It's hard to lose a game you controlled for a good part of the second half, but the Indiana Pacers managed to do just that in a tough road loss to the Atlanta Hawks. The Pacers had one of their best starts of the year, led by David West and the starters, only to have the bench struggle to maintain the energy. The starters returned, trimming a double digit Hawks lead to one at half in a game defined by its runs.
The Pacers pieced together their best third quarter of the season, succeeding in ball movement, ball control, and quality looks that found their way into the basket. The Pacers used an 18-0 run to open up what seemed like a commanding lead against a reeling Hawks team that couldn't buy a shot. But in the fourth quarter, it was a return to poor decision making and struggling shots that gave the Hawks their own 18-0 run to turn the tides and allow Atlanta to comeback from 14 down to get the W.
Indiana managed to score only nine points in the fourth quarter, three in the final six and a half minutes, an exercise showcased by the same starters who put the Pacers in such good position to begin with. Whether fatigue or the eternal struggle of the zone defense doomed Indiana, it's more notable how good will can quickly turn to bad. Lance Stephenson in particular made a number of solid plays in the Pacers' second and third quarter runs, but maybe it was his own cockiness that led to some poor turnovers, shots, and passes in the fourth quarter.
Piling on Stephenson isn't fair, he did play a solid game, but he won some battles and lost some battles, and it was the latter that cancelled out the former. Stephenson was Indiana's only three points in the last half of the fourth quarter, keeping Indiana in the game after Atlanta sunk what looked like the dagger by Jeff Teague. Unfortunately, either a poor play drawn up on Indiana's final possession to tie the game or just equally poor execution, the Pacers weren't even able to draw iron from Paul George's Hail Mary three pointer, sending the Pacers to 2-3 and 1-3 on the road.
Even though the bench scored 22 (nine of those coming from Stephenson in his time with the starters), they were mostly ineffective in their short time on the floor. It was a game the starters had to carry, and the fourth quarter showed, at least for tonight, they were incapable of closing the deal. David West and George Hill played solid games overall, each scoring a game high 20 points, but aside from their own struggles down the stretch, no one else could become a reliable third option for a prolonged period of time.
Paul George had 13, well in line with his season average, admirably doing work away from the ball, but only getting 13 shot attempts and one free throw. With the Pacers in need of scoring (the team has reached 90 points at the end of regulation just twice, with scores of 90 & 91 respectively), George needs to either find more shots or be set up in position to get more shots.
It also goes without saying that another single-single from Roy Hibbert is not enough for what the team is in need of for the long term despite him being a solid key in Indiana's defensive effort tonight and winning Indiana's +/- line. Hibbert was just 4-12 with nine points and seven rebounds. While he traditionally struggles against Al Horford, he can't continue to be in a slump against Nikola Pekovic when the Pacers travel to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves in the final game of their three game road trip on Friday.
Losses like this are only disappointing; watching a supposed battle tested team give away a victory by being unable to close the deal with a single point when they needed a single point is simply disheartening. Yet, it doesn't feel like this will be the last time the Pacers will find themselves in the L column this season despite some solid stretches. It's only to be expected when the Pacers are right now only a team of solid stretches.
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