The Pacers nearly made history on Wednesday night at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, coming close to pulling off the largest comeback ever by the franchise.
Indiana looked listless in a disastrous first quarter, falling behind 43-15, the largest deficit any team faced after one quarter in the NBA this season. Bryn Forbes' 3-pointer with 10:06 remaining in the second quarter gave Denver a 31-point lead, 50-19.
But despite the deficit, and despite having eight players out due to injury, the Pacers were a completely different team over the final three quarters. The Blue & Gold mounted a furious charge, taking the lead for the first time with 3:09 remaining in the third quarter and leading with under eight minutes to play in the contest.
In the end, however, Indiana (25-52) simply ran out of gas. Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets (46-31) righted the ship just enough to avoid an embarrassing collapse, pulling away late for a 125-118 win.
It was a bitter end to an inspiring effort by the undermanned Pacers. Seven of Indiana's nine available players scored in double figures on the night, and all nine of them had a hand in the memorable comeback attempt.
Buddy Hield scored a team-high 20 points for Indiana, while Terry Taylor tallied 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting and nine rebounds in the loss. Goga Bitadze (18 points and 10 rebounds) and Tyrese Haliburton (15 points, 12 assists, five rebounds, and four steals) both recorded double-doubles.
Even the players not playing on Wednesday were all-in. Oshae Brissett, Malcolm Brogdon, Chris Duarte, Isaiah Jackson, T.J. McConnell, and Myles Turner were standing in front of the Pacers' bench for virtually the entire second half, living and dying with each possession.
"Our crowd was great," Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said after the game. "When we got way down, they kept encouraging us...They hung with us and we started making some good things happen with heart and unselfish play and carried it through to the latter stages of the fourth. There's things we can build on."
Jokic got the Nuggets' offense rolling early. The reigning MVP scored three baskets and assisted on the other two as Denver opened the night with a 10-2 run.
The Pacers fought back, with Taylor's layup cutting the deficit to 14-10 with 5:39 remaining in the opening quarter. But those would be Indiana's last points for over four minutes. The Blue & Gold missed their next nine shots, a cold stretch made all the more worse by the fact that Denver scored on eight straight possessions.
All in all, it added up to a 20-0 Denver run to give the visitors a commanding lead. Hield's layup at 1:21 ended Indiana's drought, but the Nuggets knocked down 3-pointers on their final three possessions of the frame. The buzzer finally granted the Pacers a merciful reprieve, but the Blue & Gold found themselves in a massive 43-15 hole.
The Pacers' offense finally got going again in the ensuing frame. Reserves Jalen Smith, Keifer Sykes, and Duane Washington Jr. scored five points apiece as Indiana amassed 19 points over the first 4:52 of the second quarter.
Indiana continued to chip away at the Nuggets' lead for the rest of the half. The Pacers managed to trim what was at one point a 31-point Denver lead down to 16 by the intermission thanks to a 38-point quarter. The Blue & Gold entered the locker room at halftime facing a 69-53 deficit.
Their rally continued after the break. Hield's trey 2:08 into the second half made it just a 10-point game at 74-64. Denver pushed the lead back to 81-65 following Monte Morris' 3-pointer with 7:38 remaining in the frame, but the Pacers reeled off 10 straight points over an 80-second span, capped by another Hield three to make it a six-point game.
That forced a Nuggets timeout, but the Pacers kept coming. Bitadze's 3-pointer at 5:02 cut the deficit to three and Taylor's backdoor layup the next time down the floor cut the deficit to one. Remarkably, Haliburton's layup with 3:09 remaining in the third quarter gave Indiana an 86-85 lead.
Jokic scored on the other end to put the Nuggets back in front, but the Blue & Gold surged back ahead shortly thereafter on a highlight-reel play. On a fast break, Haliburton delivered a spinning, no-look dish to Smith from the right wing, which the second-year big man finished with a ferocious dunk to give the Pacers a 91-89 lead with 1:06 remaining in the quarter.
