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Utah Jazz 95, Indiana Pacers 84: Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap Bully Indiana Frontline, Pacers Fail to Find Answer in Fourth Quarter

Despite being on a five game losing streak extended in the wake of losing their coach, and despite trading away their best player, the Jazz made a concerted effort to prove they were no slouch and wouldn’t lay down for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, this display had to come against the Indiana Pacers, who spent the entire game disrupted, rushed, beaten, overpowered, and downright embarrassed.

It’s easy to look at the record and pretend the Pacers have played well in every game, and for the most part, they have, but tonight’s game helps illustrate that the Pacers have gotten the better of some weaker opponents in this stretch, and even though they’ve had some poor stretches, their opposition has helped them overcome. But the Utah Jazz proved tonight they aren’t out of the playoff picture yet, and despite not having Deron Williams, big nights from Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are enough to make this team dangerous if you can’t match up with them up front.

Unfortunately for Indiana, they really lacked the fight up front. Well, that’s not entirely fair to say they lacked the fight. They swung and they swung, but nothing connected, while the Jazz countered with calculated blows straight to the weak spots of the Pacers interior defense (and offense). Despite being slow out of the gate, Utah quickly found their rhythm in the first quarter, while the Pacers sputtered, trying to find offensive cohesion. Indiana shot 20.8% in the entire first quarter, only scoring 13 points. For the team on the longest 100-point streak in the NBA for the entire season, it wasn’t looking like a prime night for that record to stay standing.

Despite all of the offensive troubles early, and there were plenty of them, not only in the weak shooting percentage, but extending into numerous Utah blocks, the Pacers remained competitive, much in the same way they have in their roughest stretches under Frank Vogel. Josh McRoberts as part of a Goon Squad mashup would help close the gap from 13 to 0 with 8 second quarter points (including some thundering jams), but a failure to get anything from anyone else gave Utah a strong close to the half, still shooting below 28% when the teams went towards the locker rooms.

Danny Granger showed up in the second half, and despite getting some moderate life offensively, Utah continued to match blow for blow, keeping a moderate cushion on the Pacers much in the same way Indiana did to Detroit on Wednesday. But despite all of the struggles, Indiana was within two points at the end of the third quarter, an absolute miracle given how the game had played out. In the fourth, Tyler Hansbrough, who had been fighting, but had not scored a single point, finally got some positive return as he scored the first three points of the quarter, putting Indiana in the lead.

From there, it went back to being the game it was: Utah would get the baskets they needed to stay in front, while Indiana failed to get the stops they needed. Al Jefferson exploded in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 of his 30 points, and making life a general nightmare for Indiana. Offensive rebounds became a huge issue in the fourth quarter. Utah got every meaningful offensive board, and turned those into points or extended possessions, while Indiana batted around every offensive board they got into failed tip shots.

Offensive rebounds are the box score’s most deceptive statistic. While Indiana "won" the battle 20-19, Utah’s offensive rebounds reset the offense, and created shot opportunities for a Jazz offense that thrived on opportunities, while Indiana simply tipped and batted around every offensive rebound they came across.

As all seemed lost, Danny Granger drew the Pacers to within five one of the team’s two three point field goals with under a minute. On the other end, needing a stop, Al Jefferson sunk in the dagger once and for all, accentuating the entire night: a failure to get the stops the team needed. In addition, the entire fourth quarter was painfully awkward offensively. It wasn’t the first time this season, or under Vogel, and unfortunately won’t be the last time this season. It likely won’t be the last time in this home stand. The Pacers put up awkward shot attempt after awkward shot attempt in an effort to get some kind of rhythm going, and on a night when they finished 34.8% from the field, it helped cement why Larry Bird was willing to make a play for a player like O.J. Mayo.

In the end, the Pacers fell, and they fell in the least graceful way possible. The front court was bullied like a little league team begging for the mercy rule, the Pacers defense couldn’t make the stands they needed, and no one on the Pacers offense could make the plays necessary to get the win.

After the jump, we’ve seen worse, but we expect better:

