With another questionable close in a losing effort, the Indiana Pacers took on their second straight zombie buzzer gut-punch adjective words loss as part of three overall to end their road trip on an extremely sour note. After falling behind 99-86 with 5:45 remaining, the game looked to be well out of reach, but similar to Saturday night's effort in Utah, the Pacers locked into a tremendous comeback against the Denver Nuggets.
The Pacers would play what seemed like their first bit of defense since last Monday to build a huge 13-0 run to tie the game up at 99, and with a George Hill teardrop would have possession with under 18 seconds left, all tied at 101, playing for the win over overtime. When a Paul George ISO went sour at a second after plenty of contact let go, Andre Iguodala's steal gave Denver the timeout with 0.5 seconds to go. On the inbound, George, falling backwards, was whistled for a foul as Iguodala attempted the tip. After missing his four previous free throws, Iguodala would sink the first, lining up a miss to give Denver the 102-101 victory.
The loss, well, it sucks. But similar to the Utah game, Indiana dug themselves far too big of a hole to simply "come out of it," turning a largely poor defensive effort into something noteworthy late, unable to get the final play to avoid numerous complications. Yeah, it's frustrating, but from a perspective standpoint, each of these games were dead and finished long before Indiana came back. For them to even be games down the stretch speaks to the quality of team Indiana is, or at least can be, provided they can quit putting themselves in bad situations on the road.
Even still, there's no excuse for the first 42 minutes of tonight's game defensively, where Denver dominated the paint, dominated fast break points, and forced the Pacers into 18 turnovers. Give Denver an extra 23 free throw attempts, and it puts Indiana into a tough enough situation without needing to rely on the refs again to not make a call against the Pacers. The loss is Indiana's third straight game allowing over 100 points, a potentially troubling sign that will gain greater perspective in the Pacers' upcoming home stand.
A big issue defensively has been the anchor of Indiana's defense Roy Hibbert, who has not prevented much of anything of late, including tonight as Kosta Koufas and Timofey Mosgov combined for 19 points and 14 boards to control the tempo inside. Hibbert did have an 8/12 night, but in the midst of Indiana's 13-0 run missed both of his field goal attempts badly (and badly), giving control back to Denver.
Paul George's defensive assignment against Iguodala was mostly met with struggles as well. While Iguodala shot only 4-11, he did have a 13 & 10 double double with seven assists, getting to the free throw line 10 times. Fortunately George made up for it on the other end with a team high 23 for his 10 rebound double double, hitting some key buckets down the stretch, despite the turnover on his isolation play.
Speaking of isolation plays, the Pacers have used it to varying levels of success throughout the season, but it hardly ever seems to open up a good opportunity for Indiana, and very well may have been what cost them the game tonight. While D.J. Augustin running it early in the season had a failure rate of 100%, George Hill and Paul George are capable of hitting tough shots, but the odds never seem to be high enough to make them worthwhile looks when Indiana does have success with ball movement (and David West). Would there be a bigger chance for failure if the team did make passes on the final possessions? Moving the ball creates the opportunities for turnovers, sure, but it certainly can't lead to a worse outcome than tonight's game.
The ending to the inevitable loss does overshadow a pair of superb efforts from Lance Stephenson and Orlando Johnson, who combined for 48 quality minutes (well, at least 43) at the two spot. Stephenson broke out of his recently slump early, despite some struggles in the second quarter woke up a lumbering Pacers offense with the final seven of the half. His play in the second half continued to be a high level, scoring 20 points with eight boards and four assists. Johnson's play mostly came in the first half, but in a 3-5 night, had a career high eight points, hitting both of his three point shots, even making some defensive plays.
David West had 17 and George Hill struggled his way to 12, but each were there when the chips were down and the Pacers needed some good fortunes in the final minutes. The team was silent after the game for fear of potential fines if they did speak, but the facts remain: the Pacers drop to 10-16 on the road, including seven of their last nine, are running out of opportunities to get their road record to their goal of .500, have lost three straight games, and have fallen to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
For the time being, however, Indiana will put their road woes behind them as they'll get ready to start a home-heavy February, featuring just three road games in the next six weeks. The home stand starts with a game against the young Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, a team that has played has played improved basketball after a woeful 7-21 start to the season.