INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Lance Stephenson shook his head in disbelief. All-Star starter Paul George repeatedly urged his Indiana teammates to get going, and All-Star center Roy Hibbert sat speechless on the bench during the final 30 minutes on the game.
This wasn’t just another bad loss for the Pacers. It was another chapter in their shocking collapse as the regular season comes to a close.
“I don’t think it’s acceptable for any of us in our organization to play the way we played tonight and we’re just going to get back to work to fix it, to get back on track,” coach Frank Vogel said following Atlanta’s 107-88 rout Sunday night in Indy.
The Pacers missed their first seven shots and scored a franchise-low 23 points in the first half when they went 7 of 35 from the field. The league’s No. 1 defense gave up 55 points and seven 3-pointers in two quarters.
This has been a problem since the All-Star break, with the Pacers allowing a mediocre 95.8 points per game and putting up the lowest scoring average of any team in the league last month. The Pacers are 20-17 since Jan. 24 and 7-12 on the road. Even their once invincible home-court edge doesn’t look so imposing after losing to San Antonio by 26 points and Atlanta by 19.
Are the Pacers in a free fall? They look listless at times, sure, but San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich noted that all teams go through these sorts of struggles during the season. Spurs guard Tony Parker said he still expects Indiana and Miami to meet in the Eastern Conference finals.
But there’s no doubt this is not the same team that started 17-2, was 33-8 at the midway point and made two February moves — signing free agent Andrew Bynum and sending injury-prone Danny Granger to Philadelphia in a trade deadline deal for Evan Turner — that made it clear the Pacers thought they could dethrone two-time defending NBA champion Miami.
After losing for the fifth time in six games, the Pacers are now one game behind Miami in the Eastern Conference standings.
Vogel benched Hibbert for the final 2½ quarters Sunday because he thought Hibbert looked fatigued. Vogel noted afterward that his entire starting lineup looked tired, though he played George and David West deep into the fourth quarter. Hibbert did not take questions after the game.
There has been speculation about a growing rift between the Pacers’ young coach and their star center, who has publicly complained about “selfish dudes” and suggested the Pacers needed “group therapy.”
Teammates deny there are any problems between the two.
“Roy will settle down,” West said when asked how Hibbert responded to the benching. “He’s down on himself because he felt like he could have helped us, but coach made a decision. Coach has to make some tough decisions sometimes, and it was to get him some rest. … Coach made the right choice.”
There have also been questions about Stephenson’s body language and his untimely ejection in the March 26 win over Miami and whether the Pacers’ struggles can be blamed on a young team wilting in the spotlight.
What can the Pacers do to fix all these problems before the playoffs start?
“For one, we just can’t panic. I mean we can’t panic. We’ve just got to be loose about it,” George said. “We’re just putting too much pressure where it doesn’t need to be brought. We just got to do what we do. We’re in a great position right now.”
At 53-25, Indiana has clinched its second straight Central Division title, still has the NBA’s best home record (34-6) and trails Miami by just one game in the East.
Before the season, fans would have applauded that resume. On Sunday, they booed.
“It’s understandable. You know we scored 23 points in the first half. That’s unacceptable and we know that,” George said, referring to the worst first-half point total in franchise history. “But I don’t think we deserve to be booed. You know, all that we’ve done this year. I definitely thought it was uncalled for.”
They have four regular-season games remaining, including a Friday night showdown at Miami.
“We’re playing good basketball, we’re sharing the ball. We’re taking the shots that we’re supposed to, they’re just not falling right now,” a clearly frustrated Stephenson said. “We’ve just got to keep playing good basketball. The basketball gods will take care of everything.”