It has been an epic fall for Indiana, the likes of which may be unequalled in NBA history. The first seeds of doubt were planted in late January, when the Phoenix Suns convincingly beat the Pacers twice in nine days.
The next cause for concern occurred on Feb. 20, when Indiana acquired Evan Turner for Danny Granger. The move was praised at first, as Turner figured to be a key bench contributor. However, the absence of Granger’s veteran presence started to become an issue in early March, when the Pacers lost four straight. By late March, there were visible chemistry issues and serious offensive struggles. All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert struggled to hit double figures in some games, and Hibbert suddenly looked like garbage. To make up for their issues, Brooklyn native Lance Stephenson played more isolation offense, limiting his effectiveness and the success of the bench unit.
By the end of the regular season, many experts wondered if Indiana would even make the Eastern Conference Finals. In the playoffs, people were concerned that the Pacers would struggle to score 90 points in games, especially in a potential matchup with Chicago. Yet, nobody doubted that Indiana would defeat the Hawks in round one. Atlanta went just 13-23 to close the regular season after losing center Al Horford to a season-ending injury and barely held off the Knicks for the eighth seed. Against this ragtag Hawks squad, everyone expected Indiana to advance.
None of that mattered in Game 1 though, as the Pacers were stunned by a third-quarter barrage of Hawks’ threes. Indiana again lacked crisp offensive ball movement, and its defense was abused all game long in the 101-93 home defeat. Pacers coach Frank Vogel prides himself on defense and motivated his players to play lockdown defense in Game 2. For a half, Indiana looked like a title contender again and gained critical momentum.
However, the Pacers played down to the Hawks level in Atlanta and were fortunate to split the two games. When the series returned to Indiana, most fans expected the Pacers to grind out a /game 3 win. Instead, they self-destructed in the second and early third quarters, getting outscored 60-29 in one 18 minute stretch. In two especially wild minutes, Hawks reserve Mike Scott hit four straight three pointers without facing significant defense on any attempt.
Three months ago, Indiana’s future looked bright with George, Hibbert, Stephenson and Vogel forming a long-term core group, but unless the Pacers make some season-saving adjustments, that core four will likely be split apart. The Pacers are just 48 minutes from a devastating offseason, and they have only themselves to blame.
— Dominic Kearns