It's hard to look at the Indiana Pacers' Game 1 loss to the Orlando Magic and think it was anything but one of the most pitiful showings of the year by the blue and gold. The Pacers did enough on the defensive end to come out with a win, but absolutely blanked on all cylinders when it came to offense. Some can be attributed to the Orlando defense, but a great deal comes down to making shots, and when the only thing on the checklist is hitting one shot in the final four minutes, it's nothing but pitiful coming short of that.
The Pacers came in high flying and heavy favorites against a shorthanded Magic team, and things looked to go exactly as planned when the offensive and defensive intensity led the way for the Pacers to jump out to a ten point lead late in the third behind Danny Granger's offense and Roy Hibbert's suffocating defense. Orlando climbed back into the game on a 12-3 run to close the first quarter that kind of played into a microcosm of the entire game.
In fact, what became the summary for the game was very nearly a summary for the Pacers as a whole. Under George Hill as the starter, the starters have surged, while the bench has really struggled to produce offense. When the defensive intensity took a hit in the second unit, the nightly cold stretch of the blue and gold became painstakingly apparent. The Pacers quit crashing the boards and preventing second chance opportunities for the Magic, who surged on another late quarter run to jump out to a seven-point lead in a quarter the Pacers allowed 30 points.
The concerning lack of mental toughness towards the end of quarters certainly carried over throughout the game as every positive push the Pacers had was met with a spirited and hungry Orlando team that seemed more than fed up with being completely disowned against a team that hadn't so much as a won a playoff series. The understandable frustration definitely came full tilt for the Orlando Magic, and Indiana was left without an answer when it counted.
The Pacers came out of the half with a pair of big threes and three at the line to erase the lead, but the struggles offensively became incredibly apparent, while at the same time, continuous misses from the free throw line continued to quietly mount. With stretch after stretch of defensive (or in some cases lack of offensive) basketball, neither team had any kind of claim to getting momentum, and Orlando taking a 64-63 lead in a quarter neither team reached 20 points, well, it was a knock-down drag out fight the Pacers had found themselves in.
Despite it all, it seemed if the Pacers could just get going offensively, they'd be able to make the necessary defensive stands to pull the game out. After all, they'd done a solid job in the second half really limiting Orlando's opportunities at the three point line. While the three point shot was going to be a deadly advantage for the Magic, the low scoring nature of the game really amplified every single triple, making the Pacers' work in the third quarter that much more key had they been able to actually find some offense.
Indiana finally found some punch in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes to open up a 5-point lead; getting some breathing room and feeling good for the first time in a long time. Indiana managed to grab four more points over the next four minutes to push the lead to seven points, and as is the case when the stakes are the highest; it simply came down to who makes the plays.
The biggest concern in last year's postseason was how the Pacers disappeared off the face of the earth in the final four minutes of games. It was those late game collapses that turned a potential first round upset into a 4-1 series loss. It seemed with considerable work in the close game category throughout the year; their ability to come up with that one play to turn a frustrating loss into an ugly win has been pretty consistent, making tonight's outcome that much worse.
The Pacers literally needed one play in the final four minutes of the game, but a pair of wide open Paul George threes, missed shots around the basket, two crucial Danny Granger free throws bouncing off iron, Darren Collison drawing up a contested isolation play, and a couple of Granger turnovers slowly built and built; grew and grew as the Magic quietly made a shot here, a shot there. Two huge Jason Richardson three pointers would be the highlights in a 11-0 Magic run to close the game, as the Pacers, in a frustrating and disappointing display, came up short, losing home court advantage and facing a near must-win Monday night at Conseco Fieldhouse.
If there's any bright side to this utterly maddening close to the game, it was that there can't be a way for the Pacers to play any worse than they did offensively. Defensively, they kept the Magic in check, rotated well, and aside from Jameer Nelson having a really big game and their typical pick and roll struggles, they didn't have any glaring shortcomings on that side of the ball. But to shoot 35%, miss your final ten shots, shoot an inexcusable 13-22 from the charity stripe including two Granger misses when he had been money from the line, that can't show up again. Not only can it not show up again from a job performance level, but the Pacers, who are prone to bad shooting stretches, rarely shoot blanks the way they did tonight.
Credit has to go to the Orlando defense to a degree, but Indiana missed some gimmes, some great looks, some key second chances, and again (harping to harp on the matter), free throws. Some individual looks:
- George Hill struggled. There's no other way to put it. Not only could he not get any offense going, but he was constantly beaten by Jameer Nelson on defense. Nelson had a superb game, but a lot of that can go because of how easily he was able to get around Hill. Hill fell early in the game, seemed a bit shaken up on it, but it didn't seem like something that could've thrown his game as much as it appeared to. Darren Collison played a much better game on both ends, at least managing to keep Nelson in front of him during the crucial moments of the game and running the offense, though his shooting was just as bad as everyone else's.
- Danny Granger started out hot out of the first quarter as well as the third, but largely proved ineffective, going 7-20 with 17 points. He rebounded well, but when the Pacers need their best player to score and he can't score, it's not a great sign. Paul George was a necessity to score as well, and his late game three pointers that bricked off the iron were huge. As with Granger, he played well in stretches, but couldn't get over the hump when the team needed to get over the hump late. In his defense, he shot 6-7 from the line, no pardon for the miss, but making half of the team's free throws when shooting a third of the team's attempts? At least someone tried from the line tonight.
- David West was the team's best and most consistent offensive weapon tonight, and he came and went like a lot of players. He had big stretches and was the only player on either team to shoot over 50% on the night. West had the awkward roll going, and it was unfortunate the team didn't look to him more offensively down the stretch. Roy Hibbert had a tremendous game defensively, coming up just shy of a triple double tonight, grabbing 13 boards and sending home 9 blocked shots, but for all the damage he did on the undersized Orlando front line defensively, he was overpowered and uncoordinated by the same front line on the offensive side. Had Hibbert gotten a 10th block, he would've still fallen short of at triple double on points, getting 8 points on 11 attempts.
- The second unit really changed the tone of the game by not living up to the starters' defensive intensity late in the first quarter, and they played a part. It was the second unit that couldn't corral the rebounds the starters were able to. It was the offensive deficiencies that played a part in the team's inability to consistently push the game forward. Tyler Hansbrough had a couple of baskets, but as a whole, it was a performance that ended up being largely par for the course given how the game wound down so negatively.
The Pacers may be favored, but they're in a real fight now, losing home court advantage and slipping to 0-1. The Magic still provide a clumsy matchup for the Pacers, and it was premature of people to write Orlando off. The contested game didn't seem out of the realm; it was certainly plausible the Magic could hang tough, but the Pacers would still ride a confident series win, but the inexplicable offensive inabilities and poor adjustments by Frank Vogel turned an ugly win series into what could become a truly ugly series.
Indiana has no excuse to not come out with all cylinders firing on Monday night when they host Game 2. The Pacers responded to losses last postseason extremely well, and the hope is that they can do the same thing this year. Going into Orlando down 0-2 is not an option for a team hoping to take tangible strides forward this postseason, but Orlando being short Dwight Howard doesn't change the advantages Orlando still has on the Pacers.
Playing the Magic really was Indiana's best case scenario, but it never should've meant it was a particularly good scenario. So step off the gas a bit, now is the time for the Pacers to show what they're made of. Fortunately, it's a seven game series and it still seems unlikely Indiana can have a game that bad again. Let's just hope that's true.