Turner for an offensive rebound. The 7-foot Serbian did not take kindly to the call and snapped on referee Tony Brothers, drawing a pair of technical fouls and an ejection.
Bogdanovic and Turner combined to hit all four free throws on the other end and suddenly Denver's lead was down to three.
Paul Millsap, however, scored on the Nuggets' next possession to make it a two-possession game.
But the Pacers again mounted a charge, with Turner's three-point play with 47.6 seconds left cutting the deficit to 100-99. On the other end, the Nuggets had two open looks from beyond the 3-point arc, but missed them both.
After the second miss, Juancho Hernangomez then fouled Turner on the rebound. The Pacers' center hit one of two foul shots to tie the game with 27.6 seconds remaining.
After a timeout, the Nuggets ran a pick-and-roll. Both defenders went with ballhandler Jamal Murray, so he dished to Millsap, who beat a too-late-to-recover Turner to the rim for the go-ahead basket with seven seconds left.
Bogdanovic had a chance to win the game on the other end, but couldn't get the shot to fall.
"No question," point guard Darren Collison said when asked if it was the look they wanted. "Bogey has been our better scorer, he got a good look at it, made a good move, missed the shot."
Earlier in the night, the Pacers had raced out to a 17-7 lead in the opening minutes. Jokic kept the Nuggets within striking distance, scoring 16 of Denver's first 23 points, but Indiana still took a 36-25 lead into the quarter break.
The Pacers used an 8-0 run early in the second quarter to extend the margin to 16 and later pushed it to as many as 18 points. With veterans Young and Collison leading the way, Indiana shot the lights out nearly the entire first half, shooting 62.2 percent from the field.
But the Nuggets got hot late in the half, hitting six of their final eight shots — including three 3-pointers — while closing the half with a 15-2 run to make it 60-57 at the break.
The hosts took their first lead since the opening minutes on Gary Harris' layup with 8:15 remaining in the third quarter. The game was tied at 71 with two minutes left in the frame, but Denver closed the period with an 8-4 run to take a four-point lead into the fourth.
"You have to put 48 minutes together," Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said after the game. "In that third quarter, I thought we stopped moving the ball."
Young's bucket trimmed the deficit to 81-80 with 10:58 to play, but the Nuggets reeled off a 10-1 run over the next three minutes to make it a 10-point game.
Young led five Pacers players in double figures, recording a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Collison added 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, while Domantas Sabonis and Bogdanovic added 16 points apiece, and Turner chipped in 15.
Despite missing the last few minutes, Jokic led all scorers with 26 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists. Barton and Murray each added 17 points, while Millsap tallied 15 points and 13 rebounds to help the Nuggets secure the victory.
Saturday's game was the first stop of a four-game Pacers road trip against Western Conference playoff teams. Indiana plays in Portland on Monday, at the Clippers on Tuesday, and visits defending champion Golden State on Thursday.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
Inside the Numbers
Young's double-double was his 10th of the season, third on the Pacers behind Sabonis (24) and Turner (12).
Indiana went just 6-for-24 from 3-point range against the Nuggets and is shooting just 32.4 percent from beyond the arc in the month of March.
The Pacers went 26-for-37 from the free throw line (70.3 percent) on Saturday. It was the fifth time this season Indiana has missed at least 10 foul shots and the third time it's happened since Feb. 22.
Millsap recorded his 11th double-double of the year in the win and his first since he racked up four straight from Feb. 13-26.
The Pacers' bench outscored Denver's reserves, 27-17.
You Can Quote Me On That
"(Millsap) made a tough shot. We had a challenge at the rim and he made a tough shot. The last play with (Bogdanovic), has to make a read on that play. If he feels he has a look, take it. If the defense makes a mistake, you get it to the open man." -McMillan on the final two possessions
"They're all tough. When you take an L, it's just tough. Especially in the position we're in right now, trying to fight for homecourt advantage and the third spot." -Young
"If you look at the game, we got wide open looks. First half, we hit those shots. Second half, we just didn't hit those shots. It was opposite them. They had wide open looks themselves. Then, in the second half, they started making shots." -Collison
"I had my mind made up. I was going to drive it, so it was pretty decisive. I'm actually pretty good when I'm decisive. I got to get out of the indecision stuff, be aggressive, and just continue to attack." -Millsap on his game-winning layup
"I think our players are poised and I think they are confident because we have been in so many of those games and we have come out on the winning end...Tonight, down the stretch, I thought our defense was fantastic in the second half." -Nuggets head coach Michael Malone
Stat of the Night
Indiana managed just 15 points in the third quarter on Saturday, six days after scoring a season-low 11 points in the third quarter of a loss at Philadelphia. Prior to last week, the Pacers had not scored less than 19 points in the third quarter all season.
- The Pacers have dropped nine straight games in Denver and 10 consecutive "road" games against the Nuggets, counting a loss in London in the 2016-17 season.
- Guard Tyreke Evans returned to action on Saturday after missing the last three games due to a combination of an upper respiratory infection and personal reasons. Evans had five points, five rebounds, and three assists in 15:37 off the bench against Denver.
- The Pacers and Nuggets will meet again next Sunday night in Indianapolis.
Indiana travels to Portland to take on Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers on Monday, March 18 at 10:30 PM ET. That game will air locally on FOX Sports Indiana and nationally on ESPN.
After a four-game road trip, the Pacers will return home to host Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday, March 24 at 5:00 PM ET. Find Tickets »