"Just having fun with it," Haliburton said of the sequence. "(I saw) Stix (Smith) kind of running down the middle and I knew I was going to hit him. So I just kind of put the extra flair on it to get myself going and get the arena going."
Denver's Bones Hyland managed to get to the rim and score at the third-quarter buzzer to tie the game entering the fourth.
The lead changed hands five times over the first three minutes of the final frame. Pacers guard Lance Stephenson and Nuggets guard Austin Rivers each picked up technical fouls after an exchange at the 8:41 mark, then Rivers picked up a second technical and was ejected with the game tied at 100 after throwing an elbow at Stephenson on Denver's next possession.
Sykes' layup gave Indiana a 102-100 lead with 7:40 remaining, but the Nuggets responded with seven unanswered points to take the first multi-possession lead for either team in the frame.
Two Bitadze free throws with 5:14 to play cut the deficit to 107-104, but four straight points from Denver pushed the margin back to seven. Jokic and the Nuggets kept the Pacers at an arm's length the rest of the way.
"We've just got to bottle that up and figure out how we can do that and sustain that," Haliburton said of the comeback that almost was. "...I thought a lot of guys did a lot of different things very well."
Smith finished with 15 points and seven rebounds in the loss. Justin Anderson added 13 points, while Sykes scored 10.
Jokic seemingly single-handedly carried the Nuggets to victory, finishing with 37 points on 15-of-19 shooting, 13 rebounds, and nine assists.
Hyland added 20 points and seven assists off the bench for Denver, while Will Barton scored 18.
The Pacers will travel to Boston on Friday to take on the Celtics before returning to Indianapolis for their final homestand, which tips off on Sunday against Detroit and concludes on Tuesday against Philadelphia.
Inside the Numbers
The Nuggets shot 62.5 percent from the field, the highest field-goal percentage by a Pacers opponent since Orlando shot 63.6 percent in a win over Indiana on March 15, 2008.
Indiana scored 25 points off 20 Nuggets turnovers. The Pacers only committed eight turnovers on the other end.
Bitadze scored in double figures for the ninth straight time and recorded his second double-double of the season.
Haliburton registered a double-double for the ninth time in 21 games as a Pacer.
Hield went 5-for-11 from 3-point range, the third time in his last five games that he made five or more threes.
The Pacers outrebounded Denver 18-8 on the offensive glass. Eight of Taylor's nine rebounds came on the offensive end.
The Pacers' 15 points in the first quarter were their fewest in the opening frame this season, while Denver's 43 points were one shy of the most by a Pacers opponent in the first quarter this season.
You Can Quote Me On That
"It was great to experience the second and third quarters in particular. The level of competitiveness, the level of togetherness, collective will, all those things was phenomenally high." -Carlisle
"I thought we battled the right way, defended the right way, got out into transition. That's when we're a lot of fun. I think the crowd got us involved and I think that's what got us going." -Haliburton on the keys to the comeback
"Last game, I just feel like I didn't rebound or contribute on the boards like I usually do. So I made a conscious effort to attack the boards today. I never have a problem going up against whoever it is, I always feel like I can rebound with the best of them." -Taylor on his success on the offensive glass
"He's a smart guy. He figures out the way to fit in. He figures out how to play to his strengths and cover his weaknesses, and he's always working on his weaknesses. He's really a lot about what Indiana is about: the hard work, the commitment, the vision, the getting better, and the unselfishness. He's just a super unselfish guy and very much beloved by his teammates." -Carlisle on Taylor's contributions
Stat of the Night
After being outscored 43-15 in the first quarter, the Pacers won the next two quarters by a combined margin of 76-48 to tie the game.
- With the victory, the Nuggets swept the season series with Indiana for the second straight year.
- Brissett missed his second straight game with a sore lower back.
- Washington returned to the court after missing the previous two games with a hip injury.
The Pacers travel to Boston to take on Jayson Tatum and the Celtics on Friday, April 1 at 7:30 PM ET.
The Pacers tip off their final homestand of the season on Sunday, April 3, when they welcome Cade Cunningham and the Detroit Pistons to Gainbridge Fieldhouse at 5:00 PM ET. Find Tickets »