  • Since it’s really hard to find a Pacers player that actually played well, a quick highlight for former Butler and Brownsburg legend Gordon Hayward, who finished with just two points and three assists, but still provided the flocks of Hayward fans packing Conseco Fieldhouse with the best play of his young NBA career. Hayward, leading a fast break, went up for the jam and laid a pretty devastating jam over fellow rookie Paul George. In Paul’s defense, he seemed to be aiming to block the layup instead of stuffing a straight jam, but it was still a great play in Gordon’s defense.
  • Paul George on the other hand, struggled. And it’s a bad sign when he struggles in the sense that he struggled. While George’s "automatic" midrange game may be somewhat exaggerated, he’s still a player that shoots around 60% inside the arc. But his two shots within the three point line each were just a fraction off, helping to cap that, yes, indeed, tonight was not going to be the blue and gold’s night offensively. He did, however, make one of few necessary stops of the night, so there is that.
  • Jeff Foster was probably the best player for Indiana tonight, providing some nice defensive play in the first half, but despite racking up a few Fosters in the extended box score, he finished with just four rebounds. If you want a good example of how bullied and outmatched the Pacers front court was by Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, here’s a good example. Not even Jeff Foster playing some of the best Jeff Foster basketball in the league stood a chance.
  • As for the rest of the front court? Roy Hibbert led the way with 14 points on 6-16 shooting, Josh McRoberts finished with 9 points on 3-8 shooting, and Tyler Hansbrough outhustled every single person in the universe tonight to the tune of six offensive rebounds (in his six total), but racked those up mainly rebounding himself missing tip after tip after tip. For Hibbert, he was mostly outmuscled by the Jazz, and Hansbrough…well, I think this is going to be what we can expect from his entire career. Not necessarily a let down, but his style of play is so reckless that consistent production is going to be really hard to peg. Fourteen of Hansbrough’s 18 rebounds the past two games have been offensive, but they’re rarely useful if they’re not resulting in shot attempts, as Hansbrough is not adept at grabbing the boards and resetting the offense.
  • Brandon Rush finished with a very Brandon-esque five points and four boards (no wonder New Orleans pulled out of the deal, amirite?! Huh?! Tough crowd…), but outlined a serious concern the Pacers will have moving forward without Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy, while constantly bagged for his poor defense and his hot/cold demeanor, in addition to that "overrated basketball IQ" he’s so famous for, provides the offense with plenty of movement away from the ball. Rush simply does not. While part of that is on Brandon and part of that is on the type of play Mike provides, it’s going to be a very big piece missing from Indiana’s game in the rest of this regular season.
  • Danny Granger came alive in the second half, finishing with 17 points and 9 rebounds, a very solid effort on his part, but like with all Pacers players tonight, it’s not so easy to give a pass. Granger only had four points in the first half. While the team should be at a point where they don’t need to rely on Granger for 48 minutes, there are nights when in the event they have to, a full 48 minutes from Granger is necessary to minimize all the damage happening around him. The Pacers scored just 38 points in the first half, partially because Granger didn’t get anything going. Not only was he only able to convert on one field goal attempt, but only made five attempts. It’s not fair to lay the blame on him, but everyone came up short, Danny included.
  • The PG situation is a real area of concern at the moment. Not only is Darren Collison making some headscratching moves, but hasn’t been able to make the fluent offensive moves he’s so good at. He did finish with 16 points on 50% shooting (with Danny, the best shooting on the team), but he’s not been setting his teammates up in good position. Poor shooting and low assist numbers can have to do with a bad shooting night, but it can also have to do with setting your teammates up poorly. A little bit of both helped make tonight’s backcourt a little messier.  I don’t think this is indicative of the type of player Collison is; he’s been both better and worse under Vogel, but he’s still adjusting to the toughest position the sport. Against proven league vets like Earl Watson and Devin Harris, coming out short isn’t necessarily a career killer.
  • A.J. Price continued his struggles offensively as well. Price is valuable to the Goon Squad because he can provide a serious scoring threat, but he’s really failed to hit shots, despite "improving" to 3-10 from Wednesday’s oh-fer in Detroit. Price, however, has been terribly inconsistent offensively. He’s shooting a pretty painful .361 and a .246 from range that D.Wade would be proud of. Despite some early feeling the low numbers could’ve been due to the limited minutes and being out of sync with his game, it’s kind of been reinforced with recent games. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I can’t tell which, it’s easier to swallow his terrible shooting numbers because he’s really one of the few players on this team that isn’t afraid to take a game over, which causes problems when you’re shooting such a low percentage.
  • Dahntay Jones is another player in that mold. Jones can be a real help to a team offensively, but cannot put it together night after night. Tonight was one of his "off nights," going 1-4 from the field for 5 points, but it’s worth noting that while he was on the floor, it was easiest to watch him and tell he cared the most about making an effort. The Pacers effort was fairly poor all night, but Jones made the most effort in trying to make it a positive outing that it kind of disappointed me.

It’s hard to say what caused tonight. A total team breakdown? A bad matchup against a big, physical opponent? Could they have been preoccupied on the changes that were, but then weren’t? Whatever the reason, it’s fair to assume Frank Vogel dug, and dug deep into his team after the effort they gave tonight. The real test, as opposed to a rough night against the Pistons a week prior, will be how they look when they take on the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, in an early noon tip. Liking to play for your coach is one thing, responding to his criticisms are another. Vogel hasn’t has a lot of bad things to say about his team’s effort in his short tenure, but there’s plenty to take from tonight that need not happen again.

Whether these are simple faults in the makeup of this team or a poor night, we’ll find out as soon as Sunday.