INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Pacers reached the top of the Eastern Conference by relying on hard-nosed defense and a power offense.
They’re on the brink of elimination because neither is working.
The eighth-seeded Hawks are on the brink of pulling a stunning upset thanks largely to Indiana’s ineptitude to get it right in the playoffs.
“We didn’t play as well to end the year off, but I just knew at playoff time, this team would come together,” All-Star starter Paul George said. “But you know this team (Atlanta) is a tough matchup. We’ve never rotated this much, we’ve never ran around the court this much.”
They’ve never been in this much trouble, either. Monday night’s 107-97 loss put Indiana in a 3-2 hole and one loss away from becoming just the sixth No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose in the first round.
Two months ago, such an exit seemed inconceivable.
Indiana was the league’s best team over the first half of the season, going 33-8, and was virtually unbeatable at home. George wound up with the third-most votes for the All-Star game, Roy Hibbert was selected as a backup and Lance Stephenson’s fans said he should have made the team, too.
Things changed dramatically after the All-Star break.
The Pacers started having problems with spacing and ball movement, the league’s top-rated defense struggled, tempers flared and they lost that air of invincibility. Evan Turner arrived in a trade and hasn’t blossomed. Indiana is just 13-16 since March 1, and despite winding up with home-court advantage through the conference finals, they haven’t resembled the team that looked destined for a rematch with Miami in the Eastern finals.
Indiana thought the playoffs would give them a fresh start. Instead, the NBA’s best regular-season home team (35-6) has lost two of three games on its own floor.
Hibbert has been virtually invisible. He’s averaging 4.8 points and 3.4 rebounds in roughly 22 minutes per game. Even worse, the runner-up for the NBA’s defensive player of the year has only three blocks in five games and has become a major liability chasing 3-point shooters. Fans want coach Frank Vogel to bench the 7-foot-2 rim protector, especially after scoring no points and grabbing no rebounds in Monday night’s 107-97 loss.
“I’m not going to talk a lot about adjustments or lineup changes, potential lineup changes we could make,” Vogel said.
Hibbert said he hasn’t been told whether he’ll start Thursday night in Atlanta.
Team chemistry has been problematic, too.
After signing Andrew Bynum in early February and dealing longtime fixture Danny Granger to Philadelphia at the trade deadline, an effort to improve Indiana’s bench, the camaraderie started falling apart. Hibbert complained there were some “selfish dudes” in the locker room, a comment Vogel disagreed with and Hibbert later apologized for.
Vogel has repeatedly and openly prodded his players to share the ball and trust their passes.
Fans have complained about the body language on the court and on the bench, and there are growing questions regarding Vogel’s return next season if the Pacers are ousted this week. Things turned so bleak Monday, when Atlanta’s Mike Scott made four straight 3s during a 41-point second quarter, that even the usually unflappable Larry Bird cradled his head as he watched his team suffer.
A few hours later, George’s night got even worse when he returned home to find his $15,000 diamond-and-platinum All-Star ring and a $700 watch were stolen during the game, according to a police report.
“It’s being investigated now and that’s all I’ll say about it,” George said.
The Pacers’ vaunted defense, which was giving up roughly 90 points per game before the All-Star break, has yielded 95.8 points in the best-of-seven series and allowed the Hawks to shoot 39.0 percent from beyond the arc.
Players are hoping to find a solution before Thursday.
“We’re used to packing the paint, playing big, playing physical,” George said. “But it’s like playing pickup ball against them, with five perimeter guys. It’s a different feel playing against these guys, we just have to adjust.”
Time is running short.
Even if the Pacers stay alive in Atlanta, where they’ve won only three times in 7 1/2 years, the two-time Central Division champs would need to protect their home court Saturday to advance. They’ve already lost three times at home to the Hawks this season, and they haven’t won two straight games with their regular starting five on the floor since mid-March.
“We can’t think about Game 7. Game 6 is at hand and it’s a must win,” George said. “We can’t think about nothing but Game 6 and if we don’t win, our season’s done. That’s motivation enough right there